Interview with Oum Rotanak Oudom from the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive

What inspired you to start the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive?

The Cambodian Vintage Music Archive project was officially announced last year with the launch of the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive facebook page. Prior to that the project was being done informally with the Cambodian Vintage Music youtube channel and the Elastic Cambodia Foundation.

For many years, I have been collecting the music of the Cambodian “Golden Era,” both original recordings and remix versions of songs from the pre-Khmer Rouge period. Actually, I had never thought of making any initiative to promote and preserve them. My intention was to embrace unheard and rare old songs as much as possible due to the fact that I was passionate about the lyrics and music style of Sinn, Ros and Pen and I wanted to build my own collection. I found the source of original music from youtube and myspace. I spent a lot of time surfing and looking for rare music or music that I haven’t heard or one with better quality compared to my existing collection. I met Jeff Cole (from USA) through youtube, and we had a chance to meet in person when he visited Phnom Penh some years ago. We shared some of our collection, and I learned how to use youtube as a way to broadcast and share Khmer oldies music. Continuing to use youtube led me to meet Nate (Khmer-American) who owns the most subscribed Khmer oldies music and film channel. We discussed and shared information about song titles and so on. I have been in contact with other youtube channel administrators such as Darren (Khmer-American), Narin (Khmer-Australian) and Bora (Khmer-Australian) who have been living abroad after the Khmer Rouge. I was the only person in Cambodia who had a youtube channel dedicated to Sinn Sisamouth. I spent most of the time working in search of music.

When Nate visited Phnom Penh in 2010, a pop culture revival had been organized. Nate and I were invited to be key speakers in a forum which included special guests Dy Saveth (one of the top female actresses in the 1960s) as well as members of Cambodian Space Project and Dengue Fever.

At the time, most people assumed that they would never have the chance to hear Khmer music from vinyl records because it was thought they were all destroyed or discomposed after so many years. Nate confirmed that the records were still in existence. We decided to begin finding old record collectors and propose that they contribute to an archive. The journey began in 2010. I have been traveling all around the country to find collectors and showing them how much I care about the archive project, and that I am a “Sinn’s fellow.” Sensing my dedication, they would allow me to photograph their record collections.

During the early years, I was frustrated because I did not have a turntable or any skill in making recording for a digital audio archive. I was very fortunate that Maya (a co-founder of the CVMAP) showed up around this time. I trained with her daily for several months until I became a skilled archivist. Maya and I put our funds together in order to begin the archiving project. On the top of that, she donated her music archiving equipment. We did not have any outside funding or support. We love and care so much about preserving the vinyl records because almost all of the original master recording tapes no longer exist. Vinyl is our only hope as many records are still in good condition. After a year, we have found a few vinyl collectors and have digitized over two hundred records. We had some problem with stylus and we were in need of funds to travel and conduct the archive work at collectors house located in the provinces. We have some good friends (two from Germany and two from Belgium) who provided funding to cover our project expenses. Other than that, we did not have any funding sources. We started the project with our own money in the beginning. We spent money to buy records from collectors in Cambodia or online. The rare Khmer records aren’t inexpensive. Until now, we own more then 100 records and have digitized over 500 records plus a number of reel-to-reel tapes and cassette tapes. We also ave hundreds of remastered CDs.

We will continue digitizing the original music whenever we meet collectors. We plan to continue using facebook, youtube and soundcloud as platforms for sharing the music we archive and other news about Cambodian Golden Era music. We are excited because the original music now available to the public again so people can enjoy the great taste of real music in the past 50 years. The project has enabled the public to listen to original Khmer music, read the original lyrics, see the old Khmer font and graphic design, download the original artwork of Khmer vinyl sleeves and record label, and so on.


What does the CVMA do, and what are you currently working on?

After starting the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive, I went to Battambang to meet the owner of a music shop who I was told had a lot of vinyl from the Khmer Golden Era. My meeting with the shop owner led me to meet other collectors in Phnom Penh, and my project started to grow wider and the collectors had been working with me in support of my project by providing their records to be digitized. With hope, the music of the Golden Era will be protected and preserved.

We want the public to have access to the archive. We are now doing a database of the record companies, song lyrics, and other details for every song that we have found. We will also promote the music around the world. We translate the lyrics and explain story of each song so every one can understand about musical history of Cambodia in the 1960s. Hopefully, the family of the artists – for instance Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea – can gain something that could benefit them such as respect and royalties. One thing that is very unfortunate is that some record collectors and other archive organizations would not collaborate their work with my project.

What special is that when I listened to the original songs, each time, I could feel something is alive spiritually, in there. I feel like Sinn, Ros and Pen are with me and they are still singing songs for me and every one. Especially, their voice and music are of remedy. They made me feel excited and have brought me back to the time in 1960s. I feel like I was listening to them live on stage and dance with them. I was always excited whenever the unheard songs are discovered. To me, this was just like a song that Sinn or his friends have written recently.

