Raised among a close-knit group of poverty-stricken traditional artists in the slums of Phnom Penh’s White Building, Sophea Chamroeun was inspired to perform from a young age. Now, at 22, she is tipped to be one of the first Cambodian singers to crack the international market.
As one third of the band Krom, her voice will feature on the soundtrack for the Australian-Cambodian documentary In Search of Camp 32, the story of an undocumented Khmer Rouge killing camp that may have claimed up to 30 000 lives.
Produced by Australian Gaye Miller and Cambodian filmmaker Hom Chhorn, the film, which is in post-production, tells the story of victims of Camp 32 in Northeastern Cambodia. Chhorn says his family were murdered there but its existence has not been officially recognised.
The notoriously elusive Krom, who have never performed live in Phnom Penh, have been commissioned to record the soundtrack for the documentary, which will be broadcast on Australian TV. Two songs, featuring Sophea’s vocals laid over guitar by Australian expat Christopher Minko, have already been recorded.
“When I tentatively approached Christopher Minko with the idea of Krom composing music for a documentary, I was delighted with the very positive and energetic response,” Miller said.
“He knew instinctively the type of music that was needed as a back drop to the poignant scenes portrayed. With very little direction, he produced some magical pieces which enhances the mood we wanted to create.”
It’s familiarly dark subject matter for the band, whose debut album, Krom: Songs from the Noir, dealt with jealousy, death and sexual trafficking.
“The documentary relates to a very tragic time in Cambodia’s history,” he said. “One of the songs we recorded is very haunting and the other is exceptionally sad. Sophea overlaid these amazing vocals [over a guitar base] – the first is very ghostly and the second brings tears to the eyes.
"We’ve talked at length about what noir means and she’s really embraced the dark themes we’ve been working on.
“I think that Sopheap has the potential to be the first Cambpodian singer to crack the international market,” he added.
For Sophea, who is studying at university as well as rehearsing three days a week with Krom, the sound-track is the latest stage in a remarkable development and a long way from her childhood in one of Phnom Penh's poorest areas.
“I grew up in the White Building, and lived there until I was 6 or 7 years old,” she said. “Though the environment was not very pleasant, it was a shelter for many artists whom I met when I was there. It was so inspiring.”
She went on to study Khmer classic dance, and is now in her final year at the Royal University of Fine Arts. She also leads the Children of Bassac Dance Group, which performs at the national museum.
“I love traditional dance, but I can’t limit my talent from growing. We will never know how great it would be if we don’t try.”
When Minko approached her to she was tentative working with guitar, having been used to traditional instruments. She now writes Khmer and English lyrics, and builds her classical Khmer singing techniques around Minko's Western bluesy guitar compositions.
“I was like an unpolished gem until I started working with Minko. I learned to be more enthusiastic and open-minded,” she said.
"Getting our works displayed in an international film adds credibility to Krom and I’m so happy about it.”
The band will release a special edition of Songs from the Noir in October which will include a 14 track audio CD, an 8 track DVD and a booklet with illustrations. They have also started working on a second album.
To contact the reporters on this story: Poppy McPherson and Chanvetey Vann at [email protected]