Songwriter Mai Vathana has roots that are appropriately humble given his nickname of the “Rural Poet”, which he earned by writing popular songs with a lyrical focus on melodramatic tales of romance and loss in the lives of ordinary Cambodians.
Vathana was born in 1976 in Battambang into a poor family, and his early life while growing up was miserable and filled with hardship and this gives him insight into the lives of his fans, many of whom came from similar beginnings, though most haven’t managed to achieve success in the manner Vathana has since then.
Vathana’s song writing success came about in the social media age and much of his audience connects with his music through platforms like Facebook or through his YouTube channel. Though his means of distributing his music are very modern, everything else about Vathana is decidedly old school.
Vathana’s songs are traditional Khmer romantic ballads and he’s passionate about maintaining Cambodia’s sense of identity related to its culture and its music. He’s a member of the Khmer Writers’ Association, an organisation that is helping him pass on his knowledge to the next generation of songwriters who he hopes will learn and follow what he feels are the rules of composition for contemporary Khmer music.
Born in Prek Luong commune’s Sdey Krom village of Battambang province’s Ek Phnom district, Vathana dropped out of school in the 11th grade due to poverty but later stayed at the Svay Chrum Pagoda far away from his hometown in Ek Phnom district to continue his studies until he graduated from high school.
Then for four or five years after high school, Vathana lived and worked in Thailand, trying to earn enough money to save something and get ahead in life, but like most migrant workers he found himself barely able to keep up with his living expenses.
He then moved to Phnom Penh in 2000 and worked a series of blue-collar jobs as a construction worker, plumber, cobblestone-layer, sewage worker and others while living on the porch of a rented house. In 2001 he started working at a factory with an initial salary of just $40 per month.
Despite a sometimes gruelling work schedule and a constant lack of money, Vathana managed to continue his studies at university and he eventually graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor’s degree in legal studies.
Vathana always had a passion for music and wanted to be a songwriter so he began learning to compose on his own by studying books as far back as his high school days. He began his career as a professional songwriter in 2014-15.
“Around 2014-2015, I missed using my song writing skills and I decided to get back into it so I tried to collect my older songs together from my old notebooks and I’d lost many of them, but there were some I still had that I wrote while I was working as a construction worker.
“Then, in 2017, I began to study more seriously about writing with the Khmer Writers’ Association and my mentors there taught me more about the basics of song writing and gave me a better understanding of everything.
He recalled the first song he wrote that received a lot of positive attention when he posted it online and the thrill he got from knowing that other people – strangers who he didn’t even know – were listening to his song and enjoying it.
“First, I started to write songs and find collaborators who have a recording studio and I met a friend named Chhay Sophorn and met Yang Pov, a well-known music arranger and composer and he gave me the opportunity to show my skills.
“The first four songs I wrote were Pichkheat Acid [Acid Killer], Angreung Ovpuk [Father’s Hammock], Shadow of Love Under the Factory’s Roof – that was when I got to know the famous music teacher Ouk Sam Ath – and Chheam Pros Saman, which is when I began to work with a singer with a beautiful voice named Pich Chakriya,” Vathana told The Post.
The song Chheam Pros Saman is about the love life of a woman working in a garment factory near the Samnang 12 Market in Teuk La’ak III commune of Tuol Kork district in Phnom Penh.
Vathana said that factory workers are often looked down upon by wealthier people and dismissed as unimportant, but having worked in a factory himself he wanted to write a song they could relate to. The lyrics deal with the issue of women factory workers – derisively called “factory girls” by some – who fall victim to the lust of rich men who use their wealth to seduce them, but often mistreat them or quickly abandon them rather than marry them.
“At the time, I had the idea that this song was written to show a part of factory life that isn’t talked about very much and to advocate for the dignity of the women garment factory workers as well as to call out those men and suggest they act with greater kindness. I submitted the song to Yang Pov and it was produced on June 26, 2016 at Bosaba Studio,” Vathana said.
Vathana also told The Post about the launch of his YouTube channel in 2017 when at the time his online presence was limited to perhaps less than 10 songs total posted to his Facebook account.
Yang Pov suggested he create the channel and begin uploading all of his songs there because it creates a record of his work for himself and for his fans, while also acting as an informal resume for musicians and people in the music industry to reference.
The channel took off in 2018 and now the Mai Vathana channel YouTube has between 50 and 60 songs posted, with about half of the songs audio-only while the other half are fully-produced original music videos.
Many of the songs on Vathana’s channel are focused on topics that are traditional not only in much of Khmer music, but also in music across all cultures, such as romance and love. However, he also has songs that are specifically about life in Cambodia, Khmer culture and his pride in the Kingdom.
According to Vathana, the songs he writes require meticulous work that is based on the rules – written and unwritten – for writing pop songs in the classic Khmer style, which blends both local and western influences.
It takes from two weeks to a month typically for him to compose lyrics, write a melody, arrange the instrumentation for the song and then bring in musicians to perform it and a singer to complete it with vocals. They often will record the music video for the song during the production process as well.
“Each song has a narrative and tells a story or part of a story, because our Khmer songs are works of art with meaning to them. Thus, one song takes at least half a month to one month to produce, but the composition aspect can sometimes take just one or two days if inspiration strikes and the songwriter is in the zone and feeling good.
“We have two talented musicians, Yang Pov who is an expert sound technician, guitarist, bassist, pianist and soloist, while Ouk Sam Ath is a talented songwriter and music arranger who actually started out as a drummer all the way back in 1959.
“I am primarily a songwriter. We’ve recorded in a few studios now, such as Kong Piseth’s studio and the Live Band studio when recording as a band,” he said.
Ask any musician and they’ll tell you that there is a regrettable imbalance between the amount of work it takes them to write and produce songs and the amount of revenue available to them through YouTube and the other streaming services.
The music industry just doesn’t pay like it used to because the advent of the internet – while revolutionising distribution and making it possible for any artist to be heard anywhere – eliminated the need for album sales and the income from them.
However, Vathana and his collaborators are authentic artists who aren’t primarily motivated by money and the support and appreciation of the many fans they have who love these traditional Khmer ballads about romance and life in the provinces or about ordinary Cambodians ensures that the “Rural Poet” and friends will continue to write and produce songs no matter what.
“The main purpose is that we want to document these songs that we’ve composed together as songwriters and with the musicians who perform them because this preserves the knowledge of the art of Khmer song writing, which are songs that model virtue and morality because we also want to prevent the influx or spread of bad foreign cultural influences in song writing and music here,” he said.
As an authentically Cambodian and Khmer composer of traditional ballads, Vathana has some wisdom he’d like to share with the next generation of Khmer song writers about building their core values and contributing to their nation and society.
“Before starting a career as a writer – whether it’s song writing or writing novels – we must have a solid foundation of knowledge about composition in our chosen fields. We must seriously study literary theory and literature as well as art, music, culture and our traditions.
“We have to be able to understand the old ideas in order to create our own new ideas for compositions that are original and not copied from someone else – and that includes those who simply take someone else’s original creation and change a few details and then try to call it their own work,” Vathana advised.
If you’d like to hear Mai Vathana’s songs, you can find his channel at this link: https://bit.ly/MaiVathana