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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Search is on for Cambodia’s next top original musicians

Musicians Machan Panha and Ream Sok Phiron with Sabay brand manager Dek Dary
Musicians Machan Panha and Ream Sok Phiron with Sabay brand manager Dek Dary. Pha Lina

Search is on for Cambodia’s next top original musicians

A search for original music talent by Cambodia’s biggest entertainment company will begin today with a free concert. Dozens of hopefuls are expected to turn out to register for the competition to secure recording contracts.

“Cambodia does not need more vocal talent, but we need people who can produce new compositions,” said Dek Dary, the Sabay Digital Corp brand manager in charge of the competition, called Hear My Song.

Many popular Cambodian songs heavily sample and cover music from around the world, she said. Some blame the lack of original material on the destructive Khmer Rouge regime.

“Even our number one singers sing copied songs, and I think it is not acceptable,” Dary said.

“So Sabay is here to do something for the change.”

Kicking off today’s event, which will be held at 9:30am at the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Center, will be four bands playing original songs from mixed genres. The first musicians to perform will be led by Machan “Eugene” Panha, the 21-year-old second-place winner of last year’s TVK’s National Music Festival. They will perform a tune that Panha wrote specially for the occasion, appropriately titled "Hear My Song".

Panha said: “My style always mixes the classic style with the modern. Not only Khmer – every style.”

The competition will be divided into four parts, with the application process beginning today and lasting through March. The panel of judges, which includes musicians Khat Sokhim, Rethy Dona and Kong Piseth in addition to music producer and film director Sok Visal, will choose the top 10 acts and act as mentors.

In May, the contestants will upload their songs to the Sabay TV website to be voted on before the final stage performances in June. The top three winners will receive cash prizes of $1,000 to $3,000 and a year-long recording contract with Sabay, which plans to launch a record label using the victors as their debut artists.

Contestants will be judged on their music composition, lyrics, instrumental performance and vocal abilities. The final score will be calculated based on the judges’ scores, public voting and peer-review from fellow contestants.

Ream Sok Phiron, a 23-year-old musician who will also perform today at the competition’s opening, said that he would be happy if he could help make just half of modern Cambodian music original.

“Original songs are real in Cambodia, and I just want to be a part of the music in Cambodia that pushes the artists to write their own music,” said Phiron, who is best known for composing the viral "Khmer Flag Song with the Small World Small Band.

Sok Visal, director of the 2013 movie Gems on the Run and competition judge, said that the industry’s tendency to copy foreign music can be traced back to the Khmer Rouge’s purging of musicians.

“We ended up having a very poor music scene, so to create contemporary Cambodian music is quite difficult with what we had in the past 20 years,” Visal said, adding that it proved profitable and easy for record companies to add Khmer voice-overs to foreign songs.

“It’s about time that we start promoting our youth in the industry to produce original songs because Cambodia has been open for 23 years. It was OK to copy songs, but after a while I think it’s time – there’s no excuse.”

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