This Friday, 14 Feb, Mealea Lay, who goes by Miss Sarawan (a Khmer word meaning “traditional dance”), will be performing with Joe Wrigley during a special Valentine’s Day dinner at FCC Angkor. It will be her second time performing at FCC Angkor since her stunning New Years performance.
On 29 Mar, Miss Sarawan will be joined by her twin sister Mealai, who goes by Krawan (whose name means “fragrant flower” in Khmer), for a concert at the FCC Mansion under the name Krawan Sarawan.
Both of these remarkable singers stopped by FCC for a short conversation to talk about what it’s like to be a singer in Cambodia today, where the inspiration for singing comes from, and what’s on the horizon.
FCC: Talk about your background and history with Cambodia, and your roots with music.
Mealea: I’m from Kampong Cham province. Since I was young, I have enjoyed singing and dancing. Whenever I was working and studying, I always kept myself singing, all the time. I was always singing and dancing even when I kept my mouth shut. Even at the toilet, even when cooking. My mother would tell me to stop singing like that, but my mouth would just go. It’s normal for me. Even when everyone was working, harvesting the rice, I would sing.
Mealai: Though I’m from Kampong Cham, I came to Phnom Penh around 7 years ago. Now I have graduated and I have started to study some languages, like English and Chinese. But working as a singer is my favorite job. I love singing. Normally I’m very busy and don’t have time to sing. When I was in the province, I would have so much more free time.
Mealea: In the province I would listen mostly to Khmer traditional music and music from the 60s. Some of my favorite singers include Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron. I would hear the music on the radio because when I was living in the countryside everyone listened to the radio. Mostly I spent time singing with the radio. I didn’t have any iPod or CD player.
In 2007, I came to Phnom Penh to continue my studying at Sisowath high school for 2 years. I lived in the temple, and when I did anything, including cleaning clothes for the monks, I would always be singing. When people came by, they asked, “Who’s that singing?” they would look at me and say, “I thought it was a radio but it was you!” When a monk lived closed to me he asked me if I could sing a song for the monks, and they gave me 5,000 riel for one song. All the monks came around and listened to me and they all enjoyed it. It was a slow song, and it was very sweet.
Since I met Joe Wrigley, I have started to think my life is starting to change. I am taking time to learn and to sing. I am studying with Sun Jan Chaia, son of Sinn Sisamouth. My heart is full of music.
FCC: How has your family influenced you?
Mealea: They have encouraged me a lot. They have always told me: “Go and sing, go and sing!” because they know I like singing and dancing. Even though they have encouraged me, I used to be very scared. I have heard things about singers in Cambodia, and how hard it is to find success and I started to think about myself. My father was a musician, but not famous, not on the radio and television. He just played for the village during festivals and parties. My mother was a singer too, but just in the village. The blood of my family is filled with art.
FCC: How do you feel about Cambodian music today?
Mealea: Now it’s very good. Anyone can create new music. Sometimes they create songs from the past, and some people take the songs from the past and create new things. Producer KlapYaHandz mixes Cambodian music with Western, like in the song “Snae ha Knong Pel Reatrey.”
With us, we mix English and Khmer vocals. We change it a little bit and make something new. People in Cambodia like this, because most of the people want to see new things created. Even though we create something new, we keep something in the past. Even though there is the idea that people died a long time ago, their voice is still here.
Some of the older songs we have sung many times, but they are still beautiful, people are still enjoying them and they have good meaning. The songs of the past are not easy to sing, not easy to sing like the old singers, because their voices are very high and so sweet. I try my best, even if I’m not as good as them, but I like to try.
Mealai: I like to sing the music that makes you feel better. Music makes people feel very, very romantic sometimes. If we’re upset, we can sing a song and make ourselves feel better. Especially when I have a problem I normally do not like to share with others, I can reduce the problem in my heart by singing. Singing can make people around us feel better. When I leave for work I go find a friend and go somewhere quiet to sing a song. I want to dedicate my voice to people. Sometime I sing songs to my staff to make them feel better.
FCC: What about your future?
Mealea: I am in the process of creating a band with my sister, mixing western and traditional in the 60s, 70s. I want to protect the old music and keep the good things of the past, but I will try and compose my own songs also. Just now we only started one song. Step by step. I want to compose a song about my life. I want to write about my life.
Mealai: My plan in the future, I really want to be a singer, and I want make the band really famous. When I see some bands, they do well, and I want to do like them. I want to be a singer. I want to sing a song in other countries. I want my band very public. I try all my best.
FCC: Do you have any other thoughts on singing and new singers in Cambodia?
Mealea: When somebody loves music already, it’s very good. If someone didn’t love music or ever love a song, they didn’t want to do, it’s not easy. You have to love music, and love the song, and keep all the songs in your heart. Make your feeling and voice follow the song. Love is very important. When you love something you can do it easily. When you want to be a professional singer, you have to get training, and take care of your voice, and avoid some food when you sing, and make sure you sleep enough. Try to practice the song you would like to sing, practice many times to be better.
Under the name Miss Sarawan, Mealea will be joined by husband Joe Wrigley at FCC Angkor for the Valentine’s Day dinner. The romantic repertoire will feature Mealea singing Cambodian songs and Joe singing Western music. And stay tuned for March, when the sisters will sing under Krawan Sarawan, featuring a full band with guitar, bass, and drums.