IN the past decade the onslaught of hip-hop, alternative rock and vapid Korean pop music has increasingly overpowered and displaced the Cambodian music of the 1960s and 1970s on Phnom Penh’s airwaves.
But the Cambodian music of yesterday took centre stage during the Universal Khmer Song Festival 2010, which started in April and culminated with a finals smackdown on July 22 and 23 at Diamond Island in Phnom Penh.
The competition divided contestants into two categories: those singing pop songs composed by Cambodians, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s; and those focusing on classical Khmer songs, which are mostly heard these days at traditional weddings.
The contest started in April in May with the selection of four candidates (two male and two female) from each province. Through provincial heats, the numbers were whittled down to 48 singers, who joined 20 Cambodian candidates living abroad for the semifinal competition in Phnom Penh from July 2 to 4.
From among these, 28 candidates were selected to take part in the finals, during which awards were given to the top five males and top five females in each of the two categories.
The first-place male in the pop song category, 31-year-old Thon Samut Sithun, said he never expected to win when he first entered the competition.
“I took part in the contest because I thought it would give me the opportunity to meet other Cambodian singers and song lovers, and help promote Khmer music,” said Thon Samut Sithun, who works as a chef in France.
He won the contest by singing Sin Si Samut’s famous song “Pruat Phnom Sampov” (“Separated from Sampov Mountain”). “I started singing when I was 12 years old and was only interested in Sin Si Samut, who was known as the Golden-Voiced Emperor of Cambodia,” he said.
Thon Samut Sithun said he enjoyed the support of his father, who, seeing his talent as a singer, bought him a cassette player and a collection of Sin Si Samut song cassettes so he could practice.
Thon Samut Sithun said he started working as a singer in Phnom Penh in 1998, at first earning US$2 a night but later doubling his salary.
“In 2003 I got my first chance to sing on Bayon TV,” he said. “It was at that point that I added ‘Samut’ to my name since I was singing the songs of Sin Si Samut.”
“By adding ‘Samut’ to my name, I don’t mean to compare myself to the Golden-Voiced Emperor,” he said. “I just regard him as my idol and like to remind people how grateful I am for his contribution to Cambodian culture and art.”
In 2004 Thon Samut Sithun moved to Paris and married Tang Srey Pich, who is also a Khmer song lover and owns a music production company in Paris called Ponlee Reachsey.
As a first-place victor in the Universal Khmer Song Festival, Thon Samut Sithun earned a winner’s certificate, a laptop computer, 6 million riels (about US$1,400) and other small gifts.
“The prizes were not important to me. The important thing was to meet fans of Cambodian music and help develop the music scene here,” he said.
He said his ambition is to eventually establish his own music production company in Cambodia.
“I plan to come back to Cambodia in 2014 with more experience and more knowledge about the music industry,” Thon Samut Sithun said.