New Cambodian Movie – In the Life of Music

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I love film, and I love music so I’m excited by the prospect of an upcoming Cambodian movie that uses a famous Sinn Sisamouth song to tie-together three parallel stories set at pivotal times in Cambodia’s recent history. Sisamouth was the legendary pop vocalist who was adored by Cambodian fans in the 60s and 70s but was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Today his music is still revered – a vibrant reminder of the unquenchability of love and of culture.

The film IN THE LIFE OF MUSIC is the creative child of the up and coming female Khmer/American Director Caylee So who is clearly tracing the footsteps of her parents with this drama; her first feature film.

I looked up the movie’s website and here’s what it says about Caylee:

Caylee So was born in a refugee camp in Thailand on September 17th 1981, just after her parent’s escape from the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. When she was just three years old, her family immigrated to the United States. She grew up in Northern Virginia where she spent most of her youth.

In 2000, soon after her high school graduation, Caylee joined the US armed forces and served in the Virginia Army National Guard for the next eight years. There, she wrote for a little column called Caylee’s Corner, a newsletter that was sent out to friends and families of deployed soldiers.

In between tour of duty, Caylee attended Northern Virginia Community College where she discovered her love of writing fiction. She later transferred to George Mason University to pursue a degree in creative writing. Creative writing led to theatre, and theatre led to film; all mediums that had one thing in common: they all captured stories.

In 2011, Caylee was awarded the Zonta’s Women in Film grant for Most Promising Young Filmmaker. In 2012 Caylee received her MFA in Film Production at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, having won the Best Picture and Best Director at her school’s Cecil Awards that year.  She is also the winner of the Director’s Guild of America’s 18th annual Best Female Student Director award.  She is the co-founder of the 1st Cambodia Town Film Festival in Long Beach, CA and the winner of the Linda Mabelot’s New Directors/New Visions Award.

3 Chapters; 3 Generations; 3 Worlds: Changed by a Song.

Directed By: Caylee So / Sok Visal
Written By: Caylee So / Dane Styler
Produced By: Caylee So / Neardey Trinh

In the Life of Music tells the story of how one song “Champa Battambang,” a song made famous by Sinn Sisamouth (the King of Khmer Music), plays a role in the lives of three different generations. It is a feature narrative told in 3 chapters during 3 different decades, depicting the lives of people whose world is inevitably transformed by war. It is a powerful intergenerational tale that weaves through 38 years of Cambodia’s ever-changing landscape.

Chapter One: The Song of Love (1968)
In the small village, a group of musicians ride into town to give a rare impromptu fundraising concert, igniting profound excitement and wonder from all the townspeople. Bearing the burdens and responsibilities of traditions, two strangers: CHY, 16, and PHALLY, 15, seeks to overcome their obstacles, and find a way to attend the concert, a concert in which music and love will be forever intertwined.

Chapter Two: The Song of Death (1976)
Mith, 40’s, a famous singer now living under the terror of the Khmer Rouge Regime, struggles with surviving his own legacy.

Chapter Three: The Song of Birth (2007)
Hope, 26, a singer, songwriter, journeys to Cambodia, the place her mother calls “home” where along the way, relationships will be tested, and one’s quest for identity will give voice to a generation who must reconcile the past with the present in order to shape the music of our future.

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An unlikely outcome – how praCh Ly’s Khmer rap music opened up and healed old war wounds

praCh Ly didn’t know it, but his limited release rap CD was going to Number 1 in Cambodia, and was bridging two generations.

Rap music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In the early 90s the gangsta rap sound from the meaner suburbs of Los Angeles assaulted the radio waves and split black culture down the middle with old-school R&B on one side, with a younger edgier generation on the other.

For any teenager growing up in LA it would have been impossible to ignore artists such as Run DMC, NWA, Ice Cube – and if the epicentre of rap music was the suburb of Compton, then in neighbouring Long Beach, home of several hundred thousand Cambodians in the USA, rap music provided an outlet for a generation of young migrants who had grown up with a feeling of displacement that came from being war refugees in a fairly unsympathetic foreign land.

praCh is the seventh child of a refugee family. He was born in 1979 near Battambang, and his family came to United States to escape the Khmer Rouge. His family was quite typical in that the adults seldom talked about their experiences of war: the focus was on the new life, though the new life was extremely tough. Out in the streets, the conversations of young people seem to be mostly about gangs, guns and drugs. praCh Ly loved rap music, but he found his lyrical home when one of his older brothers started telling him stories about the Khmer Rouge and about the family’s desperate escape to a refugee camp. Soon he was recording samples of music, using a karaoke machine, and throwing over these beats his hard-hitting lyrics. His album, Dalama, pieced together a song by song his own life story.

This was in the year 2000, and praCh manned booth at the New Year celebrations held by the Khmer community of Long Beach each year. There was to be live music at the event, but he was told that his music was too aggressive, that he was not able to perform. But an artist is an artist – and displaying a precocious confidence – praCh got up on stage before the main acts which were due to play, and he introduced himself. He told the audience that he was going to do a rap piece, once in Khmer, and once in English – and that if they didn’t like it – then they were welcome to boo him off the stage.

He performed his piece called welcome, first in English – just him and the microphone with no beats or accompaniment – and the younger members of the audience loved it. When he then performed it in Khmer he got a standing ovation from old and young. “Do another one,” they yelled. This was his breakthrough.