When I was young I knew little or nothing of Khmer music produced before the Khmer Rouge. Listening to this music for the first time, I felt that something unmentionable came out of the songs which made me feel something special. I asked my mum who was the singer, and she told me it was Sinn. At the time, she did not tell me all the detail about Sinn’s life, but simply confirmed that he was a famous star when she was 15 years old. I started learning about Sinn’s music career and the Golden Era of Cambodian music. It was fascinating, and I became more interested. Starting when I was 10 years old, I would save-up money to buy music. I started to build my collection with cassette tapes, and kept them in the wooden box. At the time, I had approximately 100 tapes, some were 60mins with 7 or 8 songs on each side and some were 90mins with 14 songs on each side. Only a few tape were recorded from the original vinyl, and they were sold near Phsar Chas (Old Market). I wanted to have the best quality but did not know where to get them. I wanted to hear more songs that I never heard before.


Do you have stories of any remarkable things that have happened since you started the project?

After the emergence of the Archive project, many artists and musicians started to know me and what I was working on. I proposed that the Cambodian Space Project (CSP) meet with some of these older artists, which lead to the recording of one special song “3 virginal women” that was originally recorded by Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran and Houy Meas in the 1960s. CSP, Ros Saboeun (Ros Serey Sothe’s eldest sister), Svay Ouch (student of mater Kung Ney, a Chapei Dong Veng) and Seyma Than (the lead female signer of Watereek production, Arn-Chon Pond) got together to spend a day in the recording studio discussing about Ros Serey Sothea and ways of recording in the 1960s. As a result of this collaboration, a remake of the song “3 virginal women” was recorded.

After meeting with master Svay Sar (song writer/composer in the 60s) and Haim Sovan (70s singer), we worked on a Rock & Roll Reunion that brought together old and new artists on 23rd October 2010. They performed rock and roll music. I printed the record sleeve of Haim Sovan and Sinn Sisamouth duets. She was very excited and blessed Maya and I to be a couple from destiny. It was also my birthday. At that night, Maya and I found that she was pregnant. I knew that Sinn Sisamouth is with me. My son is named Étienne Sisamouth.

Most recently, music from our archive was donated for the documentary film Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten by Jonh Pirrozi. The screening of the film in Phnom Penh was a quite successful event in January of this year.


Do you have a favourite Khmer artist or song?

I love all of the music from the Golden Era, from the traditional to the modern songs. That being said, my favorite songs are from Ros, Sinn and Pen Ran. Some years ago, I fell in love with In Yeng, one of the lead male singers in 60s. He had a wonderful voice which no one could sing like him as similar as of Sinn Sisamouth. He sung mostly slow songs or in a traditional style. His songs haunted my heart and soul. Unfortunately, my favorite artists were killed brutally during the Khmer Rogue. One of my favorite songs, one that I have loved since I was 10 years old, is ‘Still Loving You‘ by Ros and Sinn.


What are your thoughts on the current Cambodian music scene?

The current music in Cambodia tends to be commercial. In general, many Cambodian music companies have produced a great number of songs which are mostly copied from Thai, Chinese and English. Ninety percent of the current songs are about love and broken heart, and most are pop songs with heavy beat made for young people.

Thus, most contemporary music is meant for the ‘urban scene’ and are not acceptable for elders or people living in the countryside and rural villages.

Local artists have tried to write/compose their music and adopt the style of Sinn Sisamouth but they did not gain any popularity. Some say “don’t try to make the same music style as Sinn Sisamouth. He has produced everything already. So it is better to do new work and what the young people want.” The influence of Korean and Thai pop music is greater than I expected.


Please tell the ASEAM readers about some interesting contemporary Cambodian singers or bands that they should check for.

The Underdogs is a local rock & roll band created over a year ago. The band was formed by students from the Music Arts School in Phnom Penh. I personally like this band. They performed a Khmer version of Venus recently and it was totally wonderful. They are still learning, and have performed in public at only a few places.

There was a local hard rock band but it no longer exists due to the fact that people here did not like heavy metal rock songs.

Only few artist sing traditional songs. However, they are not as popular as pop super stars.

Laura Mam is actually good at lyric writing. She a guitarist.

The last notable contemporary music group is Watereek. Ms Thon Seyma is the singer, song writer and composer. She has great ability and is very creative in the pop scene. Her music is fine and pure.


What are the future plans for the Archive?

Our plan is to do fund-raising to expand our project, but it has not yet become reality. We plan to run a small office in Phnom Penh to display our record collection and archive work. It could take time.


How can people support or assist with the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive project?

We hope Khmer record collectors will get to know what we are doing, and will be willing to donate or contribute records and/or funds that could help support our the project. Most recently, the collector Nong Neng donated his record collection to our project. The collection contained 15 vinyl records and two reel-to-reel tapes.

Last of all, thank you for your support and please follow us at the Cambodian Vintage Music Archive page.

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