The rise and fall of Cambodian or Khmer Rock occurred at an important and dark turning point in the country’s history.
It’s time to explore Cambodia’s rock and roll hall of fame so let’s all journey across oceans to the psychedelic and lively music scene in Cambodia. Follow along with the third playlist in our #TravelFromHome series, Cambodian Rock, and rock out as you read.
The rise and fall of Cambodian or Khmer Rock occurred at an important and dark turning point in the country’s history. In the 1950s, head of state and musician, Norodom Sihanouk, encouraged the circulation of foreign music from France, the United States, and South/Central America which heavily influenced the Khmer rock sound. During the 1960s and 1970s, Western rock and roll’s presence rose all around the world and held political undertones such as freedom, democracy, and rebellion. In the playlist, most of the songs contain key rock and roll elements such as a powerful electric guitar and keyboard that are then mixed with Khmer lyrics and traditional Cambodian percussion instruments and rhythms. These Cambodian rock songs are drawn from several compilation albums since a majority of complete albums by individual artists were lost during the war.
Female vocalists like Pan Ron and Ros Serey Sothea carry an impressive range and fluctuate rapidly between pitches. Ros Serey Sothea was given the title “Queen with the Golden Voice” which shines through in songs like “Don’t Speak” and “Old Pot Still Cooks Good Rice”. Another golden voiced singer, Sinn Sisamouth, is a household name in Cambodia. He is known as the “King of Khmer Music” and “Cambodian Elvis”. His songs and artistry developed the flourishing and dynamic music scene in Phnom Penh in the 1960s and 1970s. In the playlist, “Dance a GoGo” and “Jasmine Girl” are good examples of his “Elvis” like voice and range within popular music from more upbeat tunes to romantic duets.
Just when the Phnom Penh music scene was at its peak, the Vietnam war came and changed everything. The United States repeatedly bombed Cambodia as an attempt to destroy the communist Khmer Rouge regime that was allied with the North Vietnamese. However, the bombing campaign did not work and on April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, took over Cambodia. Historically, throughout any autocratic and repressive regime, artists have almost always been some of the first people targeted. The documentary, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll” (2014), accurately portrays the devastating effects that the Khmer Rouge had on the lives of Cambodian musicians. Eventually, the rock scene quickly disappeared and so did the musicians. Nearly 2 million people (25% of the population) died during the Khmer Rouge’s three year rule, including household names like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Serthea, and Pan Ron.
The Khmer Rouge genocide was horrific and created lasting generational trauma and economic depression. However, it is extremely important to not only focus on the genocide, but also celebrate the life and music of the Cambodian people. Cambodia’s rock scene deserves more attention than it currently has, so it is crucial to have enlightening documentaries like “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten”, as well as compilation albums that dig through rare and lost records.
Another modern revival of the Cambodian psych-rock scene is Los Angeles based band, Dengue Fever. Our playlist features: “Lost in Laos” and “Dengue Fever”, from their 2012 album, “Dengue Fever”. The band was created in the mid 90s after keyboardist Ethan Holtzman’s trip to Cambodia where he first heard the music from the eclectic 1960s rock scene. Once back home, some of his friends joined in on his obsession and helped him look for a Khmer lead singer. Soon after, Long Beach, CA native, Chhom Nimol, became the lead singer of Dengue Fever. Her voice is classic and reminiscent of Khmer rock stars like Ros Serey Sothea and Pan Ron. Our playlist also features a compilation album made by Dengue Fever of all of their favorite Cambodian rock classics. Bands like Dengue Fever are important for continuing the exquisite legacy of Cambodian rock and shedding light to its influence on Cambodian culture.
As you can see, a music genre can carry so much more than what you hear on the surface level. I hope that while you listen to this playlist you take note of the deep history that goes along with it and share it with your friends. Even though many of you can’t sing along with the Khmer lyrics, it is still just as fun to hum the shredding guitar solo.