A graphic novel about the life of Ros Serey Sothea, the “golden voice” of Cambodia

Telling the story of Cambodia’s most famous pop music singer, Ros Serey Sothea, in an accessible, well-crafted and immersive graphic novel was no easy task..

But judging by the jubilant crowd at the launch of the Golden Voice’s Khmer edition, we can say that Gregory Cahill, Kat Baumann and Huot Socheata rose to the challenge with flying colours.

On November 30, the Khmer version of the book was launched at the Bofana Center in Phnom Penh. The nearly 200-page graphic novel tells the incredible story of Ros Serey Sothea, who along with her male counterpart, Sin Sisamut, marked the entire Cambodian “golden age” with her songs. .

“Ros Serey Sothea was my favorite singer in that music scene. When you sing Sothea, you feel her emotions in your heart.said graphic novel producer Gregory Cahill.

“Even if you don’t speak Khmer, you know exactly how he feels when he sings. It’s a rare talent, and to me that’s the power of music.”

Knowing the story of Ros Serey Sothea since 2006, Cahill, the American producer and screenwriter of the CBS entertainment talk show, decided in 2019 to make her the main character of his graphic novel. 1947 and his hard work in the live music industry of the 60’s and 70’s sparked Cahill’s interest and love.

This period of Cambodian culture is commonly referred to as the “golden age” due to its flourishing production in music, cinema and architecture.

“Serey Sothea came from a peasant family and didn’t finish school, so it’s an incredible achievement for him to become Cambodia’s biggest singer.”, adds Mr Cahill. Unfortunately, like many famous artists of this era, Serey Sothea perished in 1977 under the barbaric regime of the Khmer Rouge, who executed him.

Huot Socheata is proud to have translated this book to introduce it to a Khmer-speaking audience. He is the founder of Avatar Publishing and became interested in the project due to his admiration for Ros Serey Sothea and his love of graphic novels.

“Avatar” publishing house became interested in the book at the end of 2021, when the English version was finished but not yet published. He contacted the author to translate the story into Khmer. The translation process started in early 2022. Socheat took four months to translate into Khmer: two months for the translation and another two months to review the language used in the context of the golden age.

“In order to translate the main character’s words, I contacted Mrs. Saboeun (Sothea’s older sister) to find out how the singer speaks to her mother, sisters, relatives, friends, colleagues and other people. and vice versa.a,” he said, adding that these translations were discussed in detail.

A musical legacy that spans the years

At the book launch, Serey Sothea’s older sister Ros Saboeu (there are five sisters in the family) expressed her joy that audiences and music lovers remember and cherish her sister’s songs even today. He admitted:

“I’m happy that they still remember my sister and her songs, even though she’s gone. She was the only person in the family who knew how to sing. She started very young, around 6 or 7 years old.”

For Sin Setsochhata, grandson of music legend Sin Sisamut, reading this graphic novel is like watching a documentary, and that’s the uniqueness of the story.

One of the remarkable features of this novel is that it combines literature, music and cinema into a single object. The artwork is based on the camera angle and the editing of each step makes the reader feel like they are watching a movie. In addition, a QR code is placed on the first pages of the novel. Links to a music playlist of Serey Sothea’s greatest hits to allow readers to feel and listen to 70s Cambodian pop music vibes.

Combining all these aspects of contemporary Cambodian culture, The Golden Voice is not only a graphic novel, but also a window into the past.

Kat Baumann, an American illustrator and comic book designer who executed the novel, said via email that she became emotionally attached to Serey Sothea while working on the book. He gradually began to delve into the singer’s darkest and most painful moments as he described how the country’s upheavals directly affected his life.

“Sothea died years before I was born, so I doubt the way I drew her was the most accurate, as I was inspired by studio recordings, photographs and the story that Gregory Cahill built around her life.

The version of Sothea that I knew seemed like a very solid person, very devoted to her craft and her family, and I hope we were able to capture that in this book.

The project went from a documentary to a graphic novel

The Golden Voice project began in 2006 when Gregory Cahill released a short film of the same name about Ros Serey Sothea. Seeing that this first draft came with great enthusiasm, the producer wanted to turn the story into a feature film about the artist’s life and work.

Cahill first visited Cambodia in 2007 to conduct extensive research in Battambang province. This is when he met Ros Saboeun to learn more about Sothea’s life story. Cahill then visited Saboeu to check the facts.

Over the next eleven years, the American producer continued to write, update and rewrite the film’s script, while also trying to find funds to finance it. But after years of trying, he finally realized he had no choice but to adapt his project.

“In April 2019, during the Khmer New Year, I decided to make a graphic novel out of it.“, he said, emphasizing that it was an innovative way to tell Sothea’s story without a huge budget.

The graphic novel was reinterpreted in comic book format with support from illustrator Kat Bauman, who began work on the initial drafts in October 2019. The book was completed in November 2021.

The book is traditionally drawn in pencil and inked with Indian ink and sable brush on card stock. Cahill believed that traditional inking of the pages would better convey the classic, analog aesthetic that comics were looking for.

“But I’m not Khmer… Kat Baumann said: It’s very important for me to take the time to understand what I’m painting and to represent everything as accurately as I can,” Baumann said, then still set foot in Cambodia to see the places and meet the people he portrayed in the novel. .

The difficulty of sticking to the historical facts of the 1960s

Implementation of such a project is not without problems. One of Chahil’s biggest challenges was staying true to historical facts. Since the story of Sothea’s life survives only through oral transmission, Ros Serey has had to rely on 60 years of memories to piece the story together.

“A lot of times you see eyewitness accounts contradicting each other, so you have to be smart to try to figure out what might have happened.”the producer explains.

Meng Seawmey
Meng Seawmey

“The team Ros Serey worked from a large database of historical photos and videos, including images of Sothea, Sin Sisamouth, Pen Ran, Phnom Penh or Battambang, including cars, clothing, hairstyles and architecture of the period.” he added.

Along with historical accuracy, the team faced language and translation challenges.

“Khmer is relatively long than English. So when translating, I had to look for words that wouldn’t be too long to respect the graphic design. Otherwise, the speech would block the characters’ faces or movements.”An employee of “Avatar” publishing house told Socheata.

The selection of the main moments of Ros Serey Sothea’s life was made together with her family in order to be as close to the truth as possible. However, for the sake of transparency, the end of the book is devoted to listing the differences between real events and fictional events, which the author deliberately altered to provide a better experience for the readers.

“I think the message of the book should be left to the interpretation of the readers. But if I had to, I would say that this story is about the power of the human spirit. Music is an expression of our humanity. It was there. a dark time when a political regime tried to erase the humanity of a nation.Chill said.

“But here we are in 2022, singing and dancing to the beautiful voice of Ros Serey Sothea. The human spirit has won.”

During her active years from 1967 to 1975, Serey Sothea performed more than 500 songs, from boleros to romantic ballads or psychedelic rock. Although he disappeared 45 years ago, his music lives on today.

Although the Khmer edition will be the first to see the light of day, the Golden Sound graphic novel will also be published in English and French in the coming months.

Meng Seawmey

With the kind permission of Cambodia, which allowed me to translate this article and thus make it available to a French-speaking readership.

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