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Blind artist sings to be free

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Karaoke singer Su Biroth earns a living and self-respect in Phnom Penh's beer gardens

TRACEY SHELTON

Su Biroth earns enough to support his wife and child by singing karaoke in Phnom Penh restaurants and beer gardens.

KARAOKE rings out every night in restaurants and beer gardens around Phnom Penh. Su Biroth, 28, sings his way through the darkness from one place to other and earns whatever guests give for his performances.

He doesn't look at the beer girls, the karaoke girls, the Yamaha synthesizers or the neon signs. Su Biroth is blind.

"When I was young I loved to sing, and my dream at that time was to be a singer. I kept on learning how to sing," Su Biroth said.

Tragic childhood

Born in Battambang province in 1980, he was the first of three boys in his family.  He began losing his sight when he contracted measles at the age of seven and a year later was completely blind. In 1993, his mother committed suicide to escape life with an abusive husband, and three months later Su Biroth's father died in an auto accident.

The 13-year-old orphan decided then to try to support himself as an artist and came to Phnom Penh to study with the Blind Music Association. 

He described his next twelve years living with the association as "difficult".

"In the association they did not help me at all, just gave me a place to stay, and I worked in the kitchen for them and cleaned the house. When I sang at an event, they just paid me a little bit of money," he says.

At 25 he left the organisation for a job as a blind masseur. After three years of giving massages, the massage business folded, and Su Biroth started singing karaoke full-time.

He now gets around town with his motodop-driving neighbour, living on the tips he earns from singing. A good night can earn him about 60,000 riels (US$15). The income covers rent and utilities for a household of four, including his wife, their newborn child and Su Biroth's younger brother.

"My living conditions aren't good yet but are a lot improved. I have freedom to get around," he said. "I can earn money for myself. I sing every night. The problem is that some restaurants and beer gardens still discriminate. They don't all allow blind people to sing, but I keep on going from one place to another.

 "A handful of money doesn't make me happy. To be free, to get support from people and not suffer discrimination, that makes me happy." 

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