Cambodian Pop -celebrates a rural idyll

YouTube is a great place to explore the musical cultures of different countries. And the music videos tell a lot about the Zeitgeist of the nation. I remain fascinated at the way Cambodian music continues to balance the urban glam against the romantic version of the rural idyll – a simpler wholesome life for which Cambodia pines.

In its dreams.

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.

Goodbye faithful buffalo. The changing face of Cambodian pop videos.

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In 2004 when I first visited Cambodia I didn’t get to see much television until I arrived in Phnom Penh and for one day coped with the cultural overload by staying put in my hotel, reading a Nick Hornby novel and watching music videos. I love Cambodian pop music, but what struck me at the time was how these music clips perfectly captured the Zeitgeist of their day. Here are images and 3 minute storylines designed to connect with the audience. Any video producer wants to use images that easily resonate with the mood of the young fan base: in this case the young urban audience who were wealthy enough, and have the electricity to have TV.

So what were the video tropes of 2004? Well, there were the usual global pop cliches – the Britney dancers and the K-Pop princesses, but what stood out for me was the presence of pining, wistful romances in which the lead singer would walk through city life (the cars, the fashions, the cell phones) but feel empty without their true love: and I’m talking not about a girlfriend or boyfriend: I’m talking about their family life in the countryside. We’d see walks by the river, ploughing with the water buffalo, the greeting of elderly family members: a life without the hustle and shallowness of the modern city.

Here surely was evidence of a widely shared angst about urbanisation. Is the shift to the city worth it? Is modernisation all good?

The most memorable video featured a great singer who wore a straw cowboy hat. A very talented singer: and the story in his video was about family life on the farm. There are two kids and a water buffalo whom they adore. They pat him, feed him, ride on him…they love their water buffalo.

But one day while the kids have trudged off to school the water buffalo is sold by the father. The children come home and are distraught when they learn their water buffalo has gone. They weep and cry.  But the father shows them why he has sold the water buffalo – it is to buy two new bicycles. Now the kids can ride to school!  They light up and – it seemed to me – quickly forget about their old water buffalo. Now they have the gleaming bicycles of modernisation.

Today, ten years later, the music videos have broadly changed. For sure, there is the occasional sentimental story about the girlfriend who dwells back in the village – but for the most part Korean Pop has formed the stylistic reference point for the video makers who churn out clip after clip with the shiny, pounding (and still Britney-esque) K-Pop dance moves and pale-skinned princesses.

I miss the water buffalo.

For more on Khmer music read this one: The Golden Age of Cambodian Pop

Or follow the wonderful work of the restorers of Cambodia’s lost vinyl gems.

New Year – 2009, an emotional memory

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The photo above is Savong’s father, and when I took this photo in April 2009 he was leading a New Year’s ceremony out of the SOC in Bakong. The day was scorching hot as they are in April in Cambodia, with temperatures hitting the late 30s or possibly 40°. I was not the only volunteer there, but us Westerners were dying in the heat.

New year is one of the big two celebrations in the Cambodian calendar, and the countryside was filled with the sound of loudspeakers, music and chanting as well as the sound of children gleefully playing. Bakong is a village with maybe 600 families, and I think everybody that day was celebrating the beginning of the brand new year.

At the SOC, apart from us volunteers, were the children who lived at the orphanage as well as the staff, who included Savong’s older brother’s Savet, monks from the local Bakong monastery as well is  two senior friends of Savong’s father.  One was a man who spoke French, and another was a woman who had become a nun dressed in white, and with lips bright red from betel chewing. I learned later that this woman and Savong’s father had together collected the bones and skulls from the killing fields of Siem Reap: the remains of family and friends. What a deeply tragic and moving task this must have been. If on the way to Angkor Wat you stop off at a monastery called Wat Thmei, then you will see the stupa in which these bones are held. The land for that monastery was donated by Savong’s father.

So the ceremony began. The monks chanted, and accepted offerings from the children: gift baskets that included food, cans of Coca-Cola and (somewhat incongruously,) packets with toothpaste and toothbrushes.

I was asked to take part in the ceremony, and my role was to lightly splash holy water on the assembled guests. I felt somewhat awkward because this was a Buddhist ceremony and I had no idea what I should be doing. My holy actions were accompanied by polite laughter.

At this point the microphone was handed over to the elderly woman: the nun. What followed was the most remarkable vocal performance I have ever heard in my life. I love the power of song, and I love the strength that comes from a lone voice without accompaniment. If I ever go to heaven then I long to meet vocalists such as Dinah Washington who could add so much soul and depth into any song she sang. Dinah Washington would walk into the studio during her heyday and announce to all and sundry, “never fear, the Queen is here!”

But I’m afraid that Dinah Washington would have to step aside for this elderly Cambodian woman. The singing began as a low murmur. I was kneeling right next to her, and while I could not understand the Khmer language, I was right there to hear the deep almost guttural emanations of her voice. She did not sing from her mouth or from her throat; this woman sang from her heart. It was an incredibly emotional song, and as I looked around the monks and the assembled guests to the ceremony I saw absolutely everybody deep in tears. Standing to one side, my friend Savong was sobbing. Savong’s own father, a man who was seen the deepest tragedies in life, was weeping uncontrollably. I too was sniffing and tearful, yet I had no certain idea what this woman was singing about: her music transcended culture, and crossed barriers of language.

Somehow, I had the feeling that this woman was singing of motherhood, and of loss. After the ceremony I sidled up to Savong and asked: “Brother, what was the song she was singing?”

Savong was still upset, his eyes were red from the crying, and he said to me: “brother, that was a sad song about what it feels to be a mother who gives birth to children only to watch them die in times of war.”

It was a remarkable experience, and I owe that woman the deepest appreciation for sharing from the depths of her own life experience. It was a moment in which I felt connected not just to Cambodia, but to the tragedy that lingers near the surface for older people who remember, no doubt in stark clarity, the horrors of the Pol Pot era.

For me, and more especially for Savong, the daily marks another element of tragedy as well. I mentioned that Savong’s older brother Savet was working there, and this was the first occasion I had ever met him. He was older than Savong, and a very reserved character who kept largely to self. I learned later on that Savet had left home at age 7 to fend for itself during the worst years of poverty faced by the family. At times he was reduced to eating bark from trees. Later in 2009 Savet died of cancer, and I cannot help but think that he, too, was a victim of Cambodia’s recent past. His death affected Savong greatly, and I often feel that the memory of Savet is never too far away from Savong’s consciousness.

This is what Cambodia does to you. You begin a day full of cheer and celebration, and here it is five years later and I am still ruminating on the experience of hearing the woman sing from her soul.

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Can’t wait for the new film: Don’t Think That I’ve Forgotten.

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That cool guitar group above is Baksei Chan Krung who are thought to be Cambodia’s first rock ‘n’ roll guitar band. In January this year film maker finally called ‘it’s a wrap’ on his documentary 10 years in the making called Don’t Think That I’ve Forgotten.

Long fascinated by the golden age of Cambodian pop music in the 60s, Pirozzi tracked down surviving footage, recording and survivors from the Pol Pot era that all but obliterated the energetic pop legacy. It was an exciting time with many young Cambodians adopting – and adapting – the guitar-driven sounds of the era.

Pirozzi  held a preview screening in Phnom Penh while the official launch of the movie takes place later in 2014.  For a news account of the preview Click here. I’ll keep readers posted but to get a feel for the movie visit the trailer on YouTube.

Meanwhile the Phnom Penh Post article covering the preview pulled together an excellent article on the pop era. This is well worth a read.

 

 

 

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.