He teaches rock ’n’ roll to disadvantaged children in Cambodia

With music, Timon Seibel gives the children a chance to express themselves and gain self-confidence. One heavy-metal band he manages recently won a grand prize in a contest.

Brent Crane
Timon Seibel stands on his Cambodian property near a half-built enclosure that will be a music studio.

At 10 a.m. in Prek Lvea, a village across the Mekong River from Cambodia’s capital, among pecking chickens, dirt roads, and palm-shaded hovels, a heavy-metal concert is under way. The show, put on in an open-air kindergarten classroom, is performed by an assortment of local children and teens, and it seems as if the whole village has come out to gape. Watching from the crowd of chirping children and visibly confused adults is Timon Seibel, a bearded, blond Swiss-German – and the mastermind of this rural metal madness.

The morning jam session is part of an unusual social program in which disadvantaged children are provided lessons in rock ’n’ roll, mostly of the hardcore metal variety. The program, called CAM Projects, is aimed at growing self-confidence through creative expression for some of the country’s most vulnerable children. Although Cambodia has come a long way in combating poverty after years of war, about 3 million of the 15 million-plus population still live below the poverty line, and some 8.1 million are just above it, according to UNICEF. Many, of course, are children.

Mr. Seibel started CAM Projects two years ago. It has a soundproof practice room, a recording studio, an assortment of secondhand music equipment, and about 25 regular students. Many come from tragic backgrounds.

“Most of the kids are orphaned. Their parents died or went to Thailand to work or are in prison,” explains Seibel, who is in his mid-30s.

CAM Projects runs under a children’s home managed by Moms Against Poverty (MAP), a nongovernmental organization based in the San Francisco area. The home cares for about 25 kids and also conducts a larger after-school program for local children; they can take classes in English, math, computing, and, if they so choose, rock music.

The music could be viewed as a constructive outlet to pass the time – drugs and alcohol are a problem among youths here – but it’s more than that.

“The main reason [for CAM Projects] is because the kids were and are really aggressive, and I believe in art therapy: I experienced it with myself. Music works for almost every kid,” says Seibel, who is resting in a hammock after the show.

“Something I learned in Cambodia: These people getting by day by day, it’s impossible to talk with them about long-term goals. You just can’t,” he laments. Still, Seibel says he is in it for the long run.

And some admire his determination. “He is a visionary,” says Stefan Blust, a German volunteer with CAM Projects. He’s yelling because the morning concert, which he was filming for the group’s social media outreach, was at full blast. “Timon gives all of his energy to these kids!”

Ladan Judge, director of operations for MAP, first met Seibel five years ago in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. She echoes Mr. Blust’s praise. “Timon is a highly capable individual with the unique blend of compassion, creativity, resourcefulness, and leadership qualities that make him the best man for not only managing this program but all of MAP’s programs in Cambodia,” she says via email.

A demanding job

Vichey Sok is the star guitarist of the music program, and his metal band, Doch Chkae, which Seibel manages, was on a good run before the morning concert. It had been performing around Phnom Penh and recently took home a $500 grand prize at the Battle of the Bands, a contest in Cambodia’s southern port city of Sihanoukville.

But Seibel’s job is a demanding one, and the day before the morning performance, there was a confrontation with Sok. As often happens with 17-year-olds, the success had gone to his head and for at least a month, it was found out, Sok had been skipping school to spend time with new friends, the freewheeling children of the community’s nouveaux riches, who are benefiting from rising property prices. Sok grew up with a widowed mother in a Phnom Penh community where waste-pickers sort through sprawling stacks of garbage in search of pawnable items. Sok’s lapse seemed to have particularly bothered Seibel, Blust recounts.

“Timon puts his own life behind this,” he explains. “Sometimes you want something back, even if it’s just respect.”

Seibel was born in Switzerland but grew up in Germany, in a town near Frankfurt. Music, especially grunge rock, has been a passion of his since his teens, but his father, a Protestant preacher, disallowed guitar playing in the house “because it wasn’t Christian-like.” So he learned trumpet instead.

At university, where Seibel studied philosophy and Spanish and French literature (today he speaks five languages, including Khmer, the Cambodian tongue), he went through a bout of depression. In his rut, Seibel took up painting, which helped. He still paints today, and writes poetry as well.

Seibel came to Cambodia in 2011, to volunteer with a German NGO in the capital. When MAP started the children’s home, it asked Seibel if he wanted to be the director. He moved his life across the river. He met his future wife, who had grown up in Prek Lvea and whose mother worked at the home. Soon they had a house built and now live there with four dogs. It is a sizable plot of land surrounded by jungle.

One of his students, Ouch Theara, a rambunctious 18-year-old orphan with an eyebrow piercing, will soon live on the property, above a small recording studio that is being built.

One success story

Mr. Ouch’s story shows the positive influence that Seibel’s program can have on its students. Last year, Ouch dropped out of school to take a job at a casino in Phnom Penh. He lived with his aunt, a bar girl, and worked late hours. Seibel disapproved of the move, since he thought the teen was throwing his life away. But a few months into it, Ouch dropped the job and returned to the village: He saw that he had chosen a dead-end path. And he saw, too, that with music, he had an opportunity in the village.

“He wanted to play in the band again,” Seibel says. “Without music, I think Theara would just be another lost guy in Phnom Penh without direction.”

Ouch has since returned to school. He’s also become a teacher at CAM Projects, for which he gets a monthly salary.

In March, Seibel’s parents visited the village for the third time. He showed them a music video for a song written by Ouch, who is the lead singer of Doch Chkae. The video, which Blust shot and edited, uses a metaphor involving a stray dog in which Ouch expresses how he, as a poor orphan in rural Cambodia, has often felt: subhuman. It is a symbolism, Seibel says, that is central to his idea of metal as therapy. But Seibel’s father walked out. After Blust explained the symbolism, he eventually got it and came around.

When asked about his own faith, Seibel is hesitant. He is a Christian, he finally says, but not a reverent one. And he doesn’t push religion on his students.

“I tell them to read the Bible because it’s interesting. But I would not tell them to read the Bible,” he explains from the hammock after the show. For Seibel, the spiritual and transformative power of music is enough.

“Getting in the process of writing music I think is like praying,” he says. Behind him, students are stacking the music gear onto a beat-up pushcart. Amid the stench of burning trash, a sweet whiff of rumdul flowers swirls in the air.

“It gives them something to believe in,” he says.

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups aiding communities, especially their young members:

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to achieve high levels of literacy in Ghana. Take action: Help mentor an at-risk rural child for a year.

Cultural Canvas Thailand generates awareness of and volunteer help with the social problems facing Chiang Mai, Thailand. Take action: Empower communities through art with Art Relief International.

Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation improves the quality of life for children by providing education and lobbying for their protection from exploitation. Take action: Donate funds for arts education.

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