At just 21, Nhem Sreyvin is an old soul. The Khmer literature college student from Preah Sihanouk recently took to the stage in the hit show Cambodian Idol. But rather than seeking musical fame, Sreyvin’s motivation was to shed light on a long-lost song, one that has not been heard by most in Cambodia for more than four decades.
Amid a flurry of flashy modern pop tunes, Sreyvin gave voice to the almost-forgotten love song, Kampoul Doungchet, which roughly translates to “My Soulmate”, originally sung by famed 1960s singer and broadcaster Houy Meas in a now destroyed film of the same name.
“I am very passionate about the old songs. Even though I’m very young, I do not like modern songs. I only know how to sing the old ones,” Sreyvin said.
“It’s a love song which describes a relationship that is very lasting, never-ending . . . it’s not like the flower that one day wilts.”
Houy Meas, like many artists and intellectuals of her time, was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime. While there is not enough evidence to conclusively determine the circumstances surrounding her death, there are accounts that she was brutally raped and murdered by Khmer Rouge cadres in 1977, when they discovered her identity.
For the past three years, Sreyvin has volunteered with Soriya, a group dedicated to uncovering lost songs, films, posters and other cultural artefacts of Cambodia’s “golden era” that were lost under the Khmer Rouge, some of which have been literally unearthed.
“They considered these things as imperial, and so they destroyed them. Only those who are fans could dig a hole in the ground to preserve them,” she said.
In the case of Kampoul Doungchet, no one has seen the film since the early 1970s. The song was recovered just last year through oral history, according to Soriya researcher Rin Chhoum.
“We found it through three people, who called us and sang it for us,” he said. Forty years had passed, but the song stuck with them.
“They could remember the lyrics – they said the film and the song are very nice. And then we recorded their voices and made the melodies,” Chhoum said.
There are challenging points in the song Sreyvin had to master – when the singer asks her lover to lie down on her lap, she almost has to throw her voice, making it sound like the words are sung from a faraway place.
“Those parts are the hardest to sing, but that makes it most beautiful,” she said.
With the song’s theme of eternal love, does she have a soulmate of her own? “I obviously do not have at the moment,” she says with a laugh, “but to sing a good song, I have to put myself into the melody as if I have one.”
Sreyvin’s Cambodian Idol stint lasted from October last year until January, and she performed the song four times. Sreyvin said while the melody is close to her heart, she does not want to be a professional singer and is instead focusing her ambitions on composing and fiction writing.
Although she was not named a finalist or the ultimate winner, the judges were impressed by her mission and struck by the rediscovered song. Others, too, have been touched by Kampoul Doungchet. One woman living in America commented on Facebook that she remembered the song from long ago, before she fled war and mass murder for a new life abroad.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, was blown away by Sreyvin’s performances.
“Sreyvin represents the many young Cambodian women of today who want to be independent and making her choice for her own life, yet remains respectful to her own culture and tradition,” he said.
He was thrilled to see this almost-forgotten song brought to the national stage, when doing so in a previous era would have been considered a crime punishable by death.
“It’s intertwining past and present – the only way we can move forward and also restore the tradition,” he said.
“She may not be the Cambodian Idol, but she’s my idol.”