Having spent a couple of years researching the biography of legendary Cambodian singer Ros Sereysothea, Emmy award-winning producer Gregory Cahill has teamed up with graphic artist Kat Baumann to create a graphic novel The Golden Voice based on the life of the renowned singer.
Set to be released in 2021, the idea of creating the graphic novel about Sereysothea’s life story came to Cahill through a crime thriller City of Ghosts which was released in 2003.
The movie, which was filmed in Phnom Penh and the Bokor mountains, was directed by Hollywood actor Matt Dillon who was also involved in the soundtrack of Cambodia oldies.
“City of Ghosts was my introduction to Cambodia. I’m a big music lover, and I found the film’s soundtrack incredibly exciting.
“Matt Dillon did a fantastic job curating a soundtrack of Cambodian oldies, including a few greatest hits by Ros Sereysothea. I loved her music immediately,” Cahill, the producer for the CBS talk show, The Talk and an Emmy Award-winning television producer in Los Angeles, US, tells The Post.
Listening to Sereysothea’s amazing voice made him more curious about the singer. Cahill started to explore more about her and spent a couple of years researching her biography in much greater detail before setting out to make a feature film about her.
“I chose to focus on Ros Sereysothea firstly because I loved her music. I think that a lot of her real-life experiences shaped her musical performances.
“You can feel her emotion in her singing,” Cahill says.
More than just being captivated by her voice, Cahill was inspired by the singer’s struggling life which many people can relate to.
“She was the ultimate underdog. She came from a difficult peasant background and had to work hard to find success in the music business. And even when she found success, her life was still a struggle in many ways. I think a lot of people can relate to her story.
“I see her as a role model of strength and courage in the face of adversity. She was very sweet, but she was tough. She wasn’t just a singer. She was a rice farmer, a soldier and a mother,” he says.
Hailing from Battambang province, the young singer had incredible vocals that directed her to a new path in the music industry.
Sereysothea’s talent would remain relatively hidden until friends persuaded her to join a regional singing contest in 1963. With her incredible high and clear voice, Sereysothea quickly became famous across Cambodia with her first hit song ‘Steung Khiev’ (Blue River) in 1967.
She then became the singing partner of Sin Sisamouth. The combination was so perfect that the golden era’s leading singer-songwriter who is considered ‘King of Khmer Music’, and Sereysothea recorded many evergreen songs.
Sereysothea was such an extraordinary singer that she gained recognition as a national treasure and was honoured by then-King Norodom Sihanouk with the royal title ‘Queen with the Golden Voice’. She also ventured into acting, starring in a few films in the late 1970s.
Singing in a variety of genres, hundreds of her songs are sung till today although she left us some four decades ago. Her songs remain extremely popular in the Kingdom and among the Cambodian diaspora around the world.
Sereysothea’s career and her personal life caught the attention of Cahill and his teammate Baumann to work hard on making a graphic novel based on her life and music.
Cahill believes that her story will be important to different people for different reasons. People can see her as a role model in terms of maintaining integrity and grace during hard times. And, it is important to preserve the beautiful music of Cambodia’s golden age.
Most importantly, it’s worthy to show that even though Sereysothea was killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, her voice is still heard among generations of music lovers. He feels people need to know about her story too.
Cahill has always been impressed with Cambodia’s art history as its steeped in creative expression in the form of music, film, dance and architecture. While the deep impression the Kingdom has made on him is motivation to focus on his task, he has also confronted difficulty in finding funds to support filming.
“She is quite famous in Cambodia and among the Khmer community in America, but most Americans know nothing about her story or her music. I wanted to change that, and so back in 2006, I directed a very low budget short film called The Golden Voice.
“Over the next 10 years, many producers expressed interest in the script, but ultimately, no one would commit any money to it. And so, last year, I decided to think outside the box and tell the story as a graphic novel instead,” Cahill says.
The Golden Voice is a graphic novel based on Sereysothea’s story as one of Cambodia’s legendary singers.
“The graphic novel is a long-format book that focuses on Sereysothea’s music career, her personal life, and how the volatile military situation impacted musicians at that time. So the novel will express something in there for everyone, whether the readers are into music, drama or history,” he says.
To get the job done perfectly, Cahill works with graphic artist Baumann who works from his (Cahill’s) script and his rudimentary storyboards and turns them into beautiful works of art. They spend a lot of time looking at historical photos and film clips.
Everything is so particular – the clothing, the hair, the cars, the microphones, the weapons, and so on. Everything is hand-drawn with a pencil, then inked. Then Baumann scans the inks for digital colouring, shading, and lettering.
“Kat has a very cinematic eye. She has taken a story that I love and is elevating it to a level I never imagined possible.
“Her work has a magical effect on everyone who sees it. I cannot tell you how many times I show a page from the graphic novel to someone and their reaction is so much fun to watch. You can see their eyes light up. That’s Kat,” Cahill says.
Cahill, on the other hand, struggles with the primary sources – people who knew her personally while she was alive. The most trusted information about the singer is derived from her sister, Ros Saboeun.
Associated information is gathered from several musicians and actors who worked with her during the 1960s and 70s. Plus, a great deal of research is done on the politics, history and culture of Cambodia during that time.
The graphic novel process requires a huge amount of labour, so it progresses at a slow and steady pace. Cahill tells The Post that his team is almost finished with Part 1 of the novel, and the entire book is estimated to be completed sometime next year.
They will be seeking a publisher as they get closer to being finished, and the publisher will determine the release date.
“Our intent is for the graphic novel to be available both in print and in digital formats. It will be accompanied by a soundtrack, so readers can listen to the music as they move through the story.”
Audiences who are interested in this project are encouraged to follow The Golden Voice on social media. So you can see sneak previews of the artwork and fun behind-the-scenes stuff.