Cambodia rocks on

A revival in Cambodia's lost psych-rock scene

Maleika Twisk

PHOTO: One of Ros Sereysothea’s LP covers

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

30 April 2019

In a Cambodia on the road to reconciliation, a garage rock revival is long overdue. Maleika Twisk sheds light on the thriving psych-rock music scene that was snuffed out by the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime.

I was sitting shot-gun on a particularly boring interstate road trip to Melbourne. With a book left open and ignored on my lap. As I looked out the window and daydreamt, Mark, who was driving, asked me to put on a song.

“Reckon you could look up a song for me?” he said. “It’s called ‘Chnam oun Dop-Pram Muy’ by Ros Sereysothea.”

What came next instantly shook me from my reverie. The speakers of Mark’s second hand Toyota pumped out something so strange, faraway, and unique that I simply had to sit up, dust the Dorito crumbs from my knees, and listen.

I was dealing with something I had never heard before. The bass pulsed in time with the drums to create a relentless droning beat, the unmistakable groove of 60s surfer rock. But the whining plead of the electric blues guitar had something else, the unfamiliar tilt of a non-Western tonal system.

And then came in the vocals. The sinuous voice of a female lead rang out with incredible clarity. Singing in Cambodian, she skipped deftly through the octaves with fluidity and grace, combining traditional Cambodian musical traditions with 1960s swing.

In the 1960s and 70s, tracks like these were at the forefront of a musical movement in Cambodia. There was a thriving pop music scene in the years before the genocide, encouraged by the King of Cambodia himself. Decades later, there was an effort to resurrect what had been destroyed by Pol Pot’s regime. This is it – a compilation album called ‘Cambodian Rocks.’

What about Cambodia in the 1960s made this possible?

Cambodian psychedelic and surfer rock was the product of a remarkable combination of political, economic, and cultural circumstances. Artistically and economically, the 60’s represent a decade of effervescence and prosperity in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Central to the mix was Cambodia’s Head of State, King Norodom Sihanouk. Described by his information official as “an artist lost in politics,” Sihanouk directed several films, was partial to a bit of Elvis, played a mean sax, and wrote songs about his prolific love life.

But it wasn’t only the King’s blessing that enabled the psych-rock scene to grow and thrive. As radio became increasingly affordable and available, new sounds made their way into Cambodian society. People could now tune in to the United States Armed Forces Radio (USAFR), broadcasting from Saigon (now Ho Chi Min City). This transmitted a non-stop stream of American Top 40 hits directed at US military troops – keeping them up to date with everything from Otis Redding to Jefferson Airplane.

Dengue fever in performance. Source: US embassy Hanoi

Most importantly, mass-produced instruments such as guitars, drum kits, and bass guitars became commonly accessible. This further enabled participation in pop music: people could create their own culture, drawing from an incredibly diverse range of influences. On one hand, American and British pop music in an age when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Beatles dominated the Top 40. And on the other Cambodia’s own indigenous musical traditions.

Ros Sereysothea’s song ‘Chnam oun Dop-Pram Muy’ translates to ‘I am sixteen’. It’s a song about how it feels to become a young woman and newly attract the lecherous stares of unsavoury men. Rock on, I say.

For me, her voice distinguishes her from her contemporaries, among them greats such as Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, Yol Aularong, Liev Tuk. Born in Battambung, a province famous for its singers, she scratched a living as a wedding singer until she was discovered and brought to Phnom Penh. Here, from 1965 to 1975 –  the year the Khmer Rouge banned all popular music activity – she created over 100 songs.

No one knows for certain what happened to Ros Sereysothea, only that she died in the years following the military coup, along with 90 per cent of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals and nearly 25 per cent of the nation’s total population.

Today, Cambodia is slowly but surely recovering from the aftermath of genocide. At the forefront of its cultural reconstruction are its young people.

In 2012, Cambodia’s first alternative record label, Yab Moung Records, was founded. They produce a diverse range of alternative music, ranging from Khmer hip-hop to blues and death metal. Directing themselves against a copy-cat culture imitating Korean, Thai, American, and Chinese pop music, the Original Music Movement comprises of a group young Khmer musicians who strive to create original compositions.

The Cambodian diaspora are also important in the revitalisation of Khmer culture. The self-described Khmer-rock band Dengue Fever, based in Los Angeles, make original music inspired by the legacy of Ros Sereysothea. They have also been instrumental in keeping the remains of Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge culture alive through the digitisation of rare cassettes.

The very fact that young Cambodians continue to make their own music, and that the world still remembers the brilliance of Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge music scene, showcases the resilience of a people and the power of culture.

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