Saul Kaiserman examines the early stages of rebirth after decades of
The lights are low as the gui tarist lays down an electric
riff. Couples sway to the slow rhythm of a romantic melody popular in Phnom Penh
in the late 1960's. Then, the tempo increases and the dancers, as one, glide
into a circle, their hand-motions describing their inner desires.
band segues once again as the singer steps up to the microphone. She is young,
Cambodian, beautiful. The crowd is anxious, excited. She begins to sing:
"Goodbye, my love..."
Pic Punnareay, head writer for AM radio, said: "In
the era of Sihanouk, it was the 'bon vive'. During the Lon Nol regime, we had
many famous musicians, composers, and writers. But then, under Pol Pot, only
rural songs were permitted."
Many of his friends involved in music
either emigrated, were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime, or like himself hid
their talents and worked as farmers.
He continues: "And then after 1979,
we had only nationalistic songs. Terrible."
Since the late 80's, a wider
variety of original music in Khmer has begun to reappear, but Punnarey admits:
"Most songs are sentimental and boring."
A local bartender agrees: "The
old music, you can listen to again and again; but most new music, you listen to
it a few times, and maybe you hate it."
Many production companies simply
release translations into Khmer of current hits from other countries -
particularly Thailand and China. Even new lyrics written in Khmer are often
tacked onto instrumental tracks composed and laid down in the United
Somsak Saosiri, managing director of production company Cambodian
Network, argues the problem is not a shortage of talent, but the limited
distribution of quality cassettes.
"People, especially children, know
the American songs, but not Khmer songs. I want Khmer people to know Khmer
According to Saosiri, Cambodia Network's goal is to produce
cassettes with "a new style, a new feeling."
Their first recording,
"Duong Dara Thmei" ("New Star") was released for the Chinese New Year concert at
the Olympic Stadium as an experiment to test the market.
experiment was a success: Cambodia Network says the 10,000 cassettes of the
first release have sold out and an additional 5,000 are now being
The songs on "Duong Dara Thmei" were written by a young new
talent named Sakol Thun. Thun said: "I got very little money for the cassette
but it was okay to gain the experience as a singer and composer."
Sting, Sakol Thun began his professional career as a high school English
teacher. He began writing songs in 1990, when he "wanted to tell this lady that
I was falling in love but didn't dare say."
In May of 1993 he started
working for IBC Television, where he met the president of Cambodia Network, Nhem
Suphanna, who asked if he could make some songs for their first musical
Sakhol Thun knew Uk Sinnareth, the arranger for "Duong Dara
Thmai", as his parents' school mate. "I knew his name growing up - he is
well-known in the music scene - and I thought, 'One day when I grow up I'll
write some songs and then I'll go to see him.'"
All the songs on "Duong
Dara Thmei," are love songs, with such titles as "Hopelessly in Love," "Say 'I
Love You'" and "No Money, No Honey." Of "To see Angkor Wat but Waiting for Love"
he says, "Siem Reap is a place I had dreamed about since I was young, and I was
finally able to see it after a long time. But my heart was full of sorrow
because I had no one to share it with."
"Monika," the Thai soap star
whose image graces the cover of the cassette, was a song written "very fast when
I heard she was coming, to attract people to buy the cassette."
cassettes for sale in the market - perhaps due to the high cost of originals -
are illegal duplicates. Typically, a master is recorded off a compact disc
imported from the US , then duplicated endlessly onto low quality cassettes.
Recognizable by their photographed jacket covers, pirated cassettes sell
for about 2000 riel, half the cost of an original copy of "Duong Dara Thmei."
"But after you play it one time, the songs are bad. The government is not
interested," says Saosiri, "but this is business." Cambodia Network, rather than
taking action against pirated copies of its cassettes, intends simply to
continue producing at an international standard of quality.
wishes for Cambodia Network to become the central creative media production
house for Cambodan artists. "I want every band in Cambodia." With plans to
expand into music videos and television dramas, it is the high quality of their
productions which may attract artists. This month Cambodia Network plans to
follow their successful first release with four new tapes.
One will be a
"greatest hits" cassette of popular female singer Mien Sumali; another, a mix of
new songs written by her husband Krim Sikun and performed by the Meas Mithrai
band; and a third of songs composed by Pic Punnareay and performed by the
National Radio Band. "They are new songs," the promotional advertising explains,
"but so sweet". The fourth will be a showpiece for famous film comedian Kreom.
"He sings comical songs, megadance style," laughs Saosiri. "In fact, he cannot