Searching for hidden treasures of Cambodian psychedelic surf rock.
Words by Gary Lubansky Illustrations by Hectah
The Holocaust. Darfur. Rwanda. When speaking of the most infamous genocides in the history of the human race, the Khmer
Rouge and its murderous leader Saloth Sar, aka “Pol Pot,” ranks as one of the worst. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War,
between 1975 and 1979, his totalitarian Communist regime seized power in Cambodia, renaming it Democratic Kampuchea
and killing up to two million people—as much as 25% of the country’s population—through forced labor and mass executions.
Pol Pot proclaimed that a return to the agrarian lifestyle was the key to re-building a nation torn apart by two decades of Indochinese conflict. All traces of Cambodia’s past—commerce, industry, the arts—were systematically destroyed. There was no tolerance for artists or intellectuals, especially those tainted by decadent Western culture. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers—all faced death via torturous prisons, work camps, or firing squads. This tragic loss of human life included most of Cambodia’s greatest musicians.
In December 1979, some of the world’s biggest rock bands played four nights of benefit shows at London’s Hammersmith Odeon to raise money for war-torn Cambodia. The “Concerts for the People of Kampuchea” included sets by Paul McCartney and Wings, The Who, Queen, The Clash, The Pretenders, Rockpile, The Specials, Elvis Costello, and Matumbi—all of whom were featured in a wildly successful album and film commemorating the historic gigs.
Nary a word was spoken about beloved singers like Ros Sereysothea, Sinn Sisamuth, and Pan Ron, who remain obscure outside of Cambodia. Not only were these superstar vocalists exterminated by the Khmer Rouge, the vast majority of their recordings were destroyed.
Imagine if Elvis or The Beatles had been born in Southeast Asia. Try to conceptualize music influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Creedence, or The Velvet Underground with Cambodian style and lyrics. During the 1960s and ’70s, a golden era of rock and roll took this small country by storm. Introduced by U.S. troops stationed overseas, Cambodians tuned in to Armed Forces Radio, absorbing rhythms, melodies, and harmonies they’d never heard before. Surf rock, blues, funk, R&B, and psychedelic rock became massively popular among Cambodia’s youth. Musicians who once specialized in traditional Khmer ballads were inspired to record their own versions of classic rock tunes like “House of the Rising Sun” and “Black Magic Woman,” ushering in a new era of Cambodian music. Combining their Khmer heritage with modern sounds from the other side of the planet, they created a fresh new genre for the world to rock out to—if only they had the chance to hear it.
Singing songs like “Komlos Sey Chaom (Love God)” and “Chnam Oun Dop Praya Mauy (I’m 16),” the smooth, hypnotic voice of Ros Sereysothea had a Janis Joplin-esque edginess. Her long-lost backing musicians laid down grooves that could be easily mistaken for any of the Western garage bands of the era. Combining primal rhythms and centuries-old Eastern musical scales with brand-new psychedelic sounds, these songs cast a spell. There were R&B tracks akin to Phil Spector productions, rock and roll tunes that could be mistaken for early Stones records, and surf rock tracks that sounded like the best of Dick and Dale. Cambodian cover versions of classics by Santana, The Beatles, and Van Morrison became massive radio hits. Bands played sold-out concerts all over the region, and Phnom Penh (the nation’s capital) was deemed “the Pearl of Southeast Asia” due to its cultural importance.
“Nearly everybody had either a guitar or a record player,” one shopkeeper told me during a recent trip to Cambodia. “Music was coming out of every shop, every car, every street.” It was an energetic, happy, flourishing, well-developed, cosmopolitan city. All that changed when Pol Pot took charge.
Ros Sereysothea—described by King Norodom Sihanouk as the “Golden Voice of the Royal Capital”—was reportedly sent to the work camps and died of malnutrition. Pan Ron vanished without a trace in the notorious “killing fields.” Legend has it that before his execution, Sinn Sisamouth (the biggest star of them all) asked permission to sing one last song for his executioners in hopes of sparing his life. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were unmoved by his performance and once he finished singing, he too was killed. A similar fate awaited almost everyone involved in Cambodia’s emerging music scene. The mere possession of forbidden recordings was punishable by death or imprisonment. In an attempt to wipe away all culture predating his reign, Pol Pot ordered his troops to round up and incinerate every book, painting, film, and vinyl record they could find.
