Hip Hop Apsara by Anne Elizabeth Moore

11th Sep 2012

Hip Hop Apsara by Anne Elizabeth Moore
We make no bones about it; we think Anne Elizabeth Moore is pretty bloody awesome. This made getting my hands on a copy of her new book, Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present, all the more exciting.

Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present is a book of photography and accompanying essays, documenting the bustling nightlife in the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh and providing an insight into a beautiful but war-ravaged country that is changing: “not what it once was, not yet what it will be.”

Through Moore’s photography and essays, we glimpse the public dance lessons that are held nightly outside the Prime Minister’s house, the nation’s only all-girl rock group publicly challenging and questioning traditional gender roles and political policies (particularly interesting in light of the recent Pussy Riot trial in Russia) and the complexity of balancing tradition with economic development.

Sharing some thoughts about Cambodia and the book on The Rumpus, Moore wrote:

“As dusk gathers there along the waterfront, I take my place in a row of people and wait. We will do aerobics. That is what it will seem like from the outside. But we will perform a mix of tradition and innovation, to a whole new music, a whole new life.

Have you thought about how it feels in your body to hear new music? I have. When your mind does not do the recognizing; your heart does. The sounds are strange, and twist your face awkwardly. You do not want to submit to them. You listen, organize the eruptions sonically and then follow them with your mind, hoping to parse the logic behind them, compartmentalize them into: harmony, melody, syncopation, rhythm. You think all of these things, but these thoughts only come after you feel

The music that plays along the riverside I call hip-hop Apsara. Some of it is hip hop, derived from young people of color in the Bronx, in America, demanding change, pushing toward the future, writing over a past in spraypaint and bubble letters on the streets, very far away from where I am learning to dance. Some of it is Cambodian music, the lilting sounds to which the Apsara is traditionally performed, a ballet that moves slowly and serenely. There is a resultant rhythm, a logic. There is dissonance, but not enough to make me cry. Or exactly enough to make me cry, but only when the music wants me to. I stop struggling, and start dancing. Because although it is confusing, it feels like love.”

I was struggling with how to write this review, to describe how the photographs and essays, the lyricism and rhythm of the writing and images all come together. I, figuratively, stopped struggling and started dancing.

The passion in Moore’s work and the myriad stories and personal narratives that come from her commitment to giving voice to these communities make Hip Hop Apsara essential viewing/reading in my opinion.

It is challenging and intelligent, inspiring and creative; it takes a country with such a densely documented, troubled past and presents something fresh and vital. The structure might not be to everyone’s taste – especially if you favour a ‘curl up in bed with’, chunky, narrative-led novel – but giving in to the beat of Hip Hop Apsara is a rewarding experience well worth stepping outside your literary comfort zone for.