Cambodian singer and musician Ouch Savy is putting a new spin on traditional Khmer sounds with the help of Norwegian composer Inglav Haaland. Marissa Carruthers finds out more. Photography by Charles Fox.

“When I first learned to play, people were afraid I would go blind,” says Ouch Savy with a laugh. Referring to the superstition surrounding a young female Cambodian learning to play traditional instruments, the talented musician and singer says even today she faces stigma in her trade.

“A lot of people also think I’m too young to play the chapei because it’s only for old people,” the 27-year-old says. However, she hasn’t allowed prejudice or superstition to get in the way of nurturing her undeniable talent, and is today proud to be a young Cambodian keeping old traditions alive as well as carving them new paths to follow.

Born into a family of musicians, Ouch is the daughter of famous 1960s A Yai duo, Ouch Chheng and Prom Chanthol. At the age of eight, she realised she had a talent for singing and started studying music under her grandfather while they lived in Kandal province.

In 2002, the family moved to Phnom Penh so Ouch could study traditional music, such as the chapei or Cambodian harp and a yai, at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. In 2003, she started learning under the great Master Kung Nay, who was also her neighbour in the thriving artistic community in the Dey Krahorm district of Phnom Penh.

“I feel blessed because it’s rare for women to play this instrument”

“I feel very lucky to have studied under him,” Ouch, who won a talent contest on Apsara TV channel in the A Yai section in 2003, says. “He was a great teacher and I was very happy. I was one of the few women able to study the chapei. I feel blessed because it’s rare for women to play this instrument.”

Since graduating in 2007, Ouch’s talents have seen her take to the international stage, performing traditional Cambodian sounds in countries including an extended Australian tour. But it was in 2008 that a chance meeting with fellow musician Inglav Haaland set her on a different path that would both challenge and broaden her skills.

After spending a year in Siem Reap in 2006, the 41-year-old Norwegian composer and acclaimed pianist, who is currently reading a PhD in performing music at the University of Agder, Norway, returned to the Kingdom in 2008 to record an album.

Ouch, who was training with Cambodia Living Arts, was recommended to Haaland by an American producer. “That was the best recommendation because she’s a great singer to work with,” he says. “I’ve worked with a lot of singers and she’s super as a musician, singer and artist. She has her own clear identity as an artist.”

Marking the start of a fruitful working relationship, four years ago Haaland recruited Ouch to help him with his latest projects, Asian Flow. His aim was to fuse together Western and Khmer sounds to create modern music with classical roots.

Spanning a collection of genres, the album boasts classical roots, with jazz and contemporary sounds thrown into the eclectic mix. Instruments range from full European string orchestras to pianos, guitars and even the tro played by Cambodian musician, Yun Theara. Completing the melodic compositions is Ouch’s mesmerising and gentle vocals running gently over the top.

“I see music as wider in terms of genres, not specifically one. In my music, I borrow from every style; it’s a fusion of international sounds,” Haaland says. “The Cambodian element brings a different aspect to the music because Khmer singers tend to have different sounds, tones and tempers. It’s like adding an almost Asian baroque sound.”

The four-year process saw Haaland write melodies, which he would send to Ouch for the lyrics.

“At first this was a challenge because I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to write about,” Ouch says. “He told me you can write about anything you want; to think about how I feel when I listen to the music and interpret it with your own words. This was very strange for me because I’m trained in classical Khmer music and this is something very different but after a while I thought, “ok, I can do this”. I think this has helped me become a better musician. I’ve had a lot of new experiences and been taught many new things.”

In December, the fruits of the four-year project were released in the form of the album Asian Flow. And Ouch and Haaland are currently gearing up to take a trip to Norway in March to perform with a symphony orchestra and musicians from the Middle East.

“We will have English, Arabic and Khmer,” Haaland says. “Each approaches the melody differently. It’s interesting to look at Middle East and Southeast Asian music because they’re very different. One is predominantly Buddhist and the other Muslim. With Middle Eastern music there tends to be a lot more tension whereas Southeast Asian has more flow. Add in European influences and you have this triangle that holds a lot of possibilities for us to explore.”

Asian Flow is on sale at Monument Book stores. 

Read more about traditional Khmer music