Some years ago at The Basement in Sydney, the Cambodian Space Project were performing to a small, but appreciative audience of mainly young adult Khmer-Australians. Julien introduced a song he said was known to many Khmer, and dated back a few decades. In this sense a traditional song. Chanty the lead vocalist began to sing with several of the audience joining in. The song was ‘Bang Nov Cham Sneh’ by a legend of the 1960s-1970s pop scene, Sinn Sisamouth. While the Khmer lyrics were unfamiliar to my ear, the melody wasn’t. It was ‘House of the Rising Sun’.
The 1960s-70s pop scene in Cambodia was thriving with musicians performing at Phnom Penh nightclubs and in venues across the country, with many recording their songs on vinyl. In addition to Sinn Sisamouth, other well known musicians included Ros Sereysothea singing Komlos Srey Chaom, Yol Aularong and his song Yuvajon Kouge Jet, and Pan Ron with Snaeha. These songs are contrafactum, that is, where there is a substitution of a song’s lyrics for another without substantial change to the melody.
In his book Chasing the Rising Sun, author Ted Anthony asks questions about House of the Rising Sun: “Where had this song come from? Where had it gone? Who carried it there?” The same could be asked of Cambodian 1960-70s pop songs.
This session will focus on how a song travels from place to place, with the lyrics adjusting and changing through the journey, but with the melody remaining constant. And the role popular songs have in maintaining and building culture.
Poet T.S. Eliot wrote:
One of the surest of tests of indebtedness to another poet is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. (Eliot, 1920, p. 59)
The same could be said about good pop singers. They will absorb it, and learn from it and use it to stimulate their own creativity. They will “steal it”, which means that just like a robber, they will take possession of it, even though they know it is not theirs. And then they will transform it, through the creative alchemy of their creative process, into something fresh and new, something that belongs to them.
Eliot, T. S. (1920). The sacred wood: Essays on poetry and criticism. London: Methuen.