With a nod, Sansana Khieu confirms the song choice. Her 16-year-old niece, Lika, clicks play on YouTube.
The melody of “Take Me to Your Heart” by Michael Learns to Rock, one of the most popular songs in Cambodia, reverberates across the house.
“She might not know this song yet, but she will,” Khieu said, clearing her throat in anticipation of the first line.
More than a decade ago, Michael Learns to Rock became the first chart-topping international band to perform a concert in Cambodia since the end of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
The concert, held in Phnom Penh in October 2005, signalled Cambodia’s re-entrance into the international music scene. The performance also elevated Michael Learns to Rock to near-legendary status in the Kingdom. To this day, songs by the beloved boy band can frequently be heard on radio stations and home karaoke sets.
“We had the feeling that we were making history when we visited Cambodia,” said Jascha Richter, lead vocalist for the Danish soft rock band. “We have not been to Cambodia since, but we would love to come back.”
As the country continues to plan for its reopening when Covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted, some Cambodians are hopeful international events, like concerts, will soon return to Phnom Penh.
While younger listeners may not as easily recognise the band’s melodies, Michael Learns to Rock still holds a firm grasp on the hearts of a generation of Cambodians who, like Kheiu, came of age during the turn of the century.
“People are still completely in love with them. I was 20 years old when I first heard their songs and was dating my first boyfriend at the time,” Khieu said, blushing slightly before breaking eye contact. “When I hear their songs, I reflect on those times and am filled with a sense of romance and a tinge of nostalgia.”
The performance marked a new beginning for Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge cut the country off, both diplomatically and physically, from the rest of the world. Under the regime, unregimented expression, public celebration and other cherished aspects of live music were disavowed.
The Michael Learns to Rock performance was a significant moment not only for Cambodia as a country, but for first-time concert goers like Sambath Lap. She remembers the experience fondly as a “one of a kind concert.”
Lap was one of about 700 guests who watched the concert live from a studio at the Cambodian Television Network in Phnom Penh, which broadcast the performance.
“We hadn’t had anyone come to Cambodia yet so people were crazy about it,” said Lap, who received a ticket because she owned an event management company. “I was closer to the back of the studio, but since it was a small-scale concert it didn’t matter. It was a really young crowd and I remember everyone singing along.”
Like many others, Lap won’t ever forget her first concert whether it’s 16 or 60 years later. Her formative live music experience is shared by Lap’s generation.
“People still know them in Cambodia, especially people my age. I still hear Michael Learns to Rock songs on the radio,” Lap said. “Maybe kids born after the 2000s won’t immediately recognise them, but people in their 30s definitely still do.”
Glen Felgate, then-general manager of the Cambodian Television Network, acted as concert’s promoter and said the band was the “ideal group to kick off international concerts in Cambodia.”
“It was such a pioneering moment at that time in Cambodia that some of the audience didn’t know what an encore was yet. So when the band finished, people began to leave,” Felgate said. “I actually had to stand at the door and explain to everyone that there was still one final song. That’s how new concert culture was in Cambodia.”
Not long after the historic performance, Felgate recalls other European artists like Ronan Keating visiting the Kingdom for a concert.
I didn’t know that it was their songs that had been stuck in my head.
Shaking his head, Felgate recalls the busy four days Michael Learns to Rock spent in Cambodia. Richter and band members Mikkel Lentz, Kåre Wanscher and bass player Mikkel Riber toured the city and met officials including then-deputy prime minister Sok An.
“When you have only visited a country once, it stands out much clearer in your memory,” said Wanscher, drummer for the band. “We’ve performed in some countries in Southeast Asia over a dozen times, I wouldn’t be able to say anything specific about a visit 15 years ago. But I remember clearly the visit to Cambodia.”
Khieu, who also worked for the Cambodian Television Network at the time, acted as the band’s translator during their visit.
“To be able to work with them, as a 20 year old at the time, was amazing,” Khieu said. “I told all my family and friends that I would be spending all my time with Michael Learns to Rock. Everyone was so jealous of me, in a good way.”
Khieu says Cambodians were already karaoking to songs by Michael Learns to Rock long before their plane landed.
“Before I got this offer to work with them during their visit to Cambodia, I had never seen them before. But I had heard them everywhere,” Khieu said. “Before they came, I didn’t know that it was their songs that had been stuck in my head.”
In more than 30 years since the band’s formation, Michael Learns to Rock has performed in excess of 600 concerts worldwide. Many of the shows were in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
“We’ve often been one of the first Western bands to play in countries and certain cities across Asia,” Richter said. “I don’t know why that was, but probably because the songs were so popular in Asia that it allowed us to go to places where other artists weren’t as well known.”
“Take Me to Your Heart” is one of the band’s most beloved songs. The romantic ballad is an English-language adaptation of the song “Goodbye Kiss” by Jacky Cheung, one of the most popular and influential singers in Asia.
“We didn’t understand a word of it because it was a Chinese song, but we really liked the melody and decided to try to make our own version of it. Normally, we only record our own songs, but it was a fun little thing to do,” said Lentz, guitarist for the band. “It wasn’t supposed to be a big hit or anything, just a little extra song for our Chinese fans, but then it became the greatest hit on the album.”
As of October 2021, “Take Me to Your Heart” has been streamed on Spotify more than 37 million times and has more than 40.8 million views on YouTube.
“We didn’t expect the song to be a hit all over Asia. We thought it would just be popular in China, but it became a classic Michael Learns to Rock song,” said Richter, who wrote the song’s lyrics. He shared his favourite verse: “Give me your hand before I’m old, show me what love is, haven’t got a clue, show me that wonders can be true.”
Michael Learns to Rock has performed several adaptations of Chinese songs, including “I Walk This Road Alone” adapted from Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name” and “Fairytale” adapted from Li Jian’s version.
Aware of their loyal fan base throughout Asia and Cambodia, Richter, Lentz and Wanscher say they hope to return to the Kingdom soon.
“People were just nice there. I remember this relaxed and friendly atmosphere. It was a very charming place to be and I just loved being there. We would definitely love to come back,” Wanscher said. “We did a show for a small audience and even though we performed for the whole country, we still need to see more of our fans there.”
Back at Khieu’s home karaoke setup, the final lines of “Take Me to Your Heart” bring the duet with her niece to a close: “Show me what love is, be my guiding star. It’s easy, take me to your heart.”
The words fade from the screen as the women, representing how a band still bridges generations, bow to their audience of applauding family members.
“Thank you, Phnom Penh,” Khieu shouts into her microphone as YouTube begins loading the next video.