Khmer Rock’n'Roll – Part 1

Posted on March 9th, 2012 in News, Recent posts by .

Words by Edward Craggs

At the heart of the latest issue of Songlines was the question of how musicians respond to social change, or indeed perhaps more crucially, how social change affects the music itself. Before the release of #83 next Wednesday, we dive back into the depths of the Mekong to rekindle the fire of 1960s Cambodia and assess the music and political culture in 2012.

Maria Bakkalapulo’s account of Khmer Rouge regime survivor Arn Chorn-Pond and his relentless efforts given to not only rediscovering the masters of Khmer traditional music, but also how their invaluable skill may be passed on before it is lost, were featured in #82. Through the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), Chorn-Pond has worked tirelessly to establish a working bond between past and present, echoing the importance of cultural heredity to the Cambodian people, especially when faced with severe adversity as has plagued this region for centuries. 

The history of Cambodia is one that serves as little justification for the rewards of human violence, yet during the periods of relative peace and prosperity, Cambodian culture shines with a vibrancy and intent rarely witnessed across the globe. Cambodia was most certainly shining brightly in the 60s, with its pleasure-seeking, insouciant citizens completely unaware of the country’s impending rapid decline from prosperity into complete havoc. Artists including Dengue Fever and Cambodian Space Project (CSP) have recently made successful and meaningful attempts to uncover the music of this period for a global audience. Who were these artists who personified 60s Cambodia – the true essence and encapsulation of everything that rocked this country?

Cambodia in the 1960s

1960s Cambodian popular music was a seething mixture of foreign musical styles and genres. The increasing American presence in neighboring Vietnam led to the creation of Voice of America and United States Armed Forces Radio (USAFR), both of which maintained a continuous stream of popular hits over the radio airwaves. One could suggest it was the stuff of mad scientists, where French cabaret influenced the slow tempo love ballads, whilst the cha-cha and the rumba dictated the dance floor. Yet through this infection of the West, Cambodia created something unique and in all senses “Khmer.”

Sinn Sisamouth & Ros Sereysothea

Singers Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea were both auteurs of their trade and continue to be revered as both musical and cultural symbols of Cambodian history, with both Dengue Fever and CSP recording versions of their hits. Both indeed began their careers singing traditional and folk songs, with Sisamouth a very capable chapei (two-stringed long necked guitar) and tro (two or three-stringed bowed instrument) player. Readers of Songlines may be aware of recent versions of the following song, yet below is Ros Sereysothea’s original recording of ‘Chnam Oun Dop Pram Mouy’ (‘I’m Sixteen’).

Cambodian Rock

Covering songs from bands such as Procul Harum, yet recording a plethora of original material too, Khmer rock’n’roll of the 1960s was an expression of both appreciation and influence of Western styles. Along with Sisamouth and Sereysothea, other artists such as Pan Ron, Leiu Thaert and Yol Aularong all played their part in forming the sound of 1960s Cambodia and all ultimately paid the price of their life for doing do. Speaking with me last year, Zac Holtzman, guitarist with Dengue Fever proclaimed:

The cool thing about this music was that it is heavily Western influenced. However, bands from the 60s in Japan that were heavily influenced by the Beatles, just ended up sounding exactly like early Beatles, which I found incredibly boring. But this situation in Cambodia and the music they heard, they were inspired by it and took it in their own direction”

Only now with resources becoming available are the pieces being put back together that were so nearly lost through Pol Pot’s twisted vision of ill-digested Marxism-Leninism. Arn Chorn-Pond and others associated with the Cambodian Living Arts have continued to strive to essentially reestablish their whole cultural identity, and more recently they have been able to invite the world in to aid this. Julien Poulsen of Cambodian Space Project recently explained to me that the band was founded with “the simple motivation to bridge cultures and start something fresh while living and working in Phnom Penh.” One could argue this was exactly the same ethos that was found within the artists of 1960s Cambodia too.

Cultural Hybridisation

We must remember that the creation of an urban cultural industry: with it the disproportionate balances of wealth between artist and label; the depreciation of a recording into a mere commodity and the treacherous dark-side of fame, should all not shade us from appreciating popular culture, for it bears many merits too. Khmer rock’n’roll was an expression of Cambodia’s constant openness to musical hybridisation, an openness that has been present for centuries.

The nuances of Khmer music and dance integrated organically with those of the West, allowing for the creation of rich syncretic styles, enhanced greatly by the skill and kinesthetic orientation of these Cambodian musicians themselves. Singers fully aware of their meaning, utilised dance movements usually saved for traditional and court music. What must be understood is that the popular music of the 60s cannot simply be viewed as a period of westernisation for Cambodian music; it was yet another example of their ability to merge with other cultures and create something uniquely Khmer.

I would urge you to continue to delve deeper still into the cookie jar of this golden era of Cambodian culture. There is still much to be learnt from this period that may not only aid ethnomusicology, but also serve as a timely reminder to the public and academics alike. 

With the ever-growing interest in Cambodia popular music and its relationship with socio-politics in the country, I lastly wish to draw your attention to a number of films currently in development.

Marc Eberle’s (director of The Most Secret Place on Earth) latest creation Rock Cambodia! documents the life of Cambodian Space Project’s lead singer Srey Thy.

Although progress has somewhat slowed in the last year, John Pirozzi’s (director of Dengue Fever: Sleepwalking Through The Mekong documentary) exploration of 1960s music in Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia ‘s Lost Rock’N' Roll will definitely be worth the long wait.

 Related links: – Audio samples of pre-1975 Khmer pop – Film directed by Davy Chou about the golden age of Cambodian cinema in the 1960s – Biopic of Arn Chorn-Pond and his extraordinary story

Must Listen:
Cambodian Rocks Vols.1-3
City of Ghosts OST (2002) 
Dengue Fever – Escape from Dragon House (2005)
Cambodian Space Project – A Space Odyssey (2011) 


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    One Response to “Khmer Rock’n'Roll – Part 1”

    1. Khmer Songs Says:

      What fascinates me is that contemporary popular Khmer music is performed with modern instruments mixed with traditional instruments. The songs of Sin Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea are still considered to be the classic pop music of Cambodia.