Clive Bell looks at the resurgent interest in near forgotten 1960s Cambodian pop music, before the Khmer Rouge came to power.
The first records I bought in 2014 were a pair of compilations of 1960s Cambodian pop: Groove Club Volume 2: Cambodia Rock Spectacular! and Groove Club 3: Cambodia Rock Intensified!.
If this was a golden age of Cambodian music, it’s perhaps because of the coming together of singers steeped in traditional vocal techniques, with busy professional musicians attuned to the new sounds heard from US Armed Forces Radio, just across the border in Vietnam. The fluttering vocal line, baroque with strange yodels and ornaments, those gentle saxes and clarinets, exotic organ solos, the crisp beat combo drum kit – there’s a tropical sweetness here that’s hard to resist. Not that it’s all top quality. Even these compilations seem skewed toward a brash blues-rock with over assertive guitars. But the two star singers – Sin Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea – maintained a high standard over hundreds of songs.
What I hadn’t realised is that there’s a fresh flurry of interest around the topic. Cambodian director Rithy Panh just won a Cannes award for his documentary, The Missing Picture. Panh grew up in the capital, Phnom Penh, where his elder brother played music. Using small painted clay figures, he tells the bitter story of his family’s destruction in the Khmer Rouge’s forced labour camps. Each time he recalls the pre-Khmer Rouge period, we hear Sin Sisamouth on the soundtrack. The guerrillas stormed into the capital in 1975 and evacuated the entire population to the countryside. Panh’s brother disappeared instantly.
For the past seven years John Pirozzi has been making a music documentary, Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock And Roll. In January 2014 the film was finally screened in Phnom Penh, in the presence of the King no less. Dengue Fever were in town and touring the country – this is the Californian rock group devoted to 60s Cambodian pop, fronted by singer Chhom Nimol, from the Long Beach Cambodian diaspora. Many are impatient to see Pirozzi’s movie, and the omens are good, because he has secured access to the personal film archive of King Norodom Sihanouk.
Sihanouk, who died in 2012, is the figure around whom this story revolves. He secured independence from France in 1953, and set about modernising Cambodia. By the early sixties, Sihanouk was leading the capital’s elite in partying hard. A songwriter and accomplished sax and accordion player himself, he took music groups with him on political country-wide tours. After the King’s speech, the dancing would begin. He shot a series of allegedly dreadful movies, in which he also starred. He organised film festivals at which he was awarded first prize. So it would be wrong to see Cambodian rock music as about rebellion – it was pretty much your patriotic duty to don white trousers, hit the dancefloor like Cliff Richard, and catch up on the latest dance moves. Again, tradition blends with modernity: the flowing hand movements of south-east Asian dance are readily adapted to contemporary rhythms.
There were two problems: first, the gulf between the capital’s gilded life and the vast numbers of overlooked peasants stuck in a world of backbreaking labour; second, Cambodia’s position vis a vis the Vietnam war – summed up by Sihanouk as an ant under the feet of two fighting elephants. Richard Nixon’s carpet-bombing of eastern Cambodia – 540,000 tons of bombs, beginning in 1970 – although intended for the Vietnamese communists, targeted those same hills where the Khmer Rouge communists were holed up. Somehow they survived and emerged, half-starved, to exact a brutal, ideology-driven revenge on their own compatriots.
The country’s musicians were wiped out, and their recordings now evoke a sunnier period of Cambodian history. A time when Phnom Penh was hopelessly corrupt, lacking in democratic accountability and plagued by graduate unemployment, but at least you could dance to a decent band every night.
Survivors from that period are few. One singer who made it out alive was the mother of Srey Thy, the young singer who currently leads the rock group Cambodian Space Project. Srey Thy’s mother abandoned music, cut her hair short, darkened her face to avoid attention, and generally laid low.
Another is Kong Nay, a blind performer on the traditional chapey lute, and Srey Thy’s singing teacher. Kong Nay is said to have survived by singing propaganda songs for the Khmer Rouge government. There’s a touch of Ray Charles about Kong Nay, as he rasps out earthy vocals from behind sunglasses, and his blues-like chapey style points up the missing links between Cambodian song and rock’n’roll, making it seem not such a big leap after all.