Cambodian rock and roll captivated the country in the pre-war years when legendary crooners like Sinn Sisamouth and divas such as Ros Sereywothea and Pan Ron got the country dancing. Thanks to the Cambodian Space Project people are listening to the swinging sounds of Cambodia’s Golden Age once again.
UPDATE 20 March 2018: Cambodia is heartbroken today. Kak Channthy, the effervescent singer of the Cambodian Space Project died tragically in a road accident in the early hours of the morning in Phnom Penh at the terribly young age of 38. Our hearts go out to Channthy’s son and family. I’ll never forget meeting Channthy and chatting to her at Laundry Bar after a performance with her son in her lap. We’ll treasure the times we saw Channthy perform: she illuminated the stage, enlivened the room, entranced us with her voice, and made everyone want to dance. #RIP
Cambodia has a long, rich musical heritage that spans indigenous, ceremonial and folk music, but it was Cambodian rock and roll and its groovy cover songs from the swinging Sixties and psychedelic Seventies that got the country dancing in the pre-war years.
In the first part of our interview with Cambodian Space Project, the band’s founders Julien Poulson and Kak Channthy shared how they channel the sounds of the Golden Era of Cambodian rock and roll, which flourished from the late 1950s through the 1960s until 1975 when the brutal Khmer Rouge took power and singers and musicians became targets of the merciless regime. Part two, below, focuses on Cambodian rock and roll itself.
Cambodian Space Project on Cambodian Rock and Roll
Q. What makes that period of music so special for you both?
A. Julien: Well, for Channthy it is really music that has been her solace all of her life. One of the first images of her that really struck me was an old black and white photo hanging on the wall of her very basic bamboo house in Prey Veng province.
The photo showed Channthy as a baby with her father who wears funky 70s looking pants, an army uniform, and a six-gun on his hip. Behind the pair is the T53 tank that Channthy’s father operated and between the father and daughter is a small transistor radio with its antenna sticking up. Now we are wondering if they are listening to Cambodian rock and roll or whether it’s Khmer Rouge cadre radio.
Whatever it is, we now know that pre-war music flooded the radio waves once Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were driven from power. They’d outlawed music and once it returned and Cambodia was again free, the dances returned and so did hope. Around this time, 1979-80, Channthy was born into the biggest baby boom in world history.
For me, this back-story made the Cambodian response to the British Invasion sounds of the 60s fascinating. It also shows something about the resilience of culture and how important music is. The fact all the singers of the 60s were killed by the Khmer Rouge makes our own take on their music something we profoundly respect and pay homage too.
On top of this, I’ve always been a fan of 60s music and I like the way the Cambodians interpreted the Western music of this era, made it their own, then put it back out there completely Cambodianized, with all these flavours from their own centuries-old music culture entwined in this new rock and roll.
When I first got into the Cambodian rock and roll Golden Era music I soon thought I’d heard it all. But that wasn’t the case. There’s so much great stuff and as someone who avidly combs the archives I can tell you that it seems bottomless. There is great depth to the Cambodian rock and roll heritage.
Q. We recently were amused reading a story on an American website called Roads and Kingdoms on Phnom Penh’s “nascent rock scene”, which was about an emerging punk scene. The author writes: “They have no local music influences, as there is no history of rock music in Cambodia. The Southeast Asian country enjoyed a short-lived surf-rock scene in the 1960s, but the Khmer Rouge quickly crushed it.”
A. Julien: Well that kind of overview just sounds like some lazy commentator who’s blown in for a holiday, got a whiff of a story but hasn’t looked very far beyond the guesthouse.
Q. Did British or American rock and roll music have the biggest influence on the Cambodian rock and roll?
A. Julien: British Invasion first took the world, including the USA, by storm, so everyone heard the Beatles, The Kinks, Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, etc. Then came the American response and by this time Cambodians would have been hearing a lot of American R&B, Motown and Stax stuff and perhaps even the wilder sounds of bands like The Doors and The Stooges. Hard to tell really but the Cambodian rock and roll sounds got pretty loose and wild by the mid 70s.
There was of course the huge French influence. Cambodians use French terms when they talk about music and would have known so many French songs including the Yé-Yé Pop of the 60s. This mix was common to all the capitals of South East Asia. Indonesian music was also readily available and loved by the Cambodian audience.
The Latin styles in the Cambodian music came via the so-called Manila bands that toured all the swanky resorts of South East Asia, pre- and post-WWII, and The Philippines being a former colony of Spain, then the USA, the Manila bands were the perfect conduit for introducing the Latin dances and rhythms that were so popular, like Cha cha, Mambo, Bossa nova, Samba and jazz, into South East Asian music. You can hear these styles all through Cambodian rock and roll as well as the later British Invasion sounds and the US GI radio sounds of Stax and Motown.
