Credit: Christian Holzinger

Off the Beaten Track: Cambodia's lost rock 'n' roll

In the sweltering heat of Phnom Penh, the world is reduced to a kaleidoscopic melee akin to being trapped inside a beehive. The swarming buzz of motorbikes and half-conked-out minibuses fill the air with a deafening rattle. The dizzying mix of flickering neon from yesteryear and incongruous rising monolithic pagodas from an even older yesteryear are shrouded in the decay and sedated dilapidation of a post-war city healing its wounds and, for better or for worse, relinquishing to the fading memory of the past. 

For 20 years, from the late 1950s onwards, Cambodia assimilated music from all over the world into a mixed-up milieu that represented a cultural zenith in world music. Everything from everywhere seemed to be happening all at once. Until suddenly, it wasn’t. After years where Cambodia had packed out dancefloors with a menagerie of distilled scenes from all over the world, it was seemingly snuffed out overnight by the brutalist Khmer Rouge regime. 

Now, thanks to the work of documentaries like Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, and the efforts of organisations like The Documentation Centre of Cambodia, the countries musical past is being pieced together and beginning to ring out a tune once more. 

When exploring the lost rock ‘n’ roll of Cambodia, it is befitting to start at the end and work back to the start. The coda to the unspooling story of Cambodian music is a bittersweet one. Music has returned and reclaimed its rightful ever-present place in the droning hum of Cambodia’s ceaseless zeitgeist. However, like a pasture that was destroyed beyond repair, it has had to be replanted by hand— thus, it bears the mark of cultivation. The music now filling the streets is often a westernised appropriation, whereas, in the past, it seemed to be a natural celebration and fevered concoction of a musical balm to life. Thankfully, very recently, the scene has been basked in a sanguine hue as the countries cultural past is pursued in the salvation of rediscovery. Musicians of old and their stories are coming to the fore and slowly but surely beginning to reshape the scene once more. 

Their voices were silenced for years in the most despicably literal sense. During Pol Pot’s rule, it is estimated that between 1.5-2 million Cambodians died of either starvation, execution, disease or overwork. During the Khmer Rouge reign, musicians and artists were exterminated as brutes as culture and civilization were actively destroyed. Overnight it would seem that life for Cambodians polarised from paradise to perdition. As Sam-Ang writes for Cultural Revival, “When the Khmer Rouge took over the country on 17 April 1975, it immediately turned heaven into hell by applying its radical policies: evacuating people, emptying the cities, and forcing people to perform hard labour, particularly the city dweller and intellectuals.”

When the regime finally fell, the minister for information and culture who followed, Chheng Peon, declared, “The genocidal Pol Pot-Ieng Sary-Khieu Samphan regime destroyed our national culture almost completely and killed almost 80% of our male and female performers.” In the 1989 report that followed that statement, the figure was reassessed to around 90%. Such unabated and merciless destruction has led to the decay of today and underlined the tentative steps when retracing the past that only recently has been embarked upon.

But in the halcyon days before the descent of horror, Cambodia was a musical Mecca that lived on the national mantra of “music is the soul of a nation.” That soul was an undefinable blur of opulent joy in some sort of rapturous dance celebrating the soul made sonic in a boon of cacophonous music which dished out eudemonia, asked for nothing, and took only silence. It was an era where people would finish work and rush to the local radio station where music was being pumped out into the restless streets abuzz with the simple joy of being alive. At the peak of this bonanza was the golden Go-Go period.

The Go-Go genre was like some Quentin Tarantino wet dream reimagining of early rock ‘n’ roll, touched with psychedelic overtones, the whirl of traditional instrumentation and rattling vocal style, and the lingering influence of French music (from whom they gained independence in 1953). Stars like Sinn Sisamouth brought twisting to the dancefloors of Phnom Penh. At the forefront of this movement was an actual Prince.

Prince Sihanouk was an artist himself. As director John Pirozzi states, “he wasn’t just a patron of the arts, but he was an artist himself. He was a filmmaker, a composer, and he enabled a lot of young people to be artists by giving it an air of legitimacy that it didn’t really have previous to him coming along.” Essentially, during the Prince Sihanouk-era Cambodia — before the infection of the Vietnam War — was a country that prioritised music and art as a matter of national importance. As Prince Sihanouk said himself, “I belong to a family that loves the arts. My father was a musician. He was a saxophonist and flutist.” 

The result was a fanfare so euphoric that viewed in retrospect it seems like the storm that followed the blissful calm was prognosticated by fate, a trick of history that belittles the brutal cataclysms that besieged the country from all corners. But that future chapter should do nothing to diminish the bountiful beauty of the past. Cambodia was a prosperous swarm of music, art and dancing. It assimilated art from everywhere that it could and crafted a kaleidoscopic utopian vision, that may not have propagated influence beyond its borders and thus resides in obscurity, but that is mainly because it was busy enjoying the dizzying rapture alone. 

Cambodia is now healing both in a prosperous and spiritual sense, and in a strange way, the glorious undersong of its past has been globally amplified for the very first time. The piecing of the countries fractured past has brought forth a munificent harvest of culture that has not only offered deliverance for a country that has suffered untold devastation but has presented a global identity beyond the conflicts worth celebrating. 

Through compilation records like Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, which accompanies the aforementioned documentary of the same name, even American musicians like the great Kevin Morby has venerated the work that time almost forgot. “It’s an incredible album,” Morby declares, “It’s incredible music from an era in Cambodia when they were celebrating a lineage that was very influenced by French rock ‘n’ roll, which was in turn influenced by American rock ‘n’ roll, and I love when you can see the breadcrumb trail of music.”

Well, lucky for you, Mr Morby, that is a breadcrumb trail that we will continue to follow in the Off The Beaten Track series. 

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