New release: Khmer vocals make soft Scandi-songs soar

Ouch Savy
On her new album Asian Flow, Ouch Savy collaborates with Norwegian musician Ingolv Haaland. Photo Supplied

New release: Khmer vocals make soft Scandi-songs soar

As a teenager living in a thriving artists’ community in the Dey Krahorm district of Phnom Penh, Ouch Savy fell asleep listening to melodies emanating from chapei master Kung Nay in the house next door. It was Kung Nay that taught Savy to play the chapei – the long necked stringed instruments whose jangling, dissonant melodies – accompanied by improvised vocals – prompt frequent comparisons with the blues of the American South. The unusual partnership, which made Savy famous as one of the few female masters of the chapei, came to an end when Dey Krahorm was razed in 2009.

Six years after her Australian tour, Ouch Savy’s latest project is the result of another unique partnership. The album Asian Flow, released last week, pairs Savy’s vocals with the compositions of the Norwegian musician Ingolv Haaland. Working remotely, or using Haaland’s “laptop studio” during his frequent trips to Phnom Penh, Savy applied the skills she learned as Kung Nay’s student to a very different type of music – a multi-layered fusion of orchestral instrumentation and Khmer vocals.

Savy wrote the lyrics with no direction from Haaland other than the supplication to “listen to the songs and sing how you feel”.

She says that the words that came to her, inspired by her own life, don’t differ greatly from the poems she used to improvise to accompany her chapei playing. Often the tone is wistful: in Too Close she writes about the futility of longing for golden times gone by; and in No More Tears she entreats an imagined woman to move on from the heartbreak of the past.

Whereas chapei singing requires a strident vocal accompaniment, Savy says that Haaland’s music prompted her to adopt a softer style. “For this, if I feel like I do too much and make it too strong, it’s not good together,” she says.

Haaland hesitates when trying to define his music in terms of genre. It used to be “lounge music”, but he discovered that people’s associations with the term weren’t particularly positive. “I was advised not to use it, because it’s the same as easy listening,” he explains. The Norwegian artist also points out that the label is less applicable than it previously was, because his style has evolved in the years since he made his first recording with Savy – 2009’s Journey. Whereas Journey featured a lot of electronic arrangements and only two tracks with vocals, for Asian Flow he has worked primarily with live musicians, including Cambodian tro player Yun Theara. He also cites Savy’s presence on all seven songs as “the human factor” that elevates the album beyond easy listening.

“The first album was really cold – a couple of guys told me ‘Wow, I can hear you’re from Norway!’” he says. “But I think this album has warmer sounds and is more complicated.”

Haaland clarifies that the album’s title is not a reference to a particular category of “Asian” music – a nebulous label in world music that encompasses everything from Levantine dabke to Tibetan monastic chants.

“The title Asian Flow is more the flow of society here, which is sort of different – everything is going at its own pace,” he says. Haaland lived in Cambodia for a year in 2006, and has returned to South East Asia frequently ever since. “In Norway I can work my ass off every day – I can work 18 hours and get everything done. Every time I’m here I have to plan a couple of days for things I would do in Norway in a couple of hours.”

Cambodia’s relaxed style is a welcome salve to the composer, who describes himself as a perfectionist with the rare ability to precisely order layers of notes and vocals in his head before committing anything to the studio. “My heart rate drops a bit when I come here,” he says.

Asian Flow is now available at branches of Monument Books

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