By Matthew Caron
Whether you know it or not, Cambodian rock n’ roll from the 60s and 70s is some of the finest musical stuff on earth. A new CD compilation called Electric Cambodia is out on the market as we speak, and I have mixed feelings about it, but before I share those feelings I’m going to lay down a brief history lesson and explain why I think this music from decades ago in a little country you don’t often think about still matters in the year 2010.
Rock n’ roll arrived in Cambodia by way of France, which had remained friendly with Cambodia after granting its independence in 1953. With the encouragement of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, a steady influx of French pop culture flowed into Phnom Penh’s cinemas and record kiosks along with American radio programming broadcast from nearby Vietnam. Combined with a lively dance club scene in the capital, a rich and vital music scene flourished in the jewel of Southeast Asia, first in the form of romvong and cha-cha dance rhythms. Not much later, rock appeared in the form of big-band arrangements in the fashion of Carlos Santana, pop in the fashion of French superstars like Johnny Hallyday and the saravan-style love ballads that still dominate Khmer pop music.
The major force in the pop music of the 60s and 70s was Sinn Sisamouth, a palace doctor who at King Sihanouk’s insistence became a singer and prolific songwriter who composed timeless pop creations for himself and every other major singer as well as musical tributes to every major town in the Cambodia. His collected works are nothing less than the twentieth century songbook of his country, and it is impossible to visit a Phnom Penh marketplace without catching the strains of his work flowing from the CD vendors’ stalls. Among female singers the most revered Ros Sereysothea, a country girl from Battambang who was mentored by Sinn and rose to fame singing duets with him. Her voice had a sonorous and haunting quality that is often identified as a “ghost voice”, perfectly suited to sad songs of unrequited and lost love. She could also belt out rock n’ roll jams in the fashion of Tina Turner and her covers of songs by Creedence Clearwater Revival are better than anyone else’s in any language. The other queen of the Phnom Penh nightclub scene was Pan Ron, an equally versatile female talent who likewise traded in the requisite romantic ballads but whose best songs are raunchy howlers with distorted guitar riffs that verge on punk. There were many more artists, including the beginnings of a long-haired psychedelic scene in the 70s, but everything would grind to a halt on April 17, 1975 with the arrival of Khmer Rouge forces in Phnom Penh. None of these musicians would survive the Khmer Rouge years.
What makes Cambodian rock so uniquely appealing apart from its tragic backstory is the easy relationship between the rock n’ roll rhythms of the 60s and the sonic palette of Phnom Penh. Rock music surfaced in plenty of other places only to come out sounding like an awkward imitation of the source material, but the melodies and rhythms of traditional Khmer music were preternaturally in sync with the jangly guitars, Hammond organs and syncopated rhythms of the 60s. The result is something familiar presented in a startlingly different and undiminished. Cambodian musician didn’t copy rock n’ roll so much as they found it a perfect fit for the tools they already had at hand.
Fast-forward to the present. Dengue Fever – a Californian tribute band that pales in comparison to the artists whose work they perform, adapt, and occasionally pass off as their own – decides to release an anthology of music that they’ve been inspired by. I get my hands on it and I’m not terribly impressed, though I realize this is because I am part of a small minority of aficionados who already know these songs. If you haven’t experienced any of this music by now, by all means go ahead and pick it up. It’ll blow your mind. But if you’re already in the know, you’ll quickly recognize that there’s nothing new on offer.
Electric Cambodia is almost entirely devoted to Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, with an instrumental by an unknown artist thrown in and a track by the comparatively obscure Dara Chom Chan that has some unfortunate Casio overdubbing tacked onto it. The king of Cambodian rock, Sinn Sissamouth, only features in a duet. I’m always happy to listen to Ros Soreysothea and Pan Ron, who are without a doubt the most revered and excited female artists in Khmer music, but pushing a Cambodian rock anthology that only features them is a little bit like offering a Motown retrospective that’s limited to Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. They’re unparalleled but they’re not the whole story. The most plugged-in of all Cambodian rock artists, Yol Aularong, isn’t even accounted for. How do you put out a CD called Electric Cambodia without including the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-esque howls, wild guitar and electrified organ of Yol Aularong? His name should be synonymous with electricity.
Besides that, they failed to figure out the title of one of Pan Ron’s best songs – the Untitled track attributed to Pan Ron is “Why Follow Me?” and a better sounding cut already exists on Cambodia Rocks Volume 4. This just seems sloppy coming from a band that not only plays Cambodian oldies, but has traveled to Cambodia to record with master musicians like Kong Nay. Couldn’t they have asked someone who speaks Khmer? Their singer perhaps?
Furthermore, the majority of the songs collected here are already available in better quality on the Cambodian Rocks anthologies put out by the excellent Khmer Rocks label and the original Cambodian Rocks collection put out by Parallel World Records in 1996. In fact, every other compilation of this music that I can’t think of is more varied and interesting. For example, there are two compilations put out by the excellent Sublime Frequencies label, Cambodian Cassette Archives Vol. 1 and Radio Phnom Penh. The Sublime Frequencies discs don’t aspire to scholasticism and make no attempts at retelling the history behind the music, but their loose organization and obscure sources – Khmer cassettes from a library in Oakland and sounds recorded off the radio in contemporary Cambodia – make for a listening experience that’s far more electrifying than Electric Cambodia. More crucial than any of these, however, is the soundtrack album for ‘City of Ghosts’, a dramatic thriller starring and directed by Matt Damon and made in Cambodia in the late 1990s. Besides offering the very best cuts from Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, Damon had the incredible good sense to include works by other greats like Chan Chaya, Maes Samoeun and Choun Malai and to place them alongside their French contemporaries like Jacques Dutronc and Lucianne Boyer. In short, showing the best work alongside the French material from which it sprang, plus a line to the present in the form of Dengue Fever covering Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in Khmer. The argument for Cambodian rock n’ roll’s place in the pop music pantheon is presented here more coherently than anywhere else.
What these discs haven’t collected is readily available on CD or via download from Chlangden Production. Chlangden is the Khmer music label that everyone has more or less been getting their material from, but which remains impenetrable to Western music lovers thanks to its Khmer-language website and a distribution network that is more or less limited to Phnom Penh and a collection of stores along Anaheim Street in Long Beach, California. Chlangden releases number in the hundreds and have no information in English on the packaging, so selecting one is essentially a crapshoot based on how interesting the artwork on the cover is. The upshot is that they’re very cheap and typically have at least one good song. And there are the thousands of songs that have been uploaded to YouTube by hardcore Khmer pop devotees. YouTube is hands-down the best way to sample anything and, depending on the clips, view original album artwork, pictures of the musicians and clips from vintage Cambodian films.
The obscurity of the music combined with the fact that most of the artists have been dead for about 35 years means that this is an easy body of work to borrow from and anthologize without giving due credit. Some of the labels pressing anthologies, as well as filmmakers who appropriate Cambodian music, operate under the false assumption that the material exists in the public domain due to the incredible death and destruction caused the Khmer Rouge regime. This is cultural looting shabbily justified by mass murder. Fortunately, this particular anthology is endorsed by Cambodian Living Arts, a fine organization that seeks to recover and preserve Khmer culture as well aiding the families of recording artists who perished under the Pol Pot regime. It’s a sound charitable donation if nothing else. If Electric Cambodia does nothing more than put a Cambodian rock anthology on the New Releases shelf at your local record store, that’s still something.