"I want to contribute in my own way to the development and evolution of music in Cambodia."
Anthony (Tony) Keo, was born in Battambang, Cambodia in 1989 but left when he was two years old. He and his family immigrated to Montreal, Canada where he spent his childhood in the long Canadian winters.
Growing up in a poor neighborhood, Tony grew up speaking French, English and Khmer. Music has always been part of his life. He grew up listening to Khmer music around the house because of his parents. Although Tony was educated, trained and practiced law in Canada, one day he woke up and decided he wanted to make music, Khmer music. His trilingual roots has enabled him to write, produce, and sing music in English, French and Khmer--some which are cover songs, and others that are original songs.
Tony, and other similar artists, are part of a new generation of Khmer diaspora musicians fusing western sound, adapting it to the local audience and creating original music for a new generation of Khmer fans.
Read about Tony's journey from Battambang, to the cold winters of Montreal, to making hot music in Cambodia.
Q: When and how did your family leave Cambodia?
We left when I was 2 years old. We fled the war/political turmoil of that time. We were sponsored by my aunt who was living in Montreal, Quebec.
Q: What was it like growing up in Canada? What were some of the difficulties you and your family experienced growing up?
I grew up in Montreal, Quebec in a poor neighborhood. I attended public school but I don't regret it. I was educated in French and English (bilingual school) but we spoke Khmer at home. I also had Khmer classes every summer. So that made me fluent in all 3 languages.
I have 4 siblings (I'm #4). My parents struggled so hard to be able to bring us to Quebec and have a decent education/life. So we just studied real hard. We didn't have much money but I remember we were a happy family.
Q: What were some fond memories you have of your childhood?
Maybe playing in the snow with the other Québécois and Haitian kids in the neighborhood. Quebec has long freezing cold winters and the summer is always too short.
Q: Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
My mom. Here is what I wrote her at mother's day last year:
"Thank you mom for bringing us up in a land of peace, far from our then war-torn, Vietnamese-occupied country. You were willing to brave all the dangers to give us a better future, yet you never let us forget where we came from, teaching us the beautiful Khmer language and passing on your love for Khmer music. You’ve raised your children with unconditional love from the poor Cambodian-Canadian family we used to be, to the successful people we are today. To the now retired, yet restless woman, to the active Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital Fundraiser, to the best cook I’ve ever known, to the amazing song lyrics writer and to the best mom I could ever ask for, I want to say I love you."
Q: How did you maintain your Khmer roots growing up in Canada?
Through my parents. As mentioned earlier, I had Khmer summer classes at the pagoda. We spoke Khmer at home (it was mandatory) and my parents listened to Khmer music. That's why I know a lot of Khmer oldies.
Q: When and how did you get interested in music? What kind of music inspired you?
I love music! I play guitar and sing since I was a kid. But have only recently decided to make music professionally (one and a half years). I consider it a professional hobby.
Music has always been a passion for me. I loved music class (was my favorite subject). I learned to play piano, flute, drums but I kind of sucked in those instruments until I discovered the guitar. I love pop, hip-hop and R&B the most.
I have so many friends back in Québec who play music or sing in a band. Most of them never succeeded because there are so many talented people out there and the competition is strong.
I woke up one day and decided I also wanted to give it a try. My first song ("No Money" featuring Laura Mam) was a hit when it was released in the summer of 2014. Since then I have released many other original and cover songs. In one and a half years, I managed to produce 6 original songs and dozens of covers.
Singing in English or French is never a problem for me. But singing in Khmer is a lot harder. I have to think twice when I'm not sure about the meaning of a word or about the correct pronunciation. I don't like it when people don't understand what I'm saying. So I think that's the biggest challenge for me. On the other hand, my mom is an amazing Khmer teacher and lyrics writer. She wrote all my original songs and transcreated all my Khmer covers.
Q: I heard you were a lawyer. Why did you decide to not continue your law career and focus on music?
Yes. I studied law in college and was one of the best students of the Faculty. I now hold a Master degree in Law (LL.M.) from the University of Montreal and I am a practicing lawyer. My fields of practice include real estate and successions. I am also a democracy and human rights expert. However, since my true passion is music, I've decided to focus on the latter for the time being. I hope nevertheless that someday I'll be able to help my country through other means than just music, in matters related to law, for instance.
Q: When was your first trip back to Cambodia? What were your impressions?
When I was 20. It was so much fun, so much to discover in so little time (I had 3 weeks). Angkor was amazing. I fell in love with Sihanoukville. But I remember I was shocked by the extreme poverty and all the rubbish on the streets. I've travelled around the world a lot so I know what I'm talking about.
Q: When and why did you decide to come back to Cambodia and do music here?
I came back in February 2015 to mainly live in Cambodia. I'm happy that people here like my music and I'm always amazed by the huge support I get when I release a new song/music video.
I want to contribute in my own way to the development and evolution of music in Cambodia. I think growing up abroad has given me a different perspective with regards to music. I want to share this vision with the Cambodian public. Also, as mentioned earlier, I love hip-hop, rap and R&B the most. I know Khmer people are still not used to that genre and I would like to help introduce it here. I want to be part of the music scene in Cambodia.
Q: What is your opinion of the music scene in Cambodia today?
I think originality is a recurring issue in the Cambodian music industry. Because so many Khmer singers simply copy songs from other countries, the Cambodian public got very sensitive on that issue. I even got criticized for making covers! Yet copying and doing covers are two different things. And since I'm a Lawyer, let me explain the difference:
Some Khmer singers simply copy American, Chinese, Thai songs without mentioning the name of the copyright owners. Claiming ownership of someone else’s beat/melody/song is not only wrong from a moral perspective, but it also constitutes an infringement of copyright law.
A cover, on the other hand, is a new version by a different artist of a previously recorded, commercially released song. People cover their favorite songs everyday. It is normal practice in today’s music industry and, insofar as the original artist/song is mentioned, it is usually not considered an immoral practice or an infringement of copyright law.
In other words: Cover = sing a popular song for fun and for free. Copy = steal a song, translate in Khmer and sell for money. All my songs are free and I do not sell them.
Of course making an original song takes a lot more work and energy than just copying or doing covers. You need to compose the beat, create the melody, find a catchy chorus or hook, and write original and coherent lyrics. My song "She's the One" for instance took me and my team half a year of hard labor to produce! I always try to balance and do both original songs and covers.
Q: Where do you hope it will be 10 years from now?
I hope to see more genres in the Cambodian music industry, not just cheesy pop. I want young people here to be able to appreciate an R&B beat as much as I do.
I also hope Cambodian artists will create more original songs. In my opinion, the problem lies in the fact that Cambodia right now lacks the talents, budget and will to produce original music. Of course you cannot reinvent the wheel. But we should look at what's being done in other countries.
Where I grew up, many people can play a musical instrument. Almost all my guy friends can play guitar. All the producers and professional people I've worked with have been to music or sound engineering school. How about in Cambodia?
Q: Since being in Cambodia what has been your proudest/memorable moment?
Every time I go on stage in front of thousands of people watching and cheering. It gives me the energy to continue and work harder.
Q: Why should the Khmer diaspora come back to Cambodia?
To seize economic opportunities that is given to us as members of the diaspora, but most of all, to help protect and rebuild our country with our skills, experience and knowledge.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to young Khmer people in your generation either living in Cambodia or abroad?
No matter where you live, never forget where you came from.
Watch Tony's videos, his latest " Boom Shalala Madizone" and "She's the One".
Follow Tony's Facebook Fan page at: https://www.facebook.com/TonyKeoMusic/timeline https://www.facebook.com/TonyKeoMusic/timeline