Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, November 17, 2006

Songwriters and composers rare in Cambodian music

By Cat Barton and Cheang Sokha
Phnom Penh Post, Issue 15 / 23, November 17 - 30, 2006

Sapoun Midada is a different kind of superstar. Unlike many of Cambodia's famous singers, he writes all of his songs himself.

"It is hard and takes a lot of time to compose an entire song and write lyrics, too," he said. "You have to think about what will appeal to people of all generations. Composition is hard, far harder than being a singer who just learns a song and performs it."

A singer who composes original songs is a rare thing, said Sim Sarak, director-general of administration at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MCFA).

"There is a real lack of talented songwriters and composers in Cambodia today," he said. "The old generation had talent and experience but the new generation lost [access to] all of this due to the Khmer Rouge"

Cambodia's many years of civil strife decimated the music production industry. This has ramifications for the quality of the music being produced today, Sarak said.

"The quantity of Cambodian singers has certainly increased in recent years," he said "But when we talk of quality, this generation cannot compare to the last."

Although Cambodia's younger generation may have raw talent, they have minimal guidance as to how best to develop it, he said.

"At the moment in Cambodia we have many very gifted singers, but no songwriters, no composers," Sarak said. "Those we have working at the moment lack experience."

As a consequence of the lack of experienced songwriters and composers, many of the production companies are simply reproducing Cambodian classics - songs written in the 1960s or earlier - to meet growing market demand, Sarak said.

"We allow [production companies] to reproduce songs as I think this is good for Cambodia's music industry," Sarak said. "It saves time as we don't have to wait for new composers to write songs to meet public demand. If we didn't give companies permission to reproduce old classics there would hardly be any songs released at the moment."

Following introduction in 2003 of copyright law to Cambodia, production companies now have to seek permission from either the original composer or the MCFA to produce a cover version of an existing song.

"According to the law, if any composer is alive, the production company seeking to reproduce their songs must ask permission from them," Sarak said. "But Article 19 of the copyright law specifies that if the singer is deceased, the Ministry of Fine Arts manages their songs for them."

The MCFA charges a flat fee of $7 to cover a song but this money is immediately passed on to the Ministry of Economy and Finance. The people who are really making money from Cambodia's growing love of music are not the government, but the production companies, Sarak said.

"The production companies make money from CD and VCD sales," he said. "Some songs are used in films or advertisements, and that generates a lot of revenue for the companies too."

Despite the introduction of copyright law in Cambodia, the companies are still losing out due to the ready availability of pirated CDs and VCDs on the streets. But the government is poised to take action.

"Pirated music is a big problem for Cambodian production companies," Sarak said. "We have created an interministerial commission to crack down on unlicensed CDs and VCDs. We can tell which are fake and which are real and we will start to confiscate all the fake ones and take them off the market."

The ministry is preparing to clean up the Cambodian music industry by taking action against piracy, and it is also committed to encouraging the younger generation to create original material, Sarak said.

"The faculty of music at the Royal University of Fine Arts is helping the younger generation to learn how to create both pop and classical music," Sarak said. "We also have created many incentives for young people to make new music. I hope that they will be encouraged to do so, I hope they grow up wanting to be famous and are thus inspired to create original songs of their own."

In the interim, many of Cambodia's most prominent pop stars draw heavily on music from other countries - for example, producing cover versions of Thai or American chart toppers. This is understandable and acceptable, said Midada, but it will hopefully not be an ongoing process.

"As you know we have just passed out of the war," he said. "Many writers or composers were killed or fled so we now lack writers and composers. I think at the moment it is ok that we draw sometimes on other culture's music - now with globalization everyone copies and learns from each other - but I love to write my own songs and as long as the audience still likes them, I will keep going."

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