Hidden Talent

They can be found near Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum every night.

They earn around $1.50 each for four hours’ work and their primary audience is motorbike taxi drivers, street children and rural farmers visiting the capital.

They perform in the public park because they love music and be­cause no wedding party will hire them and no record company will record them.

They are: The Disabled Band.

“We’ve played here until 10 pm every day for a year. We play until we can earn enough to cover the costs of renting the equipment,” sing­er Buon Sokun Thy, 30, said backstage of the concrete shed-cum-stage at the Wat Botum park on a recent sultry night.

Buon Sokun Thy has an artificial leg and shares a stage with several blind musicians and a wheelchair-bound female singer. Unpaid for their performance, the band relies on donations of mon­ey and food.

The curb-side restaurants nearby do not pay them for entertaining their customers who sit listening at plastic seats and steel ta­bles, but they do allow band members to have a free meal.

On a good night, Buon Sokun said, he can take home a full stom­ach and $1.5 from his loyal and appreciative fans.

“The singers are as good as any other band,” audience member and motodop driver San Souen, 29, said.

“I come here two or three times a week,” he said.

The band’s difficulty in getting gigs at weddings and other functions may be a result of superstition, San Souen said. Such superstition he didn’t personally subscribe to, he added.

“Maybe it is a false superstition why people do not hire them,” he said quietly.

Sao Srey Mom, 23, the female singer in a wheelchair, has a particularly beautiful voice, listeners agreed.

“I did not know I had a sweet voice until I joined the band, I was 18-years-old,” she said backstage of the only stage they really perform on.

“We played a few parties hosted by the NGOs and a few by friends of our director. But we nev­er played any weddings for regular people and we talked to one VCD company but I do not know what happened,” she said.

There are already few options in Cambodia and the disabled also face ingrained discrimination, she said.

Band manager Kheng Sovann Raksmey said one music video company was blunt about Sao Srey Mom’s ability after she had auditioned.

“They said ‘she has a sweet voice but she is disabled. It is hard to find a market,’” Kheng Sovann Raksmey recounted.

CD production companies will not touch the band because disabled people are just not sellable, he added.

“Actually there is discrimination, but it is their right. We cannot force anyone to hire us,” Kheng Sovann Raksmey said.

“They hire non-disabled, beautiful young singers who dance well on stage. They think disabled performers will be an eyesore on their wedding video.”

Hang Soth, director-general of the Culture Ministry’s art performance department, said discrimination against the handicapped is not acceptable, but Cambodian so­ciety is very superstitious when it comes to disability.

“The superstition is that a wedding must be a happy day and any bad omen brings bad luck

….this is poor, uneducated opinion,” he said.


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