Travel Tips

Tune into Cambodian Rock and Roll!

First of all, please click here and listen to a song while reading the article 🙂

So, now that we caught your attention (and that you have your ears filled with good music) let’s start!

You may or may not know that this kingdom in the 60s was famous for its music. Local musicians were listening to what was happening in the west and combining it with traditional Khmer sounds.

A unique music style was born. It combined the best of both worlds, a kind of Asian psychedelic garage rock, taking inspiration from the surf rock of bands such as The Beach Boys or the psychedelic tunes of Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. Basically an oriental version of the hippie movement!

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A compilation of Khmer rock and roll.

In case you are into this style of music, or just want to dive in Cambodian culture, you can listen to this beautiful compilation of some of the best sounds of the Khmer 60s.

This brings up an interesting story, since an American tourist travelling in Cambodia managed to buy some old cassette tapes and made this album!

We can’t forget that most of these musicians were killed in the late 70s and this music destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. This period has been almost forgotten until recently.

One of the reasons of this revival is the movie ‘Don’t think I’ve forgotten’, by John Pirozzi, about the Cambodia’s lost rock and roll. You can have a look at the trailer here or you can watch it online or download it in the movie’s website here.

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Marketing materials for the documentary movie that brought attention to this genre.

If we have to highlight one singer, there is a name from that period who is above all the others. Sometimes called ‘the King of Khmer music’ or ‘The Golden Voice’, Sinn Sisamouth (borned in 1932, executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1976) is unavoidable. He’s a kind of mixture between Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra with, of course, an Asian twist. He was actually a nurse but soon became the most famous Cambodian singer. Both common people and the Royal family loved him and became a protégé, often performing for the Queen Kossomak Nirirath.

His prolific nature as a singer-songwriter can’t be denied, as we can see in this list of 1200 songs in his Wikipedia discography page. He often got inspiration by western songs and created beautiful renditions of classics we may recognize from western musicians but probably looking even better in Khmer!

One of our favourites is definetely ‘Quando quando quando‘ from an old italian singer.

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An example of cover for one of the many Sinn Sisamouth’s albums.

The second most famous artist of that period is the singer of the song at the beginning of this article. A performer called Ros Sereysothea was first a poor lady from a rural background and discovered while singing in weddings. She was then able to achieve the status of Queen of Khmer Rock and Roll. Some examples of songs are ‘Jam 10 Kai Theit‘ or ‘Penh Jet Thai Bong Mouy (Ago Go)‘.

Another musician from this period is Yol Aularong (check an example of song here or, our favourite, ‘riding a cyclo‘). The New York Times describes him as “a charismatic proto-punk who mocked conformist society”. What’s better for an iconoclast Cambodian musician from the 60s?

Another good one is Pan Ron with songs such as ‘Rom Ago Ago‘ or ‘Kanha 80 kilo‘ that were typically a mix of rock, twist, mambo, jazz or folk.

Also worth listening is Mao Sareth, a singer from Battambang province (example of song here).

However, as we mentioned above, all of these musicians were killed during the Khmer Rouge. All but one, Sieng Vanthy, who said to the Khmer Rouge she was a banana seller and managed to survive.

A big cultural difference compared to the one of the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk. He was a music lover, played saxophone, was a jazz fan and promoted this new mix of east and west culture, old and new.

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Some other album covers from the sixties.

But of course, this is not only an article to look at the past, butalso to remember the present. Noawadays many bands are bringing back this style of music, adapting it to contemporary sounds while mainting the energy this 60’s rock and roll was famous for.

One of the current bands, Cambodian Space Project, have some songs you can listen to online. Check them out here or here.

While in Cambodia, you can also attend one of the very energetic performances of Kampot Playboys or of Bokor Mountain Magic Band. Listen here and here, the latter one performing a very famous song from the sixties.

Based in California, Dengue Fever, a Khmer-American band, is probably the most famous of this rising genre. They are bringing back the Cambodian rock and roll from the 60s and coating it with sonorities of the present.

Have a look on this appearance of them in a famous radio show.

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Baksey Cham Krong, a band from that period, sometimes described as the first one to appear.

Cambodia was not the only country where this style of music was rising. Neighbors Thailand and Vietnam also developed their own style of music, mixing it with influences from the west.

Hope this article will make you listen more local music! While travelling, learn something from street musicians and do not be afraid to teach to local kids how to play. So many possibilities of collaboration!

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