In the mid-1960’s, while Ireland was playing cultural catch up to the global youth revolution, there was a part of South East Asia that was moulding this new spirit of the age and giving it some undeniably Asian textures. Cambodia’s vibrant music scene of that time was a unique blend of straight up Western rock ‘n’ roll mixed with traditional Cambodian vocal styles and arrangements. With a small cohort of nationally renowned artists, such as female singers Ros Sereysothea and Pen Ron who lead garage, surf, and even acid rock bands, in a cacophony of organs, brass, pounding beats and distorted guitars.
Ros Sereysothea ~ Chnam oun Dop-Pram Muy (I’m 16)
Ros Sereysothea ~ Jam 10 Kai Theit
This golden age of modern Cambodian culture was ushered in by the nation’s King, Sihanouk. A Parisian educated monarch who helped lead his country to independence from Cambodia’s then colonial masters, France. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated his throne and became Prime Minister. Under his leadership Cambodia thrived economically and its capital Phnom Penh flourished and became known as, ‘The Pearl of South East Asia’. Sihanouk was a keen film maker who directed over thirty films; crass high society drivel by all accounts. But he also composed songs and used rock ‘n’ roll as the driver for his, tame by modern standards, but sexually risqué films if judged by the general mind-set of the times in that part of the World. While Mick Jagger was singing that he couldn’t get no satisfaction, young female vocalist Pen Ron was singing lyrics about being explicitly “Unsatisfied”, in a mostly conservative and male dominated culture.
Pan Ron ~ Sva Rom Monkey (Monkey Dance Monkey)
Sihanouk had opened up the country to Western influences for the first time, but it was the arrival of hundreds of thousands US G.I.s in neighbouring South Vietnam that really gave the music its edge. American Forces Radio drifted over the border and with it all the new exciting music that the young soldiers favoured such as The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and The Stones etc. The Khmer rock bands lapped up these influences and immediately fused these exciting new sounds into their music. John Pirozzi, the maker of the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock And Roll, explains how the music evolved into the 1970’s, “In the ’70s, the civil war was happening and the coup happened; there were tensions over here, the music got edgier,” adding that musicians began injecting more sarcasm and innuendos into their lyrics.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll ~ Official Documentary Trailer
While the two great powers of USA and China used Vietnam as their Cold War battlefield; Sihanouk, now titled as prince, was throwing lavish jazz parties for the Phnom Penh elite. As was true throughout his leadership, corruption and gross inequality were rife in the country. Be under no doubt, the music scene was not based on cultural rebellion but rather as decadent entertainment for the ruling and middle classes. Think Cliff Richard in his white chinos, or an Elvis movie featuring upper class Americans and you’ll get the picture.
In a futile effort to keep his country safe from harm, Sihanouk allowed North Vietnamese troops to cross Cambodia’s Eastern border where they were resupplied by Maoist China. The North Vietnamese ranks were swelled by Cambodian communist fighters, The Khmer Rouge. The US reacted with the infamous carpet bombing of the Eastern part of the country. The bombing campaign was largely ineffective and resulted in an emboldened Khmer Rouge, who swelled their ranks with thousands of Cambodian peasants. The Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot took their chance and overran the country, and on 17 April 1975, they captured the capital Phnom Penh. All perceived enemies of the new regime were eradicated. The musicians and artists were easily identifiable and were among the first to die, along with the doctors, teachers, and professionals. Eyeglasses were as deadly as the yellow Star of David, as they were seen as a sign of intellectualism. The cities were completely emptied and the era of ‘The Killing Fields’ began. It is estimated that nine out of ten of all the countries artists were killed, in a purge that wiped out an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians (a third of the population) over the course of the four years of Pol Pot’s Maoist nightmare. Of all the Khmer rock artists, there is only circumstantial evidence for the murder of Ros Sereysothea (two songs featured above), who was witnessed being put on a truck and driven into a forest and never to be seen again.
In 1993, Norodom Sihanouk was restored as King of Cambodia. It was thanks in part to his vast collection of vinyl, films and literature, which were hidden from the Khmer Rouge, which saved this wonderful artistic heritage for the present day people of Cambodia. The music from this golden age can be heard on radio, in bars, shops and all over present day Cambodian. Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia states that the preservation of the music is a means to deeper understanding of the country, “Music is the best answer to helping people understand the complexity of Cambodia’s history”.
There is a longstanding Cambodian phrase which states that, “Music is the soul of a Nation”. With the huge resurgence of 60’s and 70’s rock in Cambodia, and among expats around the world, one could almost say that Khmer rock is now the beating heart of the country.