The Rough Guide To Psychedelic Cambodia

A few years back I was introduced to the golden age of 1960s and early-1970s Cambodian pop and rock through the arrival in Hong Kong of two bands in a matter of months – Southern California's Dengue Fever and Phnom Penh-based, The Cambodian Space Project. Both acts entranced me with an exotic but strangely familiar take on beat and psychedelic music of the period. Hints of the Kinks, the Troggs and the Shangri-La's mixed with gutsy Cambodian female vocals had me hooked. I had to know more.

Within a couple of months I found myself releasing The Cambodian Space Project's debut single, a cover of Ros Seresyothea's ‘Chnam Oun Dop Praya Mauy (I'm 16)’. The launch party in Phnom Penh was a celebration of such joyousness. Upon attending, I knew the story of this music's genocide and subsequent re-birth in the twenty-first century – like that of the people and the country – had to be told to a wider world.

I hope that this introductory compilation including songs by the likes of Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and others – many of whom perished at the hands of Pol Pot's genocide regime – will start to document a music that blends elements of traditional Khmer music with the sounds of rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll and I think illustrates perfectly the confidence of that brief age between the Khmer independence from the French and the arrival of the Khmer Rouge.

It is said that Sinn Sisamouth, nicknamed the Elvis of Cambodia, wrote thousands of songs as well as introduced many well-known western pop tunes of the period. He would simply write new verses in Khmer for songs like, ‘House of The Rising Sun’, ‘Black Magic Woman’ and The Archies’ ‘Sugar Sugar’. An apocryphal story is told in Cambodia about his death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge; before he was to be executed Sisamouth asked to sing a song for the Khmer Rouge cadres; the soldiers, though, were unmoved and after he finished singing, shot him on the spot.

Female singer Pan Ron became well known after recording duets with Sinn Sisamouth from the mid 1960s onwards and like Sisamouth was a prodigious songwriter and recording artist with over five hundred songs to her name. Her younger sister said she survived up until the Vietnamese invasions in late 1978 when the Khmer Rouge launched their final series of mass executions. 

The life and fate of the period's other great diva, Ros Sereysothea, was also one of difficult times and failed relationships, which were reflected in the sad and soulful ballads for which she has subsequently become celebrated. Many rumours surround her fate during the Killing Field years. One story relates that she was forced by Pol Pot to marry one of his assistants in 1977 and forced to exclusively perform songs for the new regime until she was told that she and her family would be moved to another village. Sereysothea was last seen departing by ox cart and disappeared under typically mysterious circumstances. Another account recounts that she died from being overworked in a Khmer Rouge agricultural camp. Her two surviving sisters insist that she, along with their mother and children, were taken to Kampong Som province and executed immediately following the fall of Phnom Penh.

So, whom do we have to thank for the survival of this music almost entirely eradicated by the Khmer Rouge? The Khmer people themselves who hid records or took them overseas and kept them as treasures of a lost past. When the country began to open up in the 1990s the vinyl recordings found their way back into the local markets and expatriate communities via cassette releases and, slowly but surely, this music has begun to seep into the consciousness of a wider world.

Sleeve notes by Sean Hocking

Unfortunately we have not been able to include all the recording information that you would usually find in Rough Guide compilation sleeve notes in this Cambodia release. We have done our utmost to provide as much information as we can about the songs the performers and the writers but because this genre of music was almost eradicated during the time of the Khmer Rouge's rule of Cambodia many of the original recordings have disappeared and along with them pertinent information such as album titles, composers and more. For those of you who wish to research further online we suggest contacting The Cambodian Vintage Music Archive

All tracks have been licensed from Metal Postcard Records. They have established a fund to ensure the estates of the original performers are compensated.

Includes Bonus Album by The Cambodian Space Project: Out Of The Black & Into The Stratosphere

The Cambodian Space Project are at the very forefront of the Cambodian music revival scene, and play psychedelic Khmer-pop, rock and 1960s surf music with Cambodian vocals. Their music is a tribute to the musicians of the golden age, building on the legacy of the likes of Ros Sereysothea, Sin Sisamouth and Pan Ron. Featuring exclusive tracks from the forthcoming album WHISKEY CAMBODIA