US-native Maya Jade came to Cambodia in 2009 in search of Cambodia’s Golden Era rock ’n’ roll. In Phnom Penh she worked on the documentary film Golden Slumbers with French-Cambodian director Davy Chou, and at a Khmer New Year’s party, was introduced to avid vintage music collector Oum Rotanak Oudom “Oro.” The pair’s mutual obsession with finding original recordings led them to found the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive, a long-term project to preserve and digitise the popular music of the 1950s-70s. Oro grew up in Phnom Penh. His mother died when he was a teenager and her fondness for Sin Sisamouth sparked his own love for the music and films of the era. Maya Jade’s musician father owns a recording studio in Florida. Three years on and the couple have a two-year-old son, Etienne Sisamouth. They are working on turning a selection of the archive into a CD, with royalties returning to the surviving families of the original artists. Rosa Ellen reports.
Maya and I met in 2010 at a party Davy hosted for young artists and filmmakers at his house. The first impression I had of her was that she was dressed like a Cambodian. She wore a sampot and a nice traditional shirt, and I thought, ‘Who’s that girl?’
We played a traditional game where if you like a person you tell their name to a mediator. I said, “Maya Jade” but she called out the name of my friend instead. She knew of an “Oro” from Davy Chou and she thought that I was some old guy who collected records — because Oro is a strange name.
We missed that opportunity [to meet] but then suddenly we had dancing where I was DJing and playing a lot of old music. [Later] she came around with an iPhone, recording us. I started to flirt with her and said, ‘OK, if you want to [record] me I’m going to explain the lyrics of the songs to you’.
She’d come to know Cambodia by listening to Cambodian rock compilation CDs.That’s all she knew, though.
She was totally different. When I got to know her more and more, I found that she liked old films, old music, she liked old vintage clothes - everything she wears is 60s style. I thought, ‘wow’. This is someone who I never knew existed in the world. I think about myself like that: that I was born in the wrong generation — that I should have been born in the 1950s — and she feels the same way.
After we met I would hang out a lot with her at the Cambodia Living Arts studio [where she worked] and we’d talk about music. I am very serious [about archiving], I want the public to know these songs by their correct title and who produced them.
Basically I archive all the information that I get: the title, composer, production company, the band.
One day Maya wanted to go and see this man she heard about called Svai Sor. I didn’t know the guy, I didn’t want to see him but Maya said, ‘you know what, he’s an artist from the 50s, he’s a composer we should just see him’. We went [to his house] and Hem Sovann showed up, she was a singer from the 1950s and 60s who survived the Khmer Rouge. When I heard Sovann sing, I thought, ‘Oh my god. This is what I have been waiting for.’
I sat on the verandah with her and showed her my project. I showed her a record sleeve of her album when she was 18 years old. She was shocked, she hadn’t seen her picture for 34 years. She described what had happened when she recorded with Sinn Sisamouth. I was so inspired and [grateful] to Maya Jade for bringing me there.
I fell in love completely with her. Suddenly I felt like I couldn’t find anyone like her – I could share music with her. We started the archive project together and travelled to Battambang to meet a guy who had a record shop there and finally we proposed our project to him and he gave us 200 records to record.
In November we found out we were having a baby, I was so happy. It wasn’t hard to choose a name. When I was 18 I decided my children’s name should be an artist’s name — his name is Etienne Sisamouth.
Maya has helped me a lot become who I am. She’s helped me in my project and she’s helped me to change my personal life and view.
With her beauty and talent she could have found a billionaire, but she chose a poor guy like me, living in Cambodia, loving music, taking care of my culture – it’s amazing how we met.
It could inspire a lot of people.
Maya Jade, 30
Before Cambodia I was living in Athens, Georgia, and I was involved in the music scene there. My boyfriend at the time was friends with Michael Stipe from REM and he is actually a huge Cambodian music fan. [He] was involved in an Indonesian music project, recording traditional Indonesian music and that was how I stumbled upon [an album] compilation from the 60s and 70s called Cambodia Rocks. I fell in love with it and thought it was really cool.
In the fall of 2009 I was randomly on the Internet, reading the biographies of these singers like Sin Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. I came across the 10-day ‘Golden Reawakening’ festival, which Davy Chou put together with Khoun Khmer Kon Khmer. I thought, wouldn’t that be cool to just go. I got a student loan cheque from the government and that’s what I spent it on – not books and supplies! I was just going to stay for two weeks and see what happened. I didn’t know anything. When I arrived, it was like I had known these people all of my life. I felt like Cambodia was home.
Davy had 15 people living at his house. It was a very bohemian life. He let me listen to a bunch of songs he had been given - it was 3GB worth of songs and they were the most perfect versions I’d heard. He said it was “music from Oro” and I assumed he was some fat old Italian guy. I assumed foreigners were the only ones thinking about audio preservation and archives. A couple of months later Oro and I met in person at the Khmer New Year party.
I found him on Facebook and I noticed that he only had two things that he “liked”. One was Sin Sisamouth and the other was The Smiths. Well they’re my favourite band in the whole world – I have a tattoo on the back of my back that says The Smiths.
I used to always say I’d never date a guy unless he liked the Smiths.
I feel like we couldn’t have done this project without each other. The collectors would have been killed if they had been caught with this stuff during the Khmer Rouge, so it’s very near and dear to them. They would not just hand it over to some American girl, and they also wouldn’t just hand it over to a Cambodian guy because they’d think he was going to sell it. So the fact we were together reassured people.
In October we were recording Julien from the Cambodian Space Project at Studio CLA and he mentioned to me that they were going to meet this musician from the 60s: an older, really cool guy. His name was the Svai Sor – ‘White Mango’. It was incredible. We arrived, the gates opened and it was just this huge artists’ compound: all these old artists, all in their 60s. They had family bands, set up on this huge patio, all the men and women were singing along and Oro stopped short and said, “That’s Hem Sovann!”.
A few weeks after that they all decided to put on a show together. This was actually on Oro’s birthday and it was the day before I found out I was pregnant. Oro got on stage and we hugged each other and everyone was telling us, ‘you’re a magical couple, you’re going to be together forever’. I always pass that stuff off as kind of corny but I don’t know it was kind of telling, in retrospect. That night was when I really felt the sparks.