Popular music in Cambodia has long looked backwards to the pre-Khmer Rouge ‘Golden Age’ resulting in loads of covers and imitations. But now a new generation writing their own, original songs are finally starting to make waves
On stage, Jimmy Kiss – his bushy hair in a bun – wore a grey shirt tucked into workman’s jeans and hefty hiking boots. He didn’t look like a rock star, but he gripped the mic stand passionately with two hands and, if you closed your eyes, he sure sounded like one.
Both the backing guitarist and keyboard player looked sharper, but the audience, glued to the 29-year-old singer, didn’t seem to notice. When Kiss reached the chorus, sung in a triumphant, Freddie Mercury-like roar, they erupted in gleeful whooping.
At the song’s end, the guitarist took the mic. “Original song from Jimmy Kiss!” he announced and the Apros Pub crowd went wild.
The independent songwriter chanced upon commercial success a year ago when his retro-ballad single, Baby I’m Sorry, went viral on social media. Within weeks, his videos on YouTube had garnered hundreds of thousands of views and, before he knew it, he was gigging across the country in big-budget shows sponsored by Cambodian beer and telecoms conglomerates.
Kiss’s success, won independently without a record contract, is part of what some are calling a resurgence in original songwriting in Khmer. Outside of the cookie-cutter hit-factories that have dominated the Kingdom’s music scene for years, independent artists and groups like Nikki Nikki, Laura Mam, KlapYa-Handz and the Bat’Bangers, are part of a wave of original songwriters making their mark.
“It is only now that the Khmer people are starting to write original music – before it was all copied songs,” said Lewis Pragasam, an accomplished percussionist from Malaysia who founded a popular music academy in Phnom Penh. “But they’re finally starting to now.”
But if it is a resurgence, it is still in its infancy. Songwriters say they still face major obstacles in gaining a foothold writing original music, not least of which is the problem of how to make money selling music in the age of digital downloads and YouTube.
They griped about other things too, including venues unwilling to book original bands citing a lack of demand for original tunes. Crowds, they claimed, just wanted to hear the hits: sugary pop jingles and tunes from the Cambodian “Golden Age”, a prolific period of songwriting in the 1960s and ’70s.
“I know a lot of people who are good at songwriting but just don’t think they can do it as a career,” said Kiss. Instead, he said, musicians opted to put their talents into uses that could pay the bills, like composing formulaic pop hits for the major production companies (which he used to do) and playing Golden Age covers in bars around Phnom Penh.
But, somehow, Kiss was making it work. While he didn’t want to disclose his exact earnings, he said he was making more than enough to get by.
Kiss, who’s real name is Sarun Kallyan, grew up in a musical home. His father, Vor Saroun, was a popular singer during the Golden Age and he taught Kiss the guitar as a boy. It was in a Protestant church that Kiss learned the ins and outs of music. He joined the choir and performed at services there. He learned piano. In his mid-teens he started writing songs, inspired by nature and adolescent love affairs.
In his twenties he became a tour guide, leading groups on bike trips and hikes through areas around Phnom Penh, like Kirirom National Park.
One day a customer heard him singing and asked Kiss if he wrote his own songs. The customer told him about Songkites, an organisation founded in 2013 by two Australian musicians who mentored Cambodian songwriters.
Curious, Kiss contacted the group and ended up joining their program alongside a handful of other songwriters, including Nikki Nikki, another successful independent songwriter. At the end of the months-long mentoring program, the group recorded a compilation album on which Kiss performed Baby I’m Sorry, and the song took off.
“Definitely in the industry, Baby I’m Sorry created a new benchmark for original songs,” said Euan Gray, the producer behind the single and Songkites co-founder. He was sitting on a stool in the Songkites studio, located in a maritime-themed house down a sleepy street on the edge of the Russian Market.
Kiss’s poppy retro-ballad, sung partly in Khmer and partly in English, was successful, Gray said, because of its originality. It was obvious, he said, that the song came not from a corporation, but from an individual. “There was feeling in it,” he said.
It was the kind of feeling that Kiss and other musicians said was lacking in modern Cambodian music, which consisted mainly of formulaic tunes churned out constantly by the major production companies. High-quality, original songs made by Cambodians could for the most part be found only in the past, in the much-touted Golden Age.
At his family home in Boeung Trabek, Kiss said the nation’s obsession with the music from pre-Khmer Rouge legends such as Ros Sreysothea and Sinn Sisamouth had stymied Cambodia’s musical creativity.
“People like the Golden Age songs because they put a lot of love into their music,” Kiss said. “When people listen to that music, they feel love from it. But nowadays people [have]lost the belief that Khmer music can give that emotion, that love.
“But now I see a lot of song-writers and a lot of original music coming out.”
Those songwriters span genres, from the hip-hop of ClapYaHandz to the pop-rock of the Bat’Bangers, to the bright piano ballads of Nikki Nikki and the psychedelic rock of the Happy Band. But the music styles, while all Western-derived, were not as important as the fact that the songs were Cambodian-made.
“Listeners don’t want Cambodia to copy music from China, Thailand and Vietnam anymore. They want original music,” said Yang Pov, 38, a long-time songwriter and professional musician who runs a non-profit music academy on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and mentored Jimmy Kiss.
“Right now it’s changing, it’s growing. I see the young generation sharing original artists on social media. I hear original songs more and more.”
Vanntin Hoeurn, or Tin, 23, lead singer and songwriter for the now-dissolved, popular Khmer metal band Sliten6ix, also said that things were starting to change for the better. There was a growing demand, he said, for heart-felt, original Khmer music.
“The young kids, thanks to the internet, are starting to realise that originality means something. There’s a movement, it’s still small, but to me a small impact is still an impact,” the long-haired, tattooed musician said this week while sipping a glass of Jameson whiskey at indy music venue and bar Showbox.
He added that pop-rock and hip-hop acts had the greatest chances of successes.
Mike Hsu, who has owned Sharky’s music bar for nearly two decades, echoed Pov, saying that the last year had seen “major changes in the local music scene”.
“The new trend here is for the locals and expats, they want to hear original Khmer music. They don’t want to hear a cover of Imagine by John Lennon. They want to hear legitimate, original Khmer music,” he said, adding that he was particularly impressed by music from the Happy Band and the Bat’Bangers.
Pov and others said that the music scene’s nascent transformation was being led, predictably, by the youth. The internet and the exposure to foreign music it facilitated was changing expectations. But there were smaller changers too.
Across the river, in Phum Prek Bongkong village, CamProject, a group founded last year by a 35-year-old Swiss-German named Timon Seibel, teaches songwriting to mostly disadvantaged youth.
In the CamProject practice room this week, 16-year-old Vichey Sok took a break from a loud set of original tunes to talk about his future.
One of Seibel’s best students, Sok started life at the very bottom, as an orphan surviving among the trash-pickers of Stung Meanchey. Today, his dreams, inspired by a one-time visit to a Phnom Penh performance of Tin’s Sliten6ix, are musical.
“My dream is to be a guitar player,” said the starry-eyed teen, a beat-up guitar hanging from his neck. “I want to have my own band”.