Q. So how much was Cambodian rock and roll influenced by traditional Khmer music?
A. Julien: The Cambodian rock and roll ‘Golden Era’ was not a complete break from the past. The musicians of the day were certainly progressive and experimental but they kept a lot of the traditional style and instruments in the work. It was this mix of traditional Khmer culture plus the new Brit Invasion and US sounds which made Cambodian rock and roll the unique mix it is today.
Q. King Norodom Sihanouk has been credited with playing a crucial roll in that cultural revival and golden era. I don’t think there are too many kings in the world credited with kick-starting a music scene.
A. Julien: Well he was most-likely the richest kid in town and he had all the best stuff – recording studios, film cameras, and great teams of staff and disciples to facilitate the creation of new ideas, whether this was architecture, town planning or film making and record releases – King Norodom Sihanouk was determinedly modernising his Kingdom.
He had great taste and style for producing Western type films and embraced Western rock and roll.
It’s interesting to note that the exact opposite was happening in other South East Asian capitals like Jakarta where President Sukarno feared the Western influences and even branded Beatles-style music as that of “the mentally deranged”. Great social and political shifts were happening across the region and the new wave of rock’n’roll was the soundtrack.
Q. The most famous singer of the period, Sinn Sisamouth, was and is still such a legend, isn’t he? That voice! Is that what made him so special?
A. Julien: Sinn Sisamouth’s huge output of incredibly well-written and produced songs made a great impact at the time, and perhaps much more so now. Sinn Sisamouth’s songs are rich in mood and meaning and today his legacy is an indelible part of Cambodia’s national heritage.
At the time, he was championed by the King, who took him everywhere – he became Cambodia’s most travelled and most worldly musician and this outside influence came into the many songs he sang or produced for others such as Ros Sereywothea and Pan Ron.
Sinn Sisamouth’s catalogue is an intangible national treasure. I just ran into a couple of filmmakers who have moved from Portland to Cambodia to make a film on Sin Sisamuth. Its working title is “The Elvis of Cambodia”.
Q. It’s not unusual to see Sinn Sisamouth and divas Ros Sereysothea and Ron Pan stenciled on murals on buildings and walls around Cambodia, especially in Battambang. I see cassettes and posters in markets and hear their music in taxis and on buses.
A Julien: Yes, they’re the most recognised icons of the many singers of ‘golden era’ Cambodian rock and roll. A lot of this has to do with foreigners recognising this legacy and reissuing their music – labels like Sublime Frequencies and Finders Keepers, as well as bands influenced by the same era, like Dengue Fever and, more locally, the Cambodian Space Project. Today, there are all sorts of revivalists paying tribute to these icons: remixers, painters, graphic artists, and filmmakers.
Q. Channthy, were Ros Sereysothea and Ron Pan inspirations for you?
A. Channthy: Well, I’m Cambodian, so this is of course the music I’ve grown up with. People say I am like Pan Ron. I like that. She was the more risqué of all the singers.
Q. And then that glorious period came to a sudden end, and a very tragic end for Sisamouth, Sereysothea, Ron and others.
A. Channthy: Yes, it’s a very sad story. Cambodia’s recent history has been so sad and heartbreaking. Today, I travel the world and I learn a lot about my own country and its history. Many young people in Cambodia today don’t know about this, so I feel it is important to keep the story alive and pay respect to the musicians of the past, while trying to make something exciting and new for today’s Cambodia.
Q. You have incorporated beautiful old black and white footage of live performances of bands and musicians from the period as a backdrop to your own shows. Where were they performing?
A. Channthy: These images would have been of musicians in the salons, parlours, and hotels owned by the rich and privileged class.
Q. Where did that wonderful footage come from and who curated it?
A. Julien: At first we simply used the films of King Norodom Sihanouk. These works are made freely available for public use and there’s an official website where you can download these great looking examples of 60s Cambodian cinema. More recently we’re working with filmmaker Marc Eberle who has also produced a documentary on Cambodia Space Project for BBC4.
Cambodia Space Project and Eberle teamed up with Belgian avant garde theatre director Michael Laub to create the show Galaxy Khmer and this uses a beautiful selection of imagery curated by Eberle, including animations by Tim Huys. Galaxy Khmer toured in Berlin and Norway and is set to perform next summer in Toulouse, France.
Q. So for readers we’ve now inspired, who are the Cambodian rock and roll singers and musicians you recommend they seek out and where should they go?
A. Julien: There’s lots online. If they’re in Cambodia, they can also go to Channthy’s record shop in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, near the fruit shake sellers. Its called the Vintage Shop and if Channthy’s there she’ll tell you all about her favourite oldies of Cambodian rock and roll – Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea, Sin Sisamouth, Pov Vannary, Houy Meas, Youl Arong, Drakkar Band and much, much more. She’s got a lot of cool retro posters and music stuff. No vintage clothes yet, though that’s an idea in the pipeline.
If you’re in Australia, you can see Cambodian Space Project’s Hanuman Spaceman as part of Club WTF at Brisbane’s Powerhouse Museum from 18-27 February 2016. Click through to watch this cool video (their ‘origin story’), made during their WOMAD appearance.
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