In a non-descript recording studio at the end of a twisting alley off Street 246, three musicians have been spending the last year and a half recording a collection of 14 original songs that rely solely on a guitar and two voices: one from a man who is well aware of vocal limits, and another from a young Khmer woman who may have none.
Their album, Krom: Songs from the Noir, will be released on iTunes at the end of this month, but early versions have already caught the ear of the noir writers and artists based in Bangkok, and reached as far as Hollywood where Roland Jóffe, director of The Killing Fields, has been providing feedback and encouragement to the trio. Videos of two of the Khmer-language tracks – “Bangkok Tattoo” and “Don’t Go Away” – are already on the regular play lists of Cambodian TV stations, and Krom’s 22-year-old lead singer Sophea Chamroeun – a classically trained vocalist who also flits back and forth between Aspara and folk dance – is quickly getting accustomed to being recognised in public.
“I like it,” she says.
A second acoustic album is also in the works: the lyrics have been already written by long-term expat Chris Minko, who initiated the project. His is the voice that like, say, Leonard Cohen’s, was not intended for singing, but still manages to tap the psyche with scathing authority:
So welcome to our daughters
We breed them on our farms
Open up and take them
In your ageing sagging arms
Yeah, welcome to our daughters
We breed them on our farms
Minko also brings the Mekong Delta Blues to the disillusioned mood the music is steeped in: he’s a musician who needs to abandon himself in tunes. Krom’s passion-driven aesthetic connects with the upsurge in noir writing and art in the region over the past decade, as well as Khmer music. “This is a genuine attempt to fuse Southeast Asian music with Mississippi Delta Blues,” says Minko.
Notes on noir
Noir, as a genre, flourished in American crime movies during the 1940s and '50s. Often a jaded detective began investigating a sex crime and ended up unraveling a web of deeply ingrained, widespread corruption that led to powerful and influential figures: tycoons and politicians. At its most insightful, the noir protagonist not only realised there was no escape, he (they are always men) discovered he was an almost necessary part of the web. This genre has been revived in English-language novels in Southeast Asia by writers like Christopher G Moore and John Burdet, both of whom have achieved literary acclaim and bestseller sales. It has also inspired painters like Chris Coles and numerous photographers, especially those who shoot in black and white.
One source of their disillusionment – the exploitation of Southeast Asia, primarily its women, by western men – permeates Krom, and it is a safe bet to say that the atmospheric tunes from the upcoming album, especially the seven-minute long Ying, will make it onto at least one soundtrack of the movies that will inevitably follow the novels.
Krom’s pared-down melodies are more complex than they sound at first, inviting a closer listen that first intrigues and eventually reawakens the intuitive (and difficult to articulate) sense that there is something disturbingly wrong with the way things are. “These are the songs of a 56-year-old man whose voice has been damaged by two many cigarettes and too much whiskey,” says Minko, who no longer drinks. “I don’t get involved in all the hype and the bullshit [of the music business]. The lyrics are based on 16 years of observation here [primarily Thailand and Cambodia].”
“I want to expose the delusion Western men have that Asian women 30 years younger than them are in love with them,” says Minko, who is a fan of music from Issan, the impoverished Northeast region of Thailand where most of Bangkok’s sex workers are from. “It’s nothing but social and economic exploitation. It’s all about the power dynamic.”
The lyrics are accompanied by skilled musicianship, and it is this that the musicians want to be judged on, they say. Minko practices guitar three hours a day to keep his fingers agile. He’s also teamed up with sound technician Sarin Chhuon after a failed attempt to work with an expat producer, and says Sarin had an intuitive sense of the exact sound he was after.
Sarin also makes the videos and he’s opted for realism: Sophea wandering through cluttered markets and alleys, or climbing stairwells in The Building, where she was born.
“Most Khmer videos focus on wealthy people, but we shoot basic scenes: markets, alleyways. We want to show a message, to get people to look at what’s around them,” Sarin explains. “There are enough videos with Lexus’s in them that Cambodia doesn’t need another.”
Sarin also introduced Minko to Sophea after a Philippine singer backed out of the project once she read the lyrics. “She was Christian,” Minko says, explaining that she felt uncomfortable singing about sex workers. Sophea didn’t understand the English lyrics at first, but Minko was impressed by how quickly she learned to weave her voice around his, eventually overshadowing him with subtle lightness and gently pushing him to the background.
“His voice is very strange,” Sophea said at the recording studio earlier this week. She also found the blues guitar playing unfamiliar – “we don’t have this style here” – and found it a challenge to adapt her vocal technique to it. “I had to think a lot about it,” she says. “It sounds very simple, but it is very hard to sing to.”
Sophea is tiny, but at 22 she’s already a dynamo draped in Khmer feminine politeness: there are flashes of toughness in her eyes, determination and a growing awareness of the power of her voice. She also writes the lyrics for the Khmer songs, taking about a week, she says, to write each one.
“We’ve only just started with Sophea’s potential,” Minko says. For the country-tinged songs on the album he encouraged her to listen to Patsy Cline. She’s familiar with pop ballads and various genres but not enough to name them.
She’s at the stage now where Minko can hum a tune and she can return with her lyrics that match it. She’s also learned the meaning of the lyrics of the song Ying, which made her predecessor race from the studio.
No like but she do,
No eat, no money
Love you like monkey
I not lie you, I talk true
When she sings this chorus for the final time in the song she ends it with a wail, like Billie Holiday does at the end of Strange Fruit, a song about the lynching of black men in the South. It’s not an identical wail, nor nearly as disturbing, but it shows Sophea can move in a similar direction.
For the next album, Minko sees himself shifting into the background. Sophea’s voice will dominate. She may be tiny, but her voice goes beyond Krom, it's more optimistic than noir: it carries the rhythm of Mekong jazz, in both seasons.