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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer pop fuses the old, the foreign and the bad

Khmer pop fuses the old, the foreign and the bad


P-Nith: "Sales are good, and I can take the criticism of older generation people."

One of the most commonly reported tortures inflicted upon travelers is being trapped

on a bus somewhere in Cambodia and forced to listen to karaoke music, which usually

thunders out of the speakers at a decibel level that has driven some to forgo "cultural


"Turn it off... please" screamed Mark, 20, from England, stomping up to

the driver on a bus from Sihanoukville in August after only three hours of karaoke

video subjection in an otherwise benign air-conditioned environment.

While the occasional foreigner can't take his Khmer pop, the scene is mixing with

styles of music from around the world, and supplying popular demand, according to

some of the main players in the Phnom Penh music scene.

Sharon Soldner, 20, is half-American, half-Austrian by birth; she moved to Cambodia

two years ago after living in Thailand for 18 years. She can dance and sing Thai-style,

as well as in Khmer, which she does regularly for clubs and special events around

Phnom Penh.

"I meant to quit singing at 16," she jokes, sitting in a downtown café

where some Khmer pop stars can often be seen lounging, usually sipping on iced coffee.

She says friends introduced her into the music scene and she started singing some

half-Khmer, half-English songs, which were played on radio FM97.5.

"I'm mainly into hip-hop and R&B as it's what I like to dance to, but styles

are starting to fuse here. A lot of the time they take Thai and Korean songs, lift

the music and write their own lyrics," Soldner says.

"At the moment singers don't have rights. There are no royalties and no percentages.

It's a little bit behind on that front, but they are really trying.

"In the two years I've been here the music scene has changed dramatically. For

one thing, two years ago girls were more conservative - no miniskirts. Now they're

really short, and there was a big outcry." She was referring to Prime Minister

Hun Sen's crackdown (reported in July) on miniskirt wearing by singers and actresses,

and the growing reaction against a culture of modesty in young women.

Music Television (MTV) released a press statement last October stating that it is

"seen in 385.4 million households in 166 countries" globally. Cambodia

is not on the list.

Soldner has provided an alternative fix for pop junkies. She has her own show two

nights a week on TV3 (Mondays 6 to 7pm and Wednesdays 10 to 11pm) called MTCL - Music

Top Charts International. "I get the songs together, it's my program and we

play a lot of different music. What I've seen are other Asians who have made it big

in the US becoming popular here and people are starting to copy styles. I think things

are going to change rapidly."

At the other end of the scale is Soldner's work at Black Pearl, a new dance center

for disadvantaged kids. On the top floor of Psar Depot is a nine-meter mirror wall,

sound system, and dance mat. Soldner leads a class of 20 dance students through a

hip-hop routine that she choreographed. They've been practicing for a month.

"This is a non-profit dance group; the students come from poor families. These

people have no opportunity, and we're helping get them into the scene. We were really

surprised at some of the talent.

"In two months they are going to be shooting a musical film and possibly performing

at U2" - one of Phnom Penh's most popular haunts, on Monireth Road.

Soldner has worked with San Panith, 26, the self-proclaimed bad boy of Khmer music,

who recently returned from touring and studying in the US. The Post went to meet

Panith (or P-Nith) to get a closer look at the star's lifestyle.

Outside his house a hopped-up red Celica was parked messily. Inside Panith, apparently

just woken up after missing our appointment, grabbed an energy drink from the fridge

and beckoned into his bedroom.

"My singing has been in motion since I was born," Panith said. He studied

music and art in high school, won several music contests, and in 1998 released his

first album, with the track Telephone Song. "That song changed my life"

he said.

Panith now has residency status in the US after spending four years there. He described

a warm reception from Khmer expats.

"The Cambodian community over there always ask for me to sing old songs. Songs

of people like Sinn Sisamouth. He's the Khmer Elvis.

"The beat in my albums is more hip-hop or R&B. I usually sing three songs

at U2 every night. I'm the singer that always shows off."

A recently shot video for one of his old songs features Panith showing a bit of skin

- his shirt is unbuttoned in about four seconds of footage. "But Cambodia can't

take it yet" he exclaimed. "Teens like it, but the older generation, the

minority can't take it.

"I used to think my fans would quit on me, but they've supported me all these

years, it kind of keeps me going. People tell me I'm one of the top two or three

artists here. Usually I hang out with fans but sometimes it gets a bit too much and

I'm rude if they ask too much. Sometimes I just turn off my phone." While Panith

was talking, two nervous looking fans hovered at his front door in waiting.

Panith hopes that with continued support from Khmers abroad and at home he will be

able to continue to experiment with more exciting ways of putting his music out.

Sisamouth most famous

Sinn Sisamouth is undoubtedly the most legendary of Khmer musicians. He was born

in 1935, and disappeared during the Khmer Rouge period after years of success in

Cambodia and abroad. The only music the Khmer Rouge allowed was revolutionary songs

dictated by the regime, and often about the importance of hard work.
Sisamouth's music was banned by the regime and many of his records destroyed, but

his songs are still known, and played all over Cambodia.

Sisamouth sang in French, Thai and Chinese, as well as Khmer; he translated many

of his favorite songs into Khmer and performed them. He wrote, arranged and performed

hundreds of songs during his career and accompanied King Sihanouk abroad on state





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