While having been inspired by radio broadcasts recounting the history of the famous singers of the 1960s “Golden Age”, Seng Dara reveals to The Post that it was ultimately a broken heart that led to him passionately documenting the rich artistic legacy of Cambodia’s past.
The Takeo native has in recent years established a comprehensive library of thousands of sometimes forgotten gems to ensure future generations retain an understanding of the tragic loss of some of the most influential musicians and songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s.
Dara, a well-known archivist of the era, recalls his personal relationship with the music of the past.
When his childhood sweetheart married another, it was the lyrics and music of Sinn Sisamouth – dubbed the King of Khmer Music and the Golden Voice of Cambodia – and his contemporaries that helped him through the heartbreak.
He marvelled at how the words of these artists could resonate so deeply in his soul, despite the passage of time and the tumultuous decades that separated them.
“Sleeping in a hammock, waiting for the sunset to pass, still longing for you” – it was lyrics like these by Sinn Sisamouth, Dara says, that spoke to his Khmer heart.
Born into a farming family in Takeo province, Dara grew up engaged in manual labour such as cutting grass for cows and driving cattle-drawn carts to the farm.
These experiences ingrained in him a multitude of memories cementing a deep connection to the slow pace of traditional rural life in the countryside.
After completing Grade 12 in Takeo and moving to Phnom Penh to pursue further studies, one of the most formative moments of his life took place, he recalls.
In the first year of a Tourism and Hospitality Management degree programme at Build Bright University, he heard that his childhood sweetheart, unwilling to wait, or perhaps not believing he would return, had chosen to marry another man.
He sank into a deep depression, while continuing to attend classes.
A musical revelation
Dara explains that it was in 2003 – during his third year of university – that he happened upon a radio programme which discussed the backgrounds of Ros Serey Sothea, dubbed the Queen of the Golden Voice, and Sinn Sisamouth.
He was fascinated, as he had grown up listening to their voices without truly knowing their stories.
Amid the lingering heartbreak caused by his former girlfriend’s marriage, Dara found solace in the words of Sinn Sisamouth, feeling that the legendary singer and songwriter had captured his own story, and reflected his deepest feelings.
He came to the realisation that listening to their music without understanding their backgrounds took away from a full understanding of these giants of the Kingdom’s cultural landscape.
Reaching out to the radio station to request as much information as could be provided on the two legends, he began compiling their biographies.
Investing a large portion of his time at university, he painstakingly wrote them by hand before transcribing his work during computer classes.
Dara’s efforts found permanent form in part one of a series titled “Meas Srob Nokor”– or “Gold Wrapped Kingdom”– which delved into the details of the lives of Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea.
He found a buyer for his work when a local bookstore purchased his manuscript for $300 and published it for resale.
Over time, the series expanded to 15 titles, each one telling the stories of a particular artist, singer or poet from the past.
Dara tells The Post that his years of constantly searching for new information and artefacts linked to the Kingdom’s cultural touchstones has resulted in the amassing of a veritable treasure trove.
The collection consists of documents, recordings and even films chronicling the lives of many well-known legends, as well as those who may otherwise have been forgotten.
The thousands of items, including letters, posters, vinyl records and digital files, have been organised into a comprehensive archive at his home in Trea IV village in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.
He explains that a significant portion of the library’s catalogue dates from the post-French colonial era of the 1950s and 1960s.
His collection includes original records – with both vinyl and even rare shellac examples – as well as cassette tapes and an extensive range of MP3s, some of which he digitised from his own recordings and others he discovered online.
Among the tracks are examples of traditional Khmer styles such as Chapei Dang Veng (a musical storytelling genre played with long-neck lute) and Lkhon (a dance-drama genre), alongside the psychedelic rock and roll that continues to delight global music aficionados.
In addition to his music collection, the archive also preserves several complete feature films from the 1960s and early 1970s, including “Muoy Meun Alai”– or “Ten Thousand Regrets”– as well as partial copies of many more.
The true cost of his passion
Dara faces significant financial challenges in sustaining the library.
With his rental property costing $250 per month and extra expenses for travel to the provinces for research, he relies on short-term contract work and generous contributions from donors, both within Cambodia and abroad.
According to Dara, the monthly expenditure of conducting his work totals between $700 and $800.
And while the archive receives approximately 20 to 30 visitors each month, with some purchasing digital files or burned CDs from him for as little as 10,000 riel ($2.50) per copy, this irregular income does not meet his outgoings.
“I did not set out to do this work to become wealthy. If I relied solely on the income from my research work and my library, it would not be enough to cover my basic living expenses,” he tells The Post.
One visitor, Oum Bora, a 42-year-old from Siem Reap province, says he enjoyed listening to the songs of the past, whether by Sinn Sisamouth or other singers from the Golden Era.
As well as modern genres such as pop and rock and roll, he said he also appreciates traditional art forms, including the Kingdom’s traditional musical theatre, known as Yike, Ayai (a genre where two vocalists exchange rhyming verses) and Chapei Dang Veng, a form of rhythmic musical storytelling, often compared to the delta blues.
To him, he explains, they embody a deeper meaning, and he is never tired of hearing them and what he describes as their “unique Khmer essence”.
“I like listening to singers from the past as their songs seamlessly weave together sentences that reflect the very essence of the reality they lived.
“Particularly in difficult times, their melodies have a profound impact on me and evoke heightened emotions,” he says.
Chum Vuthy, director of the Phnom Penh Department of Culture and Fine Arts, acknowledges the importance of preserving all cultural artefacts, especially those at risk of being lost.
He says that while he supports all independent study into the Kingdom’s cultural heritage, as an official, he urges Dara to collaborate closely with the culture department.
“I have unique knowledge in some areas, and he will have too, so it would be very beneficial to combine our respective information and documents, for example.
“At the department, we are dedicated to working diligently to preserve all forms of Cambodia art, and so forming a collective library would be an important development,” he says.
Vuthy agrees that the singers and songwriters from the past should be regarded as invaluable national heritage.
“Preserving their legacy and passing it on to future generations is of the utmost importance to ensure its beauty is not lost when those who possess it pass away.
“Many people still love songs from the past, although of course there are those who like modern or foreign music.
“Based on my own observations from every major event I have been to, I would say approximately 50 to 60 per cent of the songs from the past are still popular with contemporary audiences,” he says.