Objects ranging from antique paintings to ancient tools can hold significant value as remnants of the past, considered tangible works of esteemed elders and ancestors.
In Prey Veng province, an elderly man has entrusted a collection of over 100 phonograph records dating back to 1958 – which he held dearly even while escaping shells in wartime – to a researcher for safekeeping, as a part of Cambodia’s musical heritage.
Din Eam, a 76-year-old resident of Prey Chhieng II village in Russey Sanh commune, in Prey Veng province’s Sithor Kandal district, told The Post about his collection of over 100 vinyl LPs.
The roots of his collection can be traced back to the 1960s when he frequently travelled on a boat whose owner played music for the enjoyment of passengers. Since then, he has had a passion for music and began collecting vinyl records, even if he didn’t always know much about the singers at the time.
He recalls that cassette tapes were non-existent until the late 1960s, with only LPs and record players available. This scarcity drove him to continuously purchase and preserve these albums, resulting in hundreds amassed in his home.
During the 1970s civil war, when armed conflict raged between Marshal Lon Nol forces and the resistance loyal to then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk following a military coup, Eam and his fellow villagers sought safety by fleeing areas where shells dropped all around them.
He recounts his commitment to carrying his record collection while escaping the shells. Amid the chaos, there were instances when some of the discs fell into the mud, prompting him to retrieve and carefully clean them. Throughout the Khmer Rouge regime, he clandestinely safeguarded his collection, ensuring its existence remained undiscovered.
“Amid the turmoil of war, myself and others sought safety. Regarding my records, if they fell, I recovered them, lovingly cleaning them,” he says. “Had the albums been edible, they also would have been eaten a long time ago.”
After the liberation of Cambodia from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, while supporting his six children, he embarked on a career as a mechanic, specialising in radio and phonograph repairs. His career, combined with his passion for music, led him to collect LPs, cassettes, reel-to-reel audio tapes and radios, many of which still reside in his collection.
Eam adds that within his assortment of vinyl records, some narrate the tales of Tlang Prambi Sandan (Seven Deaf Generations, a Cambodian folktale), while others delve into the mythology of deities. A few recordings showcase Lakhon Bassac (a popular theatre created by Khmer people near the Bassac River in southern Vietnam at the beginning of the 20th century) as well as traditional and classical songs. He still possesses a phonograph, although it is currently out of commission.
Out of his collection, a total of 117 vinyl records remain in playable condition. However, earlier this month, he decided to entrust the discs to Seng Dara, a researcher specialising in the history of Cambodian singers and songs from the past, who expressed a desire to purchase the LPs and ensure their proper storage, underscoring their significance for the nation and future generations.
“Dara told me that he intended to purchase my vinyl records to preserve them for the nation. Upon hearing this, I made the decision to give them to him. I wouldn’t have sold them, as his gratitude sufficed, but he emphasised that the acquisition was for our country. Had he been a foreigner, I wouldn’t have parted with them, but he is Khmer,” Eam explains.
Before parting with his vinyl record collection, Eam made copies of all the songs from each disc. This act stemmed from his own desire to preserve the traditional performances of performers long since passed.
“Furthermore, traditions are diminishing, signifying the acquisition of new things and the abandonment of old ones. With the passage of time, the old things vanish. That is why I retain them,” he added.
Commitment to preservation
In reference to his acquisition of the record collection, Dara, a researcher specialising in the biographies of artists from the Kingdom’s musical past, tells The Post that his motivation for purchasing Eam’s LPs stemmed from his deep commitment to preserving Cambodian musical and artistic history.
Despite a small number of the records having sustained damage, Dara continues to maintain them. Additionally, he manages a gallery dedicated to preserving such items of national heritage.
“Some of the vinyl records have sustained damage, yet others remain in good condition. After cleaning them of any dirt or grime, they can be played again,” he says.
Dara is committed to preserving this collection of vintage records with the intention of enabling further research for the benefit of future generations. Additionally, he has founded a library welcoming aficionados of songs from bygone eras, providing visitors with the opportunity to appreciate the accomplishments of previous generations of singers and songwriters.
Dara says the reception and support for music from the past depends on contemporary preferences and circumstances. In today’s era, the younger generation predominantly gravitates towards modern songs. However, for those who hold cherished memories of the 60s and 70s, a love and appreciation for the nostalgic melodies of old songs from the past endures.
Ouk Sereyvuth, director of the Prey Veng provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts, lauds Eam as a rare musical preservationist who showcases the value of conserving historical music. The vast majority of these records have succumbed to the ravages of time, making Eam’s efforts even more exceptional.
“Now, we have the capacity to create digital duplicates of these vinyl records for preservation, ensuring the songs can be passed on to future generations for appreciation. Even if Eam were to have entrusted them to another person, it’s probable that the recipient would share the same commitment to preservation,” he said.