In 2012, I stepped into an abandoned casino on Bokor Mountain in Southern Cambodia. Alone, but for a young Cambodian man carrying a stereo on his shoulder, I listened to a reverb drenched drum bounce off the walls and a Farfisa organ fill the air with a familiar tune. I recognised the melody: ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procol Harum, an English rock band from Southend-on-Sea. But when a silk-spun voice launched in for the first verse, it wasn’t Gary Brooker skipping the light fandango, but an unknown voice singing in the Cambodian language, Khmer. In the cavern of what was once a grand art deco ballroom, I felt my spirit soar into every available space the music permeated. I wanted to learn everything there was to know about the singer and his words.
In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, I tracked down three CD compilations of 1960s Cambodian rock. There on disc two was the cover of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ I had heard on Bokor Mountain. It was a contrafactum, renamed ‘Away From Beloved Lover’ by Sinn Sisamouth, its singer. The same girl-leaves-boy sentiment Procol Harum’s lyricist Keith Reid wrote about remains in Sisamouth’s version: the singer laments about a heartbroken boy crying all night for a beautiful girl.
An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians – approximately 20 per cent of the population – died in the killing fields at the hands of the ultra-Maoist communist party, the Khmer Rouge. According to the Cambodian Living Arts organisation, 90 per cent of musicians were killed, supposedly for their free thinking or imperialist attitudes. To this day, every Cambodian, from the young farmer’s son in the rice field to the minister’s daughter in a fee-paying city school, knows the singer and his songs. The back catalogue Sisamouth amassed during his twenty-year career is reckoned to be anywhere from 1,200 to 10,000 songs.
What set the singer apart was his chameleon-like ability to predict musical trends and his lyrical prowess. He would write with dictionaries in Cambodian, Thai, Vietnamese and the Buddhist language of Pāli to hand, in order to find the perfect word to express his emotions. Through the course of writing a book about Sisamouth, and his 60s and 70s musical peers, I came to understand the barriers of language myself. While there are far more words in Khmer to describe the moon than the Collins Dictionary could hope to contain, there are currently 171,146 English words in comparison to 22,203 Khmer words. Translation has its challenges. Japanese, for example, has some wonderful words, which far better encapsulate the feelings that arise when I hear a life-changing piece of music, such as yūgen, which means ‘an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words’. Yūgen sums up what I felt the first time I heard Sinn Sisamouth’s ‘Away From Beloved Lover’ in that abandoned casino. A feeling that has not diminished after hearing the song a hundred times since. I don’t think it ever will. Every time that first C major note chimes, I am transported back to that wonderous, abandoned ballroom.
Image © Bill Herndon