His CD sold locally in modest numbers, but unbeknownst to him, a Cambodian DJ took a copy back to the Phnom Penh, and played tracks on the radio. They got a huge reaction – partly from the government who wanted to ban these tracks, but after it was argued that the subject of the rap music was history and not the present government, the authorities relented, and the fan reaction was so strong that pirated copies of Dalama sold in huge numbers; making praCh the first Cambodian rap star.

This got him big publicity with mentions in Newsweek and other mainstream media, and it took praCh into circles he never expected. In 2002 he was shoulder tapped to become chief organiser of the Khmer New Year’s festival in Long Beach – a role that put him right into the middle of his own community. In the past 12 years he has continued to be published as a rap musician and as a poet – and he has been in big demand on the speaking circuit, lecturing on human rights.

Rap music may not be your cup of tea – but what is interesting about praCh is that he uses an in-your-face medium to tell honest stories, and expose the history faced by so many families who lived through the 1970s. He was quite surprised at how his music has served to open up conversations with families – with the younger generation, informed by his music, beginning to ask their parents about their experiences under the Khmer Rouge. This has been a healing process.

praCh is now probably regarded as the elder statesman of Khmer rap – and there are now several other names of Cambodian rap and hip hop artists both from Long Beach and from the homeland of Cambodia. It is a lively, dynamic genre. In 2004 he went on a 23 States tour across the United States and was a subject for Japan’s documentary film, which won NHK’s Best Documentary of the Year (2004).

He has also become active scoring movie soundtracks including the Khmer baseball documentary ‘Rice Field of Dreams’ (2010) and creating original music for the excellent Sundance Award Winning and *Oscar short-listed movie ‘Enemies of the People’ (2010).

Among his recent activities has been the founding and organising of the Cambodia Town Film Festival which ensures an outlet for Cambodia’s burgeoning film industry. He has been described as Khmer-America’s most influential citizen.

Crackle and Pop. Restoring Cambodia’s precious vinyl history.

I collect vinyl myself and know how hard it is to track down pop 45s from the 1960s. But I’m blow away by the music restoration process happening in Cambodia thanks to the courage of collectors (under Pol Pot music was banned) and the dedication of new curators. An excellent video.

Sinn Sisamouth and the golden age of Khmer pop

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The golden, liquid talent of Sinn Sisamouth has become a touchstone for memories of any Cambodian who lived before, and survived the horrifying Pol Pot years from 1975-1979.

When I became interested in in Cambodia, following a journey there in 2004, my search for Khmer music led me over and again to YouTube clips featuring Sinn Sisamouth. This clip (link here) is not untypical – a light pop melody that fuses western and Cambodian styles.

Every nation in the 60s had its own pop idols. Back then the recording business was highly localised and few artists – Elvis and The Beatles being rare examples – transcended the world stage. So within this context popular music in Cambodia adapted western music but combined this with its own traditions.

If you visit Cambodian nightclubs you’ll hear a dominant diet of hip hop, but the music that most fills the floor, still, is the traditional popular Romvong which is the music that drives the circle dance of the same name. These tunes, always sung in Khmer, feature a signature beat that belongs to the East, as well as keyboards and – sometimes, accordian which echos, I suspect, the French influence from the 1920s.

In the 1960s the move to guitar driven sounds led to adaptations of the US sound – including surf guitar, the Twist and the European classic romantic ballads such as Rain & Tears. (Modern version here.)  The up-tempo releases (See this clip featuring footage from a contemporary movie or this one also featuring contemporary clips) in the 60s were probably outweighed by the romantic romantic ballads.

Among the local pop stars Sinn Sisamouth was the giant. A congenial guy, he was vocally talented and also a prolific songwriter. I can’t over emphasise his status – to Cambodia he was Paul Simon, Andy Williams and Elvis all wrapped into one. His music, including dozens of duets with  female leads such as Ros Sereysothea (this clip captures the French influence) dominated the airwaves from the late 1960s through to the earl 1970s.

Then Pol Pot came to power and all promoters of anything vaguely western were rounded up, captured and tortured. Sinn Sisamouth was made to walk in circle, around and around until he collapsed and died of exhaustion.

Today thanks to YouTube and the patient curation work of American based Cambodians such as Darren Kham (Subscribe to his YouTube account) much of the music has been rescued and in many cases digitally restored so that the golden days of popular music, and the heart rending vocals of Sinn Sisamouth have been preserved.

Typical of the comments posted under his YouTube clips:

When I fell in love for the first time, it was like, everything is possible and everything is sweet and happy and awesome, and this song made my first love even deeper like an ocean and wider like the universe. But then, like everything in this world, it ends, though my memory of this song remained as wonderful as it was then.

Or simple memories of better times:

When I was little, I remember my parents listening to songs like this on car rides.

If you can, try and get hold of the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten which traces the rock and roll era of Cambodian music.

One of the people quoted in the documentary is the lead singer for the modern group Dengue Fever, Chhon Nol. Dengue Fever represents an interesting phenomenon: the group is based in the USA and founded after their lead guitarist visited Cambodia and discovered the 60s pop sound. Well worth listening to: their songs such as Tiger Phone Card capture perfectly the well crafted Cambo-Pop sound of that era.

Today, pop music in Cambodia retains some of this same nostalgia. There is still a strong taste for romantic ballads, and remakes of the music of Sinn Sisamouth and his peers are not uncommon. I find it quite powerful when I read the comments on YouTube. People with scarred pasts find healing and hope, still, in Sisamouth’s music.

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Still I Strive – A Cambodian Movie worth checking out.