Graphic Novel Chronicles Life of ‘Golden Era’ Popstar

A Khmer graphic novel has been released, celebrating the life of revered 1960s and 70s singer, Ros Serey Sothea, who died under the Khmer Rouge regime
Gone but not forgotten, legacy of Ros Serey Sothea continues to inspire. Kiripost/supplied
Gone but not forgotten, legacy of Ros Serey Sothea continues to inspire. Kiripost/supplied

Khmer graphic novel ‘Golden Voice’ chronicling the life of Cambodia’s beloved pop singer, Ros Serey Sothea, launched on Wednesday, with proceeds going to support the family of the singing icon.

According to a news release, the launch event was attended by a star-studded audience that included Sothea’s sister Ros Saboeun, golden era actress Dy Saveth, and Sin Sisamouth’s granddaughter, Sin Setsochhata, who performed live.

The event also featured exhibits of vinyl records and films about the making of the book and history of Cambodian pop music.

Ros Saboeun, sister of Ros Serey Sothea, at launch of Khmer graphic novel ‘Golden Voice’, November 30, 2022. Kiripost via Vong Socheata
Ros Saboeun, sister of Ros Serey Sothea, at launch of Khmer graphic novel ‘Golden Voice’, November 30, 2022. Kiripost via Vong Socheata

As Cambodia exploded into a brutal civil war, Sothea’s singing career remained ever-prolific, even when she joined the army as one of the country’s first female paratroopers. After years of bloody conflict, the communist Khmer Rouge seized control, bringing Cambodia’s golden age of music into a dark era of silence. Most artists, including Sothea, were murdered.

“Ros Serey Sothea’s golden voice lives on in the popular music of Cambodia to this very day. Gone but not forgotten, her legacy continues to inspire,” the release said.

Sothea was a rice farmer-turned singer, and her success in the recording industry defied all odds, capturing the hearts of the Cambodian people. Throughout her career, Sothea recorded more than 500 songs, with her signature angelic voice soaring over every conceivable genre, from bolero to romantic ballads to psychedelic rock.

The ‘Golden Voice’ is written by Emmy Award winning film and television producer, Gregory Cahill, who was introduced to Sothea’s music through the film ‘City of Ghosts’, and was eager to learn more about her.

Cahill embarked on his first trip to Cambodia in 2007 to conduct more in-depth research and was fortunate to have the founder of Cambodian Living Arts, Arn Chorn-Pond, as his guide.

Arn drove him to Battambang and introduced him to Sothea’s sister, Ros Saboeun, who dug deep into the musician’s life story.

Ros Serey Sothea in pencil, ink, color. Kiripost/supplied
Ros Serey Sothea in pencil, ink, color. Kiripost/supplied

The news release added that Cahil was able to interview musicians and actors who worked with Sothea professionally throughout her music career, including renowned singer So Savoeun and Heng Huorveng, the former music director at the National Radio of Cambodia.

He also managed to find the village where Sothea allegedly passed away during the Khmer Rouge, and spoke with survivors there.

New information was still surfacing in 2020 when Cahill and his team worked on the book, thanks to social media. Seng Botum, a former actress and close friend of Sothea, popped up as a major primary source because of an old film clip that started making the rounds on Facebook.

The graphic novel also explores how the US military was involved with the Lon Nol government in the 1970s.

“I was fortunate to interview a former US Air Force colonel who was part of the top-secret group in Phnom Penh during that time. It’s an important history lesson that doesn’t get much press,” Cahill said, according to the news release.

Guests attending the launch of Golden Voice, November 30, 2022. Kiripost via Vong Socheata
Guests attending the launch of Golden Voice, November 30, 2022. Kiripost via Vong Socheata

Cahill is currently overseeing CBS entertainment talk show ‘The Talk’ and his short film ‘Golden Voice’ was selected for more than a dozen international film festivals, winning several awards. Cahill is a board member of the Cambodia Town Film Festival and resides in Los Angeles.

The illustrator of the book is Kat Baumann, a singer from Minnesota, whose love is also for comics and storytelling, paralleled only by her love for music.

Baumann hopes to honor the life of Sothea and all the lost artists of Cambodia with this book, because art is what makes life worth living, the release said.

Kat Baumann
Kat Baumann

The translator is Socheata Huot, who studied French literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and went on to get a MA in translation. She spent more than a decade working as the head of the publishing division within Sipar, a leading publisher in the kingdom, while participating in organizing literary events.

She has written and published children’s books (Sipar) and short stories for adults (Kampu-Mera), as well as translated novels (Sipar & Avatar). She currently manages her newly established publishing house, Avatar Publishing.

“I spend two months on translation and another two months on fact checks. Since some characters are historical ones, we need to find the right vocabulary for the right person,” Socheata said in the release.