Driven by their passion for films and songs from the pre-Khmer Rouge era – cultural treasures of their Khmer heritage – Preah Sorya, a youth group working to document the golden era, recently released the results of their ongoing research project. The group has archived over 5,000 songs, including a wide mix of traditional Khmer music.

Spanning nearly twenty years, the Khmer ‘golden age’ was an unprecedented period of creativity in Cambodian music and film making.

They revealed the figures on the official website of Preah Soriya on July 17, the 12th anniversary of the formation of the project.

“5,520 songs from the golden age are preserved in Preah Soriya’s archives. During their 12-year mission to document the heritage of Khmer movies and songs during the Golden Age, the project collected the recordings from four main sources: film stock, 12″ and 6″ vinyl records and restored digital video clips,” it said.

“The team has restored and remastered the recordings digitally and preserved them safely. The songs that they have worked so hard to collect date from 1955 until April 17, 1975. These are the voices of nearly all of the major artists of the Khmer Golden Age, a total of 72 artists and 10 orchestras. They span a wide variety of genres, with traditional love songs, pop hits, patriotic pieces, Mohaori ensembles and even children’s songs. There are also a number of tracks from films and operas,” it added.

Yeang Vandy, head of the project, said: “We were also lucky enough to meet some of the few remaining actresses of the era, including Dy Saveth, Vireak Dara, Duong Dara –known as Nop Nem – and Saksi Sbong. Amongst the songs, we discovered recordings that have not been heard by the public for more than 40 years.”

“The vast majority of the Kingdom’s artists were killed during the Khmer Rouge era, although we did find some singers and actors who remain with us. When we approached them for interviews, the majority denied our appeals without explanation and asked that they not be identified. We think it is probably because they do not want to dwell on the bitter memories of their lives under the cruel regime of Pol Pot,” he added.

Preah Soriya says its mission is to research, archive and preserve films, songs and the histories of senior Khmer dignitaries and members of the royal family from before the Khmer Rouge regime. Vandy, in his role as team leader, serves as a permanent member of the group. Virak Varany, deputy chief, has worked on this passion project for 12 years and is also the author of a series of essays on related subjects. Along with four or five others, they are the nucleus of the project. They use their own funds, along with the support of philanthropists who love the arts.

“The project was originally started by Virak Varany and a team of 4-5 people in 2010. I joined them in 2013 after meeting them Zaman School (now Paragon). In the same year, we organised a big event to publicise our mission. Early in 2014, we discovered seven original film reels in Kampong Cham, and were able to buy and preserve them,” said Vandy.

“Later, we heard through friends of the organisation that Khmer documentary footage from the pre-1975 period was abundant in Thailand. When we found this out, we spent as much time – and money – as we could tracking down this footage,” he added.

He also pointed out that despite the exceptional size of the archived library, the team was not yet ready to give up their activities.

“During the recent Covid-19 crisis, our team could not risk working together – we are a private youth research group, with no support in terms of health insurance or a medical budget. We had to be careful and wait until the situation improved. We are grateful to our over 200,000 YouTube subscribers, many of whom donated to the project through ABA, Wing or Acleda. Whether 1,000 riel or more, all funds are used to continue our research,” he said.

“That being said, if Preah Soriya’s work in preserving this important part of the Kingdom’s cultural heritage had the support and recognition of more private companies or the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, we would be extremely grateful, and able to preserve even more of the golden age,” he added.

On July 16, Preah Soriya revealed their discovery of 45 songs from films, interpreted by the ‘Queen of the Golden Voice’, Ros Sereysothea, who disappeared during the Khmer Rouge era.

Vice-chief Varany spoke about the importance of the find.

“Today, there are no less than 1,500 songs left by Ros Sereysothea, and they continue to be popular with the young and old. A number of artists and a large number of music production companies have taken her songs and remade them. During our research, we unearthed 45 recordings she had made for popular films of the day, which had not been heard, or attributed to her for over 40 years,” he said.

He said that the recordings were found through archival footage and identified through the memories of fans. They include such hits as 1968’s “Baksey Chak Mek” from the film of the same name, “Tumnounh Preah Neang Amphay Phat”, which was included in the popular movie “Chhan Moeung” and “Dav Roeung Dav Roy”, from the titular film.