Local Voices Turn to Jazz for Authentic Notes

Less than a week before showtime, Jimmy Kiss was wired with nervous energy. As the son of a famous Khmer musician, singing came to him as naturally as walking, he said—he can’t remember when he learned it, or if he ever really had to learn it at all.

At a rehearsal last week, he flew through his first number, a rearrangement of a Sinn Sisamouth classic, with flourish and ease, blowing a stray kiss to a smiling spectator. His voice had the range of the famous crooner, but something slightly more raw: an edge of smoke on Sisamouth’s honey.

The second, an American standard with English lyrics, was more difficult.

“I have to think and sing,” he said—and focusing on pronunciation made it harder for him to make the song’s slow burn his own.

More electrifying to Mr. Kiss, though, was the newness of the genre he was performing. Like most of the Cambodian singers in this week’s International Jazz Festival in Phnom Penh, the 32-year-old musician, best known for his pop hit “Baby I’m Sorry,” has never before performed jazz.

“I’m excited—also a little brrr,” he said in an interview before rehearsal, pretending to shiver in the studio in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.

For him, it was the tones, more than the new arrangements, that woke him up. “Jazz is a sound for my ear and my soul. I love it.”

Mr. Kiss, along with three others—Sophia Kao, Nikki Nikki and Ma Champanha—were recruited into Cambodia’s first-ever International Jazz Festival by Steve Gargadennec, the producer of the KlapYaHandz label, who discovered them at a singer and songwriter festival earlier this year.

Mr. Gargadennec, who spent 10 years introducing jazz to China, has plans for Mr. Kiss’ natural croon, as well as the vocal talents of the three others who will take the stage with him on Thursday night.

His “Khmer Jazz Experiment,” as he calls the night, is designed to test whether Cambodia’s middle classes are ready for something beyond K-Pop and Khmer-language remakes of international chart toppers.

“When you want to introduce a cultural product, a totally unknown one—you have to bring references to it,” he said. “Choose special artists, choose everybody-known songs—and then you manage.”

Mr. Gargadennec has high hopes. In 1995, there was not a single nightclub with jazz singers in Shanghai. When he left China a decade later, music students were buying out CDs at jazz concerts and Shanghai’s elite were impressing friends by showing up to shows.

“The jazz market in Asia is better than the jazz market in Europe. Indonesia—there’s 50,000 people,” he said, referring to Jakarta’s world-famous Java Jazz Festival.

“I try to show to local musicians, emerging musicians—jazz is world stuff. Not U.S., not Europe. Each place has its own.”

For this week’s lineup, he’s put together a mixed set list, giving each singer a Western standard and Khmer classics rearranged to a more jazzy effect, along with their own rearranged numbers.

For Sophia Kao, the youngest performer and Mr. Gargadennec’s only seasoned jazz singer, it was Western music and not Khmer standards that started her singing.

The daughter of the owners of a Chinese restaurant on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh, Ms. Kao said her parents often played Frank Sinatra at home.

Disenchanted with pop music, she started clicking through YouTube videos in high school. One day, she came across Amy Winehouse. Soon after, she said, she started a band with her friends, performing first at school functions.

Like Mr. Kiss, her view of jazz is that it’s more real than the electric sounds cranking out of the television. Shy offstage, the 18-year-old said her singing was a way of communicating things she ordinarily did not.

Her first original song, “Hell,” pays tribute to someone’s “messy hair” and, in dark, flickering tones, wonders if his “girls and booze” really are, as he says, just a phase.

“I like music that’s raw,” she said. “A voice, instruments. These touch people.”

But, she said, some of the songs she plans to perform on Thursday were difficult for her, and she wasn’t sure yet if the emotion she tried to put into her singing would come across.

“I’m really nervous,” she said. “It’s Cambodia’s jazz festival. It’s the first step to making people love it.”

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