Cambodian emigres make Hartford their canvas for music, hope

BY Gregory Seay

HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
HBJ Photo | Bill Morgan
Rattanak “RT” Ouk (left) founder/co-owner of The Hartford Studio, with Hartford native and poet/rapper/singer Shanell Sharpe and Bloomfield musician-songwriter Corey Cooper.
Sitting at his electronic mixing console inside The Hartford Studio downtown, Rattanak "RT" Ouk is in full B-boy splendor, clad in black nearly head to toe, as he runs through names of hip-hop, soul and pop artists for whom he has engineered and recorded tracks.

Rappers Kendrick Lamar, Kid Ink and Lil Wayne; DJ Khaled; and soul singer Anthony Hamilton, to name just a few that Ouk (rhymes with "oak") said he has worked for or with in his 15 years as an independent audio engineer.

Ouk and his father five years ago found and outfitted the 450-square-foot Hartford Studio above Burger King, at 11 Asylum St., with mixing and mastering computers and hard drives, microphones and other hardware. He was able to stay in his adopted home state, not considered a music mecca, because digital compression and other file-sharing technologies let Ouk and his clients instantly share raw and finished music tracks planetwide via the internet.

"I love this,'' the second-generation musician and recording engineer said recently in his dimly lit studio. "I plan on doing this the rest of my life.''

Today, thanks to Ouk's and The Hartford Studio's growing reputation for high-quality pre- and post-production audio engineering, he is expanding into more recording-office space in the building, adding 1,200 square feet.

The extra room will accommodate Ouk, who is using his skills to nurture a new generation of aspiring Connecticut musicians.

But Ouk and his family, now all naturalized citizens, would not be in America, much less Connecticut, if his father, Paul Ouk, mother Rattana Duong, who met as refugees, and his older half siblings nearly four decades ago had not fled Cambodia's oppressive Pol Pot regime that killed or tortured tens of thousands of their countrymen.

Born in a Thai refugee camp in the early '80s, Ouk says he's grateful for the opportunities he and his family have attained in America. Catholic Charities, with a New Haven physician's sponsorship, resettled his family, first in New Haven, then Hartford before they eventually landed in West Hartford.

They are among an estimated 600 residents of Cambodian ancestry in Greater Hartford, says Theavny Kuoch, executive director of Khmer Health Advocates. The West Hartford nonprofit provides mental-health counseling and other support services to resettled refugees, many of whom suffer post-traumatic stress disorder tied to abuses in their home country.

"Most of them were victims of torture,'' said Kuoch, herself a torture survivor. "Their survival gives them great strength … to try to do things to take care of their families."

RT's father, Paul Ouk, for a time worked for Khmer Health, lending his talents as a computer engineer and musician. Paul Ouk, a one-time guitarist in a band covering Beatles' and Rolling Stones' tracks, plus traditional Cambodian folk songs, set up a recording studio in the basement of the family's West Hartford home.

There, between recording Cambodian children's songs that Khmer Health used in treatment therapies, Paul Ouk taught guitar to his son, who also tagged along with his father's Connecticut cover band.

"Cambodians love music,'' Kuoch said. "Music is powerful, very healing.''

By the time Rattanak got to Conard High School (class of 2000), he had his own reggae and ska cover band. He scoured the state, booking gigs for his group.

Ouk said his parents, now retired and overseeing their portfolio of area two- and three-family rentals, are his biggest cheerleaders and financial supporters. Paul Ouk says he occasionally visits his son's Hartford studio and is awed by the technology. It makes him proud, he said.

"I always dreamed of being a rock star,'' Paul Ouk said, laughing. "I support him 100 percent.''

It wasn't until Ouk enrolled at the University of Hartford that the audio-engineering bug really bit. Though his parents prodded him to consider medicine or the law, Ouk says he really wanted to be a visual artist. Indeed, he sees similarities in painting and music.

"I'm literally painting a canvas with sound,'' Ouk said.

Hartford restaurateur Rob Maffucci can relate. Before Maffucci built his rep as chef-owner of V's Trattoria downtown and former Vito's By The Park and others, he taught audio engineering for a time at UHart. Rattanak was his pupil in 2005.

"Audio engineering is like a perfect merger of art and science,'' said Maffucci, who in 1988 earned his electrical engineering degree from UHart and taught there from 1998 to 2007.

Sonic recording-mixing, he said, once was a craft taught outside the classroom.

"It's only recently that audio engineering has become a discipline you'd find at a college," Maffucci said.

About 25 years ago, he said, Hartford counted a handful of recording studios, several in buildings now housing the Colt Gateway office-apartment-retail development on downtown's southern edge.

Another, Planet of Sound Recording Studios, on Allyn Street downtown, was run for a time by Ouk and associates before it was mothballed.

Maffucci recalls Ouk's passion for audio engineering. The two regularly stay in touch, although Maffucci says he has yet to set foot in Ouk's latest studio.

"He was going to do this,'' Maffucci said. "I don't think he even had a choice. That's one of the things I liked about him. … It takes a special person to listen to a kick drum for four hours. Listening to the same song 400 times in a row is tedious.''

Hopeful proteges

Aspiring recording artist Shanell Sharpe, 25, a Hartford native now living in Harlem, N.Y., says her musicianship has benefited greatly from Ouk's input. She and her friend-manager discovered Ouk in a Google-search for a better studio to replace a homemade one in the city's North End.

A hip-hop artist and poet who is learning guitar, Sharpe said Ouk also has encouraged and developed her singing skills, while arranging gigs for her throughout the Northeast.

"He's shown me what good sound is supposed to sound like,'' said Sharpe, who has her undergraduate degree in English and a master's in social work from UConn. She works full time as a poetry coordinator for the New York City school system. She said she and Ouk are working on "Starts at 7,'' her extended-play album set for 2019 release.

Multi-instrumentalist Corey Cooper, 24, of Bloomfield, aims to drop his second album sooner, "777, Vol. II,'' in September. With Ouk's audio engineering, his first volume debuted a year ago.

The two met in 2009 when Cooper was in high school, and just adding guitar to his self-taught repertoire of keyboards, drums and vocals, Cooper said. At Ouk's home one day, Cooper began playing Ouk's guitar. Impressed, Ouk invited Cooper to his studio.

"He gave me my first Macbook Pro,'' Cooper said of the Apple notebook PC popular with recording engineers. Ouk also shared details about sonic recording that Cooper says he's using to produce his latest album.

"He's definitely been, like, my 'Mr. Miyagi.' I feel like the 'Karate Kid,' '' said Cooper, a 2012 Bloomfield High grad.

Between full-time work as a recording-session player and road guitarist for R&B singer-songwriter K. Michelle and Sean "Diddy'' Combs' R&B band, Day26, Cooper also plays for Bloomfield's First Cathedral choir.

Meantime, Ouk, who occasionally leads audio-engineering workshops for middle- and high-school pupils as a way of giving back to his adopted community, says his skills also allow him to make a statement.

"Now that I'm actually doing it,'' he said, "I'm glad to be able to prove some people wrong.''