The chronicle of a lonely do-gooder family doctor who survived.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Don't Think I've Forgotten (Cambodia's Lost Rock And Roll)

This has been absolutely rocking my world lately.

The music for the compilation Cambodia Rocks came to the American market via a tourist backpacking in Cambodia who bought some cassettes off the street in Phnom Penh. On these, he found an amazing collection of psychedelic garage music recorded by Cambodian artists in the late 60s and early 70s. These were eventually released on CD by the label Parallel World, but because the original source was an unlabeled cassette tape there was no identifying information about the artists. Some of the music was recorded by people who were big stars in Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge and eventually the artists and songs have been identified, and as such are labeled in the that first WFMU link above. All links on the WFMU blog are downloadable MP3s.

At first I thought this was just a curiosity, a story of a quirky subculture of lost music brought back from obscurity. But as I have listened more and explored other music from the genre (Pen Ron, Sin Sisamouth, Rous Sareysothea) it has become so much more for me. There is a newness, an energy, an exuberance, a freedom to this music that can only be found in the very best of popular music. There are undertones of surf music, psychedelia, punk rock, and even funk in this music which is surprising when played by musicians from South Asia who carry all of their own musical history and influence and infuse it into this spicy new creation. The music is technically proficient but there are subtleties that are so distinctly different than anything you hear in American garage music. The 16th note pattern of rhythm on the ride cymbal, the way the wah is applied half way through the guitar solo, the line of melody and the register that the singer is using.

The story has a heartbreaking end. While all of this was fluorishing in Phnom Penh, ominous political events were brewing in the countryside surrounding the city. The U.S. began bombing rural targets in Cambodia which were supplying the Viet Cong in neighboring Vietnam. This destabilized the country with rising terrorist activity in the jungle. The U.S. supported a coup against the Cambodian prince and the general put in charge could not hold back the communist Khmer Rouge which was gaining power among the rural Cambodians. Eventually, the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and began a four year reign of terror under Pol Pot which resulted in the deaths of millions of artists and intellectuals, including most of the people who made these recordings.

The video I embedded is a trailer for a film that documents the story. As I understand, they are still looking for funding to complete the project.

The Los Angeles band Dengue Fever has picked up on this genre and they have three full length albums of covers and original music. I would have liked to catch them at Sasquatch this year.

I was first made aware of this music by this post by the always amazing Flapjax at Midnight on Metafilter.

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