Most karaoke tunes are about new love or failed relationships, not about sick chickens or arsenic-tainted well water.
But one local organization has managed to adapt its medical advice into musical hits in an effort to improve the health habits of Cambodia’s villagers.
Banking on the country’s passion for karaoke, local NGO Resource Development International took messages on pressing health issues, such as HIV/AIDS, avian influenza and water sanitation, and set them to music.
The idea behind the project is to make learning about health issues entertaining and engaging, RDI Country Director Mickey Sampson said Thursday.
“Once they sing along, they get it,” said Ea Ponloeu, studio manager for RDI, who also wrote and directed several of the music videos with a message. “It just stays in your mind,” he said of the concept.
To spread the music, the organization drives vans equipped with televisions, speakers and a microphone to villages in several provinces. Staff at the NGO compose the melodies and professional musicians and singers occasionally offer back-up vocals and music on the recordings.
The songs, strung together by a narrative, tackle a variety of health concerns affecting average Cambodians. One song about bird flu tells the story of a man longing for a beautiful neighbor who instructs him on the proper way to care for his poultry and prevent the spread of avian flu, by washing his hands, sweeping the chicken coop and separating diseased birds from healthy ones.
“It’s a catchy tune,” Sampson said. “She’s telling her neighbor all the important messages about bird flu.”
Another looks at well water tainted with arsenic, a naturally occurring toxin that contaminates groundwater in central provinces bordering the Mekong and Tonle Bassac rivers.
Detectable only through chemical tests, prolonged exposure to arsenic can cause skin lesions, organ failure and many types of cancer, according to Hilda Winarta, a water and environment sanitation specialist with Unicef.
When RDI first began producing tracks, its open-air studio had only three walls and one video camera. Sampson said that up until then his staff had never handled audio-visual equipment.
Now, the organization operates its own sound stage, made from stacked shipping containers, and records its songs in a small studio.
“It’s been slow building,” Sampson said from the organization’s headquarters, located about 12 km east of Phnom Penh. “We started from scratch.”
Sampson said the music helps people understand and remember the information better than straightforward, dry presentations. Additionally, since karaoke is universally beloved in Cambodia, it is a form of entertainment that cuts across generations.
“I think that it’s a good thing. It’s easy to understand, especially for the young and elderly,” said Suos Kong, secretary of state for the Ministry of Rural Development, adding that he would like to see other groups take a similar approach.
“Karaoke is very popular in Cambodia,” he added.
Whether people take that information and put it into practice is another matter.
Sampson said the group has not been able to measure whether or not people follow the karaoke singers’ suggestions, but it does know that people remember what was sung. “What we do know is that people retain the information,” Sampson said. “We’re moving in the right direction.”