I first learned about this lost chapter of musical history while watching The Missing Picture, a Cannes–nominated documentary about the Cambodian genocide. One particular song immediately blew me away. It sounded like something from the Kill Bill soundtrack—equally fit for a kung fu battle and a “riding off into the sunset” cowboy scene. After a bit of research, I discovered it was “Beloved Girlfriend” by Sinn Sisamouth—sometimes called the Elvis of Cambodia—and it was just begging to be sampled. After listening to more tracks online and pondering the realities of life in Cambodia before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge, I found myself getting serious goose bumps from these ground-breaking records. Here was a treasure trove of tracks with never-before-used drum breaks and isolated instrumentation perfect for sampling. Cambodian surf rock represented a crate-digging gold mine. But good luck finding a single physical copy.
By some estimates, as much as 95% of Cambodia’s recorded music was destroyed during the late 1970s. All that vinyl? Gone. Sure, a handful of tracks have been uploaded to YouTube, and a few compilation CD sets can be found on Amazon, but shitty fourth-generation digital copies are not what crate-diggers, sample-based producers, and vinyl enthusiasts spend all their expendable income on. Inspired to dig up fossils that many historians claimed didn’t exist anymore, I traveled to Cambodia in hopes of excavating some musical history. It was a bit like searching for a mythical creature akin to Bigfoot or the Yeti.
The first stop on my trek: Siem Reap. Most famous for its next-door neighbor mega-temple complex, Angkor Wat—often deemed the 8th Wonder of the world—Siem Reap city is a place where tourists get drunk, eat tarantulas, and lay their heads for the night. I did stumble upon a few “record stores,” by which I mean “CD-DVD-PS2-stolen-cameraand- iPhone” stores. But there was no trace of anything resembling the golden age of Cambodian rock and roll. After looking through hundreds of Japanese, Korean, French, and American import CDs, I launched into my first broken-English “digging convo” with a Cambodian record store owner:
Me: “Excuse me, sir. Do you have any Sinn Sisamouth or Pan Ron?”
Him: “Yes, yes Sisamouth, Pan Ron. Good!”
Me: “You have?”
Him: “I have?”
Me: “Sinn Sisamouth vinyl—you have?”
Him: “Vinell? I no know.”
Me: “CD. Sinn Sisamouth?”
Him: “Oh, CD Sinn Sisamouth. No, no. No have.”
Then it was off to the next shop on my list. Passing by food stalls, souvenir shops, motorbike mechanics, Buddhist monks, and desperate-looking street children, I kept having the same conversation at every shop. At least walking around in 95-degree heat swatting at mosquitoes and dodging wild dogs kept it from getting boring. After the 14th attempt at finding some Cambodian rock and roll records, or CDs, or cassettes—or 8-tracks for that matter—I stopped in a park to give some homeless kids a little fried rice, crayons, and paper. At this point, a Cambodian man in his 50s who called himself Joe approached me saying he’d seen me in the CD store across the street and asking what I was looking for. I had a feeling he already knew.
Joe basically told me that my mission was impossible, and that I was a fool for even trying. He told me the only vinyl records from that era were either in government libraries or in the homes of elderly people related to the Pol Pot regime. He said that some people used to copy their records to cassette in order and sell them in markets, but that as a foreigner, I stood little chance of finding these second-hand tapes. He did, however, add that if I were to find any, the capital city of Phnom Penh was my best chance.
After eating some “Happy Special Pizza” (happy special ingredient: weed), and a fried tarantula for dessert (equally dank) I boarded the first bus to Phnom Penh. Driving for eight hours along the Mekong River delta, past desolate rice fields and barely-held-together shacks, I wondered what the former “Pearl of Southeast Asia” would have in store. Once a cosmopolitan cultural center, Cambodia’s capital now oozes Third World squalor. Stepping off the bus, I was hit with a smell like a New York City homeless convention in July. The poorest of the poor eat, sleep, and play next to massive piles of garbage as speeding Lexuses zoom past. Tuk-tuks (three-wheeled auto rickshaws), cyclos, and motorbikes create Los Angeles-style traffic congestion on streets a fraction of the size. Food vendors, sewing stations, tire shops, and “everything stores” are everywhere. “Among all this chaos,” I thought to myself, “there has to be some music left.”
But my digging efforts in Phnom Penh brought the same results as in Siem Reap: failure after failure. For three humid hours, I visited a series of all-in-one electronics stores, none of which had what I was looking for. Local expats called me an idiot, acting as if I was searching for the Loch Ness Monster in a tropical jungle. But finally, I found a thread to pull.
