Mai Vathana, nicknamed the “Country Poet” to allude to his rural upbringing, was born in 1976 in Prek Luong commune of Battambang province and grew up there before setting out for the big city to study at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 2010 before marrying and having three children.
Vathana’s regular job is working as a legal assistant at an NGO, but the Country Poet spends his free time writing poems, songs, novels, essays and commentaries – and has for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve loved writing songs, poems and stories since I was a child. The songs that I like to compose now as an adult writer with a career are ones with some life and colour to them and some sense of the soul of the nation in them.
“I will admit to being a bit of a Khmer romantic as I’ve always most enjoyed listening to romantic songs, reading novels with a romantic theme and of course watching many of the old movies that use those kinds of plot lines,” he said.
Back in 2015, Vathana decided to follow his passion and explore the depths of his heart with his song writing. He’s now composed over 100 songs, most of them unapologetically romantic and in the old school Khmer pop ballad style.
“I first joined the music industry to write Khmer style songs which I thought of as part of our shared cultural inheritance. I made it my life’s mission to write romantic Khmer songs with a sense of national identity to them in order to preserve what I feel is an important part of our national culture and do so with a literary sensibility.
“I also wished to continue the legacy of the senior poet [Kong Bunchhoeun] who left behind hundreds of songs for us that are embedded in the content and meaning of our national culture. I’ve noticed that since 2001 or 2002, the number of traditional Khmer songs being produced has gradually been declining and local artists have taken less interest in doing them.
“That reluctance to make songs in the traditional Khmer style could be because of abandonment by audiences and discouragement at how much more attention trendy foreign-style songs receive from the younger generation,” he said.
Vathana said he believes that composing traditional Khmer songs is his contribution to preserving Khmer culture and heritage, because even though it isn’t ancient in origin the style of pop music that Khmer people embraced throughout the 20th century was still an important thing to keep alive.
“The digital era is this new space that gives everyone a huge amount of freedom, but the problem is that musicians are using their skills to compete for popularity and the highest view count rather than trying to do something original or even just good.
“This desire for viewers has convinced some producers, especially young people, to make frequent use of inappropriate and unethical ideas embedded in harsh and violent language, which is the sort of language that leads to a decline in the national culture.
“And some young people make music just to put out a product to sell or attract a sponsor because many of them do not care about ethics or society at all. Modern can almost now be equated with forgotten morals or the songs of immoral songwriters who use music as a platform for insulting others, pleasing others or promoting vices like gambling, women and drinking. If you don’t believe that will have an effect on your youth over time, then you’re being naive,” he said.
Vathana admits that he doesn’t have all the answers to these issues and he doesn’t blame all modern songwriters for the excesses of a few of them, but he asks that everyone think of others first and put community before selfishness.
“I would like to send a message to those who want to write songs, especially young people: Please fulfil your duty and make work that has socially redeeming values that consider the dignity of society and whether what you’re doing is going to be a positive or a negative for the community and the nation. Maybe you can’t see it now and you think it’s just a song and not a big deal, but it could be in the future and its success will be your success, so consider whether that’s really how you want to achieve your dreams, through negativity.
“As writers, we should be clear about our language, promote our culture and learn more whenever we find we don’t know everything we should. We’re free to do anything we’d like, but please use that freedom to choose to do something with moral value, national conscience and patriotism. We should work together to improve society and create a more moral society that is more beneficial for all of us as citizens and as writers,” he said.