Oum Dara was once the songwriter, composer and violinist behind some of Cambodian music’s most legendary singers like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. Today, he has little to show for it materially, but happily looks back on his nearly eight decades.
Oum Dara lies on a hard wooden bed in his family’s hole-in-the-wall apartment in the capital, listening to the tinny notes of Rob Oun Neng Hery (“That’s you, My Dear”) playing from his cellphone. It’s a song he wrote for the iconic singer Sinn Sisamoth in the 1970s.
“That’s you, my dear, who is my fate . . . Please show mercy, and keep it meaningful, until the last day we breathe,” Sisamouth croons.
Dara wrote the song for a beautiful woman more than 40 years ago, but that now feels like a past life. The pictures on his wall show the other famous singers he used to work with, including Pen Ron, Ros Sereysothea, and Meas Hok Seng, from when he was a violinist, music composer and lyricist during the Kingdom’s Sangkum period, commonly known as the Golden Age.
“My life at that time was almost perfect,” Dara says. “I could enjoy doing what I was passionate about while earning big money, enough for me to have a big house and a modern Kawasaki, while many people recognised me outside. But, now, they are all gone.”
Born in 1940 in Koh Sotin district in Kampong Cham province, Dara was the son of a customs official and first learned to play violin at the age of 14 from a forest ranger named Keo Vokrat. His father later hired a French violin tutor to come to his house. After a stint as an elementary school teacher, he took up the violin professionally, just as the popular music scene was beginning to flourish.
During the early ’60s, Dara moved to the capital to play for National Radio of Cambodia, and became well known when in 1966 he was asked to compose the music for Lolok Nhy Chmol (“A Couple of Doves”), sung by Meas Hok Seng. Within a few years, Dara was not only writing music but the lyrics as well, and his songs are still listened to today across generations.
The stories in them, typically of love gone wrong, are from his own experiences, like Os Sangkhem (“Out of Hope”), in which Sinn Sisamouth channels Dara’s unrequited love for a female colleague at the National Radio station.
Chhob Srolanh Oun Tov (“Please Stop Loving Me”), sung by Ros Sereysothea, describes his sadness when his first wife asked him for a divorce in 1973 because, he says, of his focus on his career and not on her.
“My own experience and the story of people I know add colour to the song and music,” Dara says.
When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, Dara was forced out of Phnom Penh to Kandal, and was treated as one of the “new people” – the corrupted urban elite who had strayed from the Khmer Rouge’s peasant ideal.
He was alone and did not bring anything with him – and certainly not a violin. However, unlike many Cambodian artists who were killed by Khmer Rouge cadres because of their professions, Dara was able to escape the killing, starvation and even hard labour thanks to his musical skill.
“A Khmer Rouge cadre recognised me, and asked me to join their troupe as a violinist,” he said. “I was ordered to play songs about communism and revolution, especially in front of the diplomats from China. I did not like it at all, but this job helped me survive, and I even had enough to eat since I always got to eat with the cadre.”
After the fall of the Pol Pot regime, Dara moved from one job to another and spent a short time living at a refugee camp along the Thai border, before resuming his career as a musical instructor and composer for the Ministry of Information.
But he never recovered professionally from the destruction of the Khmer Rouge and today he is living in poverty. All that is left of his career is a violin and a cache of unreleased songs. A traffic accident 10 years ago immobilised the legendary violinist and impaired his ability to play the violin.
Dara’s wife, Sam Vanna, 60, says her husband’s humility, and lack of sociability, prevented him from moving up the ranks of society.
“Unlike many artists, he is not a boot-licker,” Vanna says. “He would not write a song that promotes or praises anyone, or copies other’s works. I am angry with him sometimes for that, but I am also proud of him.”
Oum Tharath, Dara’s younger daughter and a successful mixed martial arts fighter, said she is disappointed that she could not carry on her father’s legacy.
“Despite our hard life, I am proud of having a father who is a famous musician who created masterpieces and originality,” Tharoth said. “As a child, I also wanted to learn to play violin, but I am not keen on it, and more into sport.”
Dara, meanwhile, said he has lived a life of happiness, and if there is another to come he would like to be born a musician again.
“I want the next generations of Cambodians to strongly promote music, like how people do in developed countries,” Dara said. “It is one of the things that make life enjoyable.”