Cambodia rocks


Andrew writes:

It is the height of the hot season here in Phnom Penh but I have been chilling out on the funky grooves of sixties Cambodian rock.

Yeah, yeah, I know that sounded stupid, but seriously, a Swedish friend, Erik, who Angela and I used to know in Laos many years ago put me onto a fantastic CD called ‘Cambodian Rocks’ which features a collection of Cambodian psychedelic and garage rock music from the sixties.

Erik is not without rock pedigree himself, having been in a Swedish band in the eighties called ‘The Watermelon Men’. Think Nick Cave comes to Uppsala. They put a CD out which I think we have somewhere.

Anyway, an American tourist compiled Cambodian Rocks from some cassettes he bought in Phnom Penh. Four years later a company reissued the compilation on CD.

Cambodia was apparently far ahead of most other Asian countries in the sixties in terms of their music scene, influenced by the R and B and rock music Cambodians heard on US armed forces radio in Vietnam.

You can hear these influences and the way they were melded with aspects of traditional Cambodian music by listening to ‘I’m Unsatisfied‘ by Pan Ron (isn’t that a great title for a song).

I get a bittersweet feeling listening to this music as it is more than likely that these artists and the others featured on the CD were murdered by the Khmer Rouge when they took power in April 1975. Certainly the details of who they were and what they did are largely unknown.

Even the suggestion of Western influence, such as speaking a second language, having long hair or wearing flares, was enough to sentence one to death, so you can imagine how the Khmer Rouge viewed actual rock musicians. Being discovered in possession of one of these recordings would have been lethal. That they survived at all is pretty amazing.

One of the only artists whose details are known is Ros Sereysothea (listen to her song ‘Have you seen my boyfriend?‘)

Many believe she is the greatest Cambodian female singer ever. Born into poverty, in her teens she and her family made a living by performing in a traditional peasant band that toured the rural backwaters of northwest Cambodia.

From here her reputation slowly grew. She moved to Phnom Penh and started performing at local clubs. By the late sixties she was a major star, producing a number of albums and starring in a few films. During this time, Western influenced music came to the capital led by man named Sinn Sisamouth, who many call the Elvis of Cambodia. The two started performing together and her fame grew.

It was not just Sereysothea’s rags to riches story that has the makings of a major movie. Her fame she was coupled with an unhappy love life.

She was married for a time to another singer Suos Mat. Mat sounds like he was the Ike Turner of his time as he was incredibly jealous of her success and is said to have beaten her regularly. She was subsequently involved with an officer in the Lon Nol army but he was killed in combat fighting the Khmer Rouge.

Her career ended when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh. She was sent to a village where she tried to hide her identity. When she was discovered the Khmer Rouge made her sing songs celebrating the regime and urging people to increase rice production (and you thought Billy Bragg was didactic).

She was forced by Pol Pot to marry one his assistants. Although her exact fate is unknown by all accounts the Khmer Rouge had her murdered.

A movie of Sereysothea’s life called ‘Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten You’ has apparently been made but I have not seen it yet.

To listen to the complete CD, visit here.


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4 Responses to “Cambodia rocks”

  1. Julian Savage Says:

    Hey Andrew – thanks for the great tunes. I think I’m Unisatisfied opens with the intro to the Coasters ‘Poison Ivy’ before bedding itself on the hook to Ray Charles’ What’d I Say, which seems about right for the period. I have made many discoveries in the last few years along similar lines including the incredible Indorock coming out of Holland. Now these lads could play. Check out the Crazy Rockers Mamma Poppa twist at:

    Their version of the Third Man Theme is a cracker. Also, don’t miss the Tielman Bros who put Chuck Berry’s guitar moves to shame.
    Another bizarre trans-cultural hybrid is Kana Kapila, a Hawaiian dancer done by some very un-hip Belgian geezers.
    For your aural pleasure: (ah – been removed from the tube. Send me your email and an mp3 is on the way).
    Take care, Julian

  2. Jeff Says:

    Hello – thanks for your cool article about Ros Sereysothea, the golden voice. Since hearing her voice I have been obsessed with her, and her songs have led me to the other great Khmer singers from the era. Just one correction – the film “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is about the Khmer music scene in general, not specifically about Sothea. The film makers are trying to raise more money to do more archival research.
    The short film “The Golden Voice” is about her life after the KR marched into Phnom Penh. I think the film maker is trying to make a full length movie about her life.

  3. Cambodia rocks, part 2 « Oh, the places you’ll go! Says:

    […] rocks, part 2 I had such a positive reaction to a previous post a few months ago about Cambodia’s pre-1975 music scene that I thought readers of The Great […]

  4. My weekend of crime and Dengue Fever « Angela Savage Says:

    […] country’s vibrant pop music scene of the sixties and early seventies–see his articles here and here. Dengue Fever was formed in 2001 by Holtzman brothers Ethan and Zac after their visit to […]

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