S ome cheap equipment, a few pretty faces, a studio rented for a song, and you too
could join the fledgling Khmer pop music industry. Eric Vohr writes.
FROM ancient classics to the latest dance hits, songs from around the world are being
faithfully - well, kind of - reproduced by Cambodian music firms.
Hopeful newcomers to the music business, as well as some experienced old hands, are
lending their voices and musical skills to Khmer versions of some of the finest and
most popular tunes ever sung.
Catering mainly for the overseas Cambodian market - which offers greater profits
- dozens of Khmer-language CDs are being churned out by at least seven companies.
One of the biggest is Angkor Wat Music Productions, which has released 74 full-length
CDs since it was started in 1991.
The company is owned by American-Khmer Yvette Sam, who runs it along with Chea Chan
Boribo, a talented young musician, and experienced recording engineer Khou Socheat.
The majority of its sales are in Western countries with large Khmer populations,
primarily the United States, Australia and France.
There, a compilation CD - recorded in Phnom Penh and manufactured in the US - can
sell for around $10. That compares to maybe $1 in Cambodia, with the risk of the
music being quickly copied and reproduced by other musical entrepreneurs.
Sam is reluctant to discuss sales figures, but says business is good and growing
steadily. So, too, is the competition.
Khmer music firms feed off the same material - the recent Swedish hit "All That
She Wants" has been covered by six companies already - but in their own special
Sometimes the lyrics of songs are translated word for word, but others may be drastically
changed, with the final cover version bearing little resemblance to the original.
For example, the Beatles' great "Let It Be" begins: "When I find myself
in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be,
let it be."
The opening lyrics of Angkor Wat Music Productions' version? "My song is for
the girl, for a love story for you and me, lovers in a boat on the river, you and
me, you and me."
Explains Chea Chan Boribo, who wrote the new version: "I study the story of
the song and then I write my own words."
He adds that he does this to add to the unique quality of the song and also help
the lyrics fit rhythmically with the music.
When it comes to deciding what will be on Angkor's next CD, Sam has the final word.
"I combine information that I gather from the States with what I see people
enjoying here in Cambodia," she says.
Her company doesn't record original music, but mainly songs which have been hits
in Cambodia or abroad. It used to record only Khmer songs but has now, like other
companies, branched out into Khmer versions of old or new foreign hits.
In Phnom Penh nightclubs, Sam keeps an eye on which foreign songs prompt the most
reaction. If a song produces a stampede toward the dance floor, she will whip out
a notebook, inquire what the name of the song is and write it down. Odds are that
it will feature on her next CD.
Sam, like most of the music firms, doesn't worry about the niceties of copyright.
"This is a small company, we don't make enough money for anyone to want to sue
us," she says.
To stay competitive, Sam tries to find artists who are not only good singers but
well-known by Khmer audiences in Cambodia or overseas. One of the vocalists on her
most recent CD, Sivon Him, 29, has been a popular singer for nearly 10 years and
has just returned from a US tour.
But there is also room for relative unknowns, lured by the prospect of overseas exposure,
to have their chance at stardom.
One of Sam's newest recruits is Diep Srey Roath, 17-years-old and never having recorded
"I am taking a big chance with her but she has an excellent voice and is very
attractive," says Sam.
While she says the most important factor for her singers is that "they must
have a good sound," she notes that "good looks also help sell CDs."
In fact, some of the people who grace the covers of Sam's CDs may have never sung
a word. Her CDs, which can feature as many as six or seven artists, often feature
cover photographs of beautiful young Khmer women and men who didn't take part in
It's all part of the marketing and, according to Sam, it works.
But Diep Srey Roath is not just a pretty face.
Beginning her career at age 15, she learned from her father, also a musician. Currently,
Roath is a lead singer at the Riverside nightclub in Phnom Penh and has also performed
in Siem Reap and Kompong Som.
For her, Angkor Wat Music Productions offers her a chance to hit the big time overseas.
She says she loves the work and dreams of one day touring in the US, but her ambitions
are not boundless.
She says she would like to devote ten more years to music and then settle down and
start a family because "a Cambodian woman must have a family."
Sam's company produces its work at a recording studio at the end of a muddy dirt
road deep in the heart of the red-light Toul Kork district.
Time is rented at a rate of $12 per song. According to Socheat, it takes about two
hours to record a song from start to finish.
The equipment is basic, similar to what a Western musician might have at home to
play around with.
There's a Tascam eight track cassette recorder to "lay down" the basic
tracks, a Yamaha 12 channel mixer to blend them together and a simple Sony home stereo
system to monitor the results and record the "final mix."
All in all, the studio is worth about $6000, Socheat estimates.
But it's enough to produce reasonable quality recordings - some of the poorer Western
bands have produced worldwide hits with less equipment - and helps Angkor to stay
competitive against larger and richer foreign music companies.
Khmer-produced music, unlike television, remains the most popular in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Music Pro-duction's recordings are digitally mastered and put on to CD
in the US.
Sam, who fled Cambodia in 1974 and later made her money operating donut franchises
in California, has also expanded into video and television productions.
Boribo is a classically-trained musician who studied at the Bulgarian Academy of
Music, and plays the keyboards, clarinet and saxophone.
Socheat studied music with a group of army musicians who produced propaganda against
the Khmer Rouge for the Phnom Penh regime in the mid-1980s, and got his technical
training from his father, an electronics professor.
All three have their own dreams - Boribo's include starting his own big band and
perhaps Cambodia's first Philharmonic orchestra - but in the meantime they will continue
to be among the pioneers supporting the Khmer music industry with their own brand
of Cambodian pop.