We’ve had the chance to hear authentic Lao music on our Mekong boat trip and sampled traditional Cambodian music played by musicians who were injured by the unexploded mines still dangerous in the countryside (see below). The sound is a droning pentatonic one that can sound vaguely Chinese to our Western ears. The instruments are simple: several three stringed violins played with a bow, drums of different sorts, a bamboo xylophone, and so on.
Rarely however in travelling so far have we heard local music played inside a restaurant or store. For one thing, most shops are open air and street noise overwhelms anything else. But then there are the restaurants. Those that cater to residents don’t play any music either; however, those that cater to foreigners seem to think we need canned music to enjoy our food. And most of that is really bad canned music of soft rock classics. Occasionally, in a place trying to sound contemporary, you’ll get knockoffs of rap or hip-hop.
But then there is the Christmas music. Though Laos and Cambodia are 80% Buddhist, they are very open to all religious practices and holidays. So, as we moved into December, more and more signs of Christmas celebration, and alas Christmas music has appeared in hotels and restaurants. The first was on Mt. Kulen, the sacred Buddhist site, at a foreigner’s restaurant where we were subjected to the worst adaptations of those songs always played in America – overly perky, with mundane accompaniments and muzak like singing. Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf, and all the usual suspects. And we have no idea what people in the tropics are thinking when the singer is “dreaming of a White Christmas.”
A few days later the same CD showed up in our resort hotel in Sihanoukville, which also greeted us with a large display of Santa and Rudolf standing in a mound of presents by a plastic Xmas tree. We figured by now that was the standard CD for the country, but later we heard an even worse version of the same music, sung mostly by children it seemed, in a jangly relentlessly cheesy sound
It was a relief to hear some contemporary music that the Cambodians appreciate. One guide put on a CD of his favorite music, which sounded to us like 50s pop with easy-going country and western accompaniments. These were sad songs about love lost, how a flower loses its butterfly to another flower, or how two men vie for the same woman. Universal themes of loves gained and lost.
And there are some pleasant surprises. From our room at the Sihanoukville resort, we heard the nightclub singer entertaining diners in the open central pavilion. Her smoky, resonant mezzo sounded like Sarah Vaughan, and made for several very pleasing versions of early rock hits, including a dead-on imitation of Sam Cook singing Stand by Me.
(For more pictures from Cambodia, CLICK HERE for the slide show at the end of the Cambodia itinerary page.)