S LIPPED in between the tunes of Cambodia's most famous singer, the late Sinn
Sisamouth, Khmer radio stations often play the songs of a young lady with an
unmistakably sentimental voice. Listeners instantly recognize the music of Meng
Aged 19 and a singer for 19 years, as she jokes, Keopichda is
the new generation in Cambodian popular music.
Rapidly becoming one of
the most famous Khmer singers in recent years, she has just returned from a
five-month visit to the United States, where she displayed her golden voice to
Khmer-Americans in five states. She also had about 60 new songs recorded by
Khmer-run music companies there.
But for most in Cambodia, she is best
known for her old, though still relatively recent, hits such as Anichar Neaksre
The 1991 song, telling the story of peasant farmers who
endured drought and then floods that year, kicked off her popularity in earnest.
A year later she was invited by overseas Khmer to perform in Australia, and then
France in 1993, before going to the US last November.
Her fans at home
have not forgotten her in her absence. Her songs are increasingly requested by
radio listeners, while market vendors say they sell a considerable amount of her
With her broad friendly smile, traditional ladylike behavior and
an unrivaled emotional intensity to her singing, Keopichda has a personality
unlike most Cambodian singers.
While others sing without passion, she has
an incredible talent in putting herself into the position of those whose unhappy
situation she sings about.
"I am a person with much sentiment. I have
been crying while singing sad songs since I was young," she told a Khmer
Born to a musical family, Keopichda has one brother and two
sisters - one who is also a singer and the other works at the Ministry of
Culture's Arts Department.
Her mother, Keo Sangvapich, was one of the
most popular singers of Ayay (Khmer opera-like music) in the 1970s, and her
father, Meng Hun, a classical music teacher at the University of Fine
Her mother fell sick and eventually died, at age 35, after being
beaten by cadre in 1978 during the Khmer Rouge rule. She was eight months
pregnant at the time.
Her father passed away recently at age 72, just
after her return from the US three weeks ago.
The death of their last
parent was a bitter shock to Keopichda and her siblings, leaving with little
more than the memories and encouragement left them by their mother and
Keopichda said she inherited her parents' musical nature at
birth, and both energetically encouraged her pursuit of music.
parents told me that ever since I learned how to speak I started singing." She
began singing Ayay at age five, and professionally singing when she was
She first became known when, as a young school girl, she sang "Please
come back, Daddy", broadcast on radio and television in the
The song, which she sang with a sobbing voice and emotional
gestures, told the story of families whose fathers were "misled" into the jungle
by Khmer Rouge propaganda. Many people were unable to help but weep while
listening to it, and it quickly established her as a promising
Years later, Anichar Neaksre (Poor Farmers) cemented her
popularity, followed by a dozen or so other top hits. They included Duong Chan
(The Moon), Chumroeu Sneh (Depth of Love), Sronos Pleng Kar (Missing Wedding
Music), Roeung Smarn Mindol (The Unexpected Thing), Pnheo Kang Choun Bong Vinh
(Sending the Bracelet Back to You), Bopha Battambang (Battambang Flower), and
the more famous still Moronakpheap Noeu Aranh (Death at Aranhaprathet), put out
after she came back from France in 1994.
This remorseful song tells of a
Khmer woman who leaves her husband and family, and is cheated into prostitution
by a "rich" man in Thailand.
"They've sold me like poultry. I've become a
bar-girl in Aranyaprathet," Keopichda sang. The woman in the song then falls
sick and dies on Thai soil.
Keopichda is unabashedly emotional in her
songs, and says: "If we just sing, everyone can do it the same, so we must try
to be different."
In the almost ten years since she became a professional
vocalist, Keopichda said she has sung between 600 and 700 songs - about 20 of
them borrowed from the late Sinn Sisamouth, the 'Elvis' of Cambodia, and others
from his peers such as Ros Sereisothea and Pen Ron.
However, she said
that she greatly attributed her popularity to many helpful composers - including
Bi Bunthuok, who also used to write songs for Sisamouth, Ven Phat, one of the
few old singers who survived the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Katha, a new celebrated
composer, and slain newspaper editor Non Chan, who had sent her about ten
Whereas Sisamouth could also sing fluently in French, Thai and
Chinese, Keopichda has only produced two English songs - Without You and a mixed
Khmer-English version of Right Here Waiting for You.
As a young pop star,
she is a darling of other Cambodian singers and musicians who give her technical
as well as spiritual advice and support.
But she is definitely no
Madonna. As a single woman singer, she chooses not to perform in nightclubs. She
mostly sings at special public occasions, and records her songs for music
"It's all right if I just sing, but I can't if you ask me play
that part," Keopichda responded on the telephone to a music producer trying to
entice her into make a suggestive song video.