After heading down to the touristy area along the banks of the Mekong, I entered a CD/DVD shop selling some modern Cambodian rock and roll revival. I asked the owner, a middle-aged man named Sopheak, about the legends I was looking for, and he pulled out a compilation CD entitled Cambodian Rocks. The track listing was in Khmer, so I asked if I could test out the CD in his shop. Bong Bong! Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea, Yol Aularong, Tuk, Dara Jamchan—all the artists I had heard on YouTube. Most of the tracks sounded like they were on their last leg of re-recording, but at least they were audible. “This is what you want,” Sopheak told me, and I made my $3 purchase of four bootleg CDs. This was not really what I set out to find. I wanted vinyl originals (or at least re-issues.)
When I explained my quest to Sopheak, his attitude immediately changed from happy-go-lucky to somberly nostalgic. “Sorry sir,” he told me. “No one have singers you look for. No one. Khmer Rouge make it all go away. You no go to Killing Fields? You no go S-21?” (A former high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into a torture, interrogation, and execution center.) At this moment, a passing expat overheard our conversation and stopped to tell me that the Russian Market was where I needed to go. I had been avoiding this notorious tourist trap, but now it seemed like my only remaining option.
Named for the city’s large Russian expatriate community, the Russian Market sells everything from clothes, souvenirs, and sunglasses to food, drinks, ice (yes—ice), jewelry, electronics, hardware, motorbike transmissions, and sewing machines. You name it, they have it. Spotting a group of 20-something backpackers buzzing around one tiny shop, I stopped to see what all the fuss was about. A vintage store, not too different from one you might find in the East Village, NYC, but with Cambodian steez: traditional scarves, Khmer books, shoes, clothes, jewelry, and propaganda posters.
I scanned the shelves anxiously. Surely, some family must have pawned their old records or tapes, right? No Bigfoot here. With dusk approaching, and my plane ticket already booked for the next afternoon, I asked the shopkeeper for help.
Although he informed me that his shop hadn’t seen any recorded music in at least a year, he was the first person to show any enthusiasm for my quest. He asked his daughter to walk me a few blocks to an older woman with a sewing machine set up by the side of the road. With the daughter translating, I ran through my standard questions: “Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron—you have?” (I felt like a desperate junkie at this point.) “Do you know anyone who has?” The old woman’s face looked surprised to hear me asking about the pop idols of her youth, and surprised me by inviting me to her house. “But does she have any music I can listen to?” I asked my translator. The answer was cloudy: “This woman little bit crazy,” she said. I was starting to feel a little crazy myself, so the decisionmaking centers in my brain responded: “Fuck it, let’s go.”
Inside her one-room apartment, it appeared as if time had stood still since Phnom Penh was the “Pearl of Southeast Asia.” Khmer art, a Buddhist shrine, Sak Yant protection flags, and photos of her family filled her tiny home. Sitting on the floor with my water bottle, I asked about Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. “Yes, yes,” she said quietly. “You have music?” I asked, and she pulled an old box out of her closet and pushed it towards my spot on the floor. At last, El Chupacabra! My first glance inside the box was underwhelming: A huge stack of old, yellowing, newspapers. “They must be within the stack somewhere,” I told myself as I politely rummaged through the box.
“Where’s the music?” I asked the lady. She looked through the newspapers and showed me some articles with photos of Sisamouth and other singers of the era. As dope as these photos were, I couldn’t read any of the articles, and they served no purpose as far as my pilgrimage was concerned. An apartment to remember? Indeed. An audio goldmine? Not at all.
Hiding my disappointment out of respect for my host, I said my goodbyes, and solemnly emerged empty-handed—again. I ordered an “extra happy special” pizza to go and ate it in the lobby of my hostel. Eating marijuana is a capital offense in most of Asia, but here in Cambodia, anything is possible—except finding any semblance of Cambodian rock’s golden era.
Although Pol Pot couldn’t destroy the spirit of Cambodia’s resilient populace, he did manage to destroy much of their culture. All traces of the sophisticated, urbane city teeming with artists and musicians who set out to change the sound of Southeast Asia had been demolished. Aside from a few compilation CDs and poor-quality tracks online, the youthful energy captured on the original vinyl copies of the music that once revolutionized a nation is now pretty much non-existent. The monetary value of these records would be substantially high, not to mention their vast creative potential.
A new documentary film, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, directed by John Pirozzi, premiered at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival this April. “I wanted to show that this music would endure beyond everything it had been put through,” Mr. Pirozzi told The New York Times. “The music is the one thing that has allowed the Cambodian people to access a time when their life wasn’t about war and genocide.” The film includes rare footage of live performances from a government archive and a soundtrack album transferred from a handful of vinyl recordings. Unearthing vinyl records from this era of music remains the most ambitious crate-digging challenge in the world. But watching this film will only inspire more music lovers to set off in search of Bigfoot