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The old songbook is kept in a temperature-controlled room for preservation.
The old songbook is kept in a temperature-controlled room for preservation. VANN CHANNARON

A new life for old melodies

It was a chance purchase in a Paris flea market that led to the discovery of 54 lost traditional Cambodian songs, according to the man into whose hands it has now landed, filmmaker Rithy Panh.

The director was given the yellowed, elegantly printed songbook Chansons Cambodgiennes, published in 1921, by a friend some years ago, but had to put it away until he knew exactly what to do with it.

The book ended up at the Bophana Centre, the audiovisual repository founded by Panh, where Cambodia’s lost film, music and sound await to be rediscovered.

Written by Frenchman Albert Tricon, about whom not much is known, the music is about to find a new audience when eight more of its songs are released on CD next month called Cambodian Forgotten Songs.

It is the second recording to come from the precious book, which contains three kinds of traditional songs carefully transcribed into phonetic French, and notated in the Western scale. The recording musicians included young artists from the Royal University of Fine Arts, as well as older masters, performing in what is called a Pleng Kar Boran ensemble.

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“We started the project in 2008,” says Bophana archivist Chea Sopheap. “We completed the first part with eight songs. [Afterwards] I saw one of them being played on a TV talent competition – that inspired me a lot. The first volume weren’t known (before we released them).”

Published by the Societe de Etudes Indochinoises and printed in Paris, the songbook is held in a temperature-controlled store room, from which Sopheap brings it.

From its simple, elegant cover page, the book doesn’t look much different from the thousands of other popular song books published in the days of family piano-gatherings and ragtime, which makes the fact its purchaser happened to be a friend of documentary maker Rithy Panh seem quite serendipitous.

Would Albert Tricon and whoever helped him have had any idea that they were saving many of these songs from disappearing?

“The book [in its introduction] says Cambodia might have forgotten many melodies from their past,” Sopheap says.

“Albert Tricon says he collected songs from provinces from around Cambodia and also from the Royal Palace. What he recorded in his book was essentially popular songs of the time.”

For Panh, the album represents a less-explored folk music, one that is overshadowed by Cambodia’s enduring Golden Era phenomenon.

“Because people love the music from the 1960s but not the songs before the sixties. [They] might be from the last century or before,” he says.

“It’s the last [opportunity to record the songs] because that [generation] are very old now.… It’s a way to keep our popular songs alive. More importantly, it’s to transmit this heritage to the new generation.”

Much of the music in Chansons Cambodgiennes disappeared through decades of war and cultural destruction, says Sopheap. The eight pieces chosen for the second volume CD are from three genres: ancient Arak, which harks back to a pre-Buddhist and Hindu animist time, and depicts the natural world in poetic lyrics; Mohaori music, traditional court and entertainment compositions, and more recent folk songs.

Of the 20th Century songs, small clues as to Cambodian life and attitudes can be deduced, Sopheap says. In the lively song Barang Sra Pov, the singer describes ropes being pulled by French sailors during the days of the protectorate.

It is unclear, says Panh, how much of the Khmer language Tricon knew when he began transcribing the heavily poetic lyrics from local performers and musicians. Bophana researchers Lach Rattanah and Kim Vary translated, consulted dictionaries and met with language experts to work out the phonetically written verses, with help from an advisory committee made up of composer Him Sophy, archaeologist Sam Ang Sam, professors Pick Tu Kravel, and Hun Sarin, who wrote the book on traditional music, Khmer Orchestra.

To notate the songs he heard, Tricon writes that he sat down at a piano and tried to adapt them for the chromatic scale, before changing to the Cambodian bamboo romeat, a traditional xylophone.

For the orchestra, music master Yun Theara re-arranged the songs and the recording process was photographed by Vann Channaron, Vann Nath’s son.

‘…for knowing the mindset of a population, we must listen to these popular songs,” wrote Tricon. “I am sure these Cambodian melodies will be for many a revelation.’

Little did he know the revelation they would be to Cambodians themselves.

Photographs from the recording of Forgotten Songs 2 go on display at the Bophana Center this Friday, before the launch of the CD on September 13. when the songs will also be performed.

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