Dance party piano man Bun Sambath and his VOP band will play The FCC Phnom Penh on Saturday Oct 8, 2011.
Bun Sambath’s story would not be atypical for an American musician.
The lead singer for the Voice of Praise band got his first taste of music playing in the church choir, where he learned piano chords on a dusty electric keyboard. He formed his first band not long after, and went on to study music at university.
These days, some 15 years later, Sambath sits proudly among the capital’s small but hardworking class of professional rock musicians. Since 2004, he has served as the house piano man at Memphis Pub, among the capital’s oldest music venues to cater to foreign ears.
Sambath’s musical tastes have grown, too, far beyond the hymns of his youth.
“We play all kinds of music,” he says of VOP, “love songs, pop music, slow rock, cha cha cha, bolero, disco, the twist, rock & roll, and traditional [Khmer] songs.”
The influences of his youth, however, remain close, and the current VOP lineup pays tribute to Sambath’s church choir days, with a large group of singers and musicians rounding out the band’s big nine-man lineup.
Supporting him on vocals are fellow male vocalist Pin Chrissna and three female singers: Pin Srey Leak, Sor Sun Nary and Chea Pharkna. Sath Korn plays keyboards; Eam Kimhour is on drums: Pin Yaritai plays guitar while Bun Sophear is on bass guitar.
With such diversity, says the piano man, it’s easy to cater to the capital’s eclectic crowds.
“We play Khmer songs, rock & roll and the twist for Khmer audiences, and we play English songs for foreign audiences,” Sambath explains. “When we play rock & roll or traditional Ramvong Saravan songs, it really makes audiences dance and smile.”
Sambath founded the original incarnation of VOP in 1998, about the same time Memphis first opened its doors in a narrow shop house opposite The Cambodiana Hotel.
“I am the one who had idea to start this band and to lead this band,” he recalls.
A graduate of the Royal University of Fine Arts with a specialization in piano, Sambath is a renowned pianist.
He became a Christian in 1994, a time when he developed some basic piano skills before he began playing in a band at the Church of Christ in 1995. Sambath continued to hone his music skills and his father encouraged him to further develop his talents at RUFA, where he graduated in 2002.
The current VOP lineup dates to 2009. It was around that time that the band began exploring the sounds of the 1960s and covering superstars such as Pan Ron, Sin Sisamut and Ros Sereysothea. And the songs and attitudes of that era continue to shape the band today.
“We wanted to do something different,” says Benjamin Le Grande, a manager at the venue involved in booking music acts. “That was the whole point.”
The band, among others, is more than pleased with the decision.
“We want to play music that shows Cambodian culture to foreign audiences,” Sambath says.
This story was originally published in the October 2011 edition of The Wires.