Most of Cambodia's musicians were among the two million slaughtered by Pol Pot. By chance Nik Cohn heard the songs of one - and, seduced, began a quest to find out what became of her Sunday May 20, 2007
Observer Music Monthly
During the Vietnam War, young singers and musicians across the border in Cambodia listened to the songs on American Forces Radio, and made records inspired by what they heard. For 10 years, Khmer rock thrived, before Pol Pot came to power and all the major stars perished in the killing fields. Until recently, their music was unknown in the West. Now, for the first time, the best is becoming available on CDs, and it's a marvel.
A few months ago, I was surfing the movie channels on late-night TV when I chanced upon City of Ghosts (2002). Written and directed by Matt Dillon, who also stars, it's a hackneyed but atmospheric thriller, set in Cambodia, with James Caan and Gerard Depardieu in fine hammy form. All in all, a painless way to waste two hours. And, midway through, comes a moment of pure magic. As Dillon races a scooter through the French-colonial wreckage of Phnom Penh, an old Khmer pop song plays on the soundtrack. The music is a mash-up of 1960s' Western styles - garage rock, doo-wop, bluesy surf guitar, psychedelic distort - but the girl singer is an amazement. She enters flying, a voice full of sex and mischief. For the few seconds she's on, the stock story and ruined streets are transfigured. Her name is Ros Sereysothea.
Next day, I ordered the soundtrack album, featuring three songs by Ros - in Khmer, the family name comes first, the given name second - and others by her contemporaries Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Maes Samouen. All were impressive, but Ros was in a league apart. The picture on the back of the jewel case showed a wide-faced young woman with a wary smile and fine, intelligent eyes. Her looks, quietly alluring, gave no hint of her power on record. Her voice was the perfect teen-dream confection, equal parts heartbreak, flirtation, and true romance. Even though I couldn't understand a word, she affected me more strongly than any female pop singer since Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes.
Who was this goddess? Digging on the net, I uncovered a world I'd known nothing about. Apparently, Phnom Penh in the 1960s was a creative hotbed. The rule of Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia's once and future king and the country's first Westernised ruler, had serious defects - poverty, corruption, political repression - but artistic expression of every kind was encouraged. Sihanouk himself, a playboy in his youth, wrote songs and directed and starred in films. There was even an annual film festival, which the Prince - surprise, surprise - invariably won.
The most vivid book about those years, Jon Swain's River of Time , portrays Phnom Penh as dissolute but addictive. For foreigners, it was a place of opium dens and exotic sex. Cambodians, meanwhile, led less glamorous lives. Most of the young musicians who forged Khmer rock survived hand-to-mouth. Their music was released on cheap cassettes and bootlegging was rife. Even a national idol like Sinn Sisamouth, a star since the Fifties and dubbed the Cambodian Elvis, made no more than a decent living. Wealth was confined to a privileged cabal, notably the Prince and his immediate circle. This didn't faze the rockers, whose energy and productivity was inexhaustible. The music's keynote is mad adventure, a feeling of new worlds opening up, of infinite possibilities. Of course, the fact that it bangs doesn't hurt.
Exposed to Western pop for the first time, Cambodians swallowed it whole - the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, and the Doors, as well as Latin dance beats and country and western ballads. They don't seem to have bothered with categories; their records were the stuff of mad scientists, mixing genres at random. Tracks were recorded live, usually in one take, and some of the instruments, especially the horns, sound odd to Western ears. In part, that's what gives the music its freshness. These are people making it up as they go along. They cover 'Both Sides Now' and 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', and reimagine them in Khmer, transforming artsy posturings into agonised love plaints. In the same way, Scott McKenzie's 'San Francisco' becomes 'Missing Tender Hands', and 'Hey Jude' is reborn as 'Always Hope': 'This night's so merry/ Look at the cluster of stars, glowing and casting all over the vast sky/ It sweetly saddens me, reminding me of the memories/ When our love united like fresh flowers blooming.'
The bathos of the lyrics is contradicted by the music, which tends to be raucous and joyous, with bubbly Farfisa organs, piledriver drums, and slashing Hendrix-esque guitar solos. For Ros Sereysothea's 'Have You Seen My Love', one of her best, the translation reads: 'I drink until I get drunk/ But I can't seem to get drunk/ The sky is all black/ Love has wings to fly.' Yet her voice is rapturous, a party girl on the razzle, having the time of her life.
As documented on Cambodian Rocks , a four-CD anthology, Khmer pop has a passion and purity all its own. One convert is Danger Mouse, of Gnarls Barkley and Gorillaz fame: 'There were these groups ... who took Beatles songs and whatever else, put their own lyrics in and called it whatever they wanted to. I like the idea that there was the spirit of doing their own thing, bands that weren't trying to make it big and couldn't make it big with the kind of music they were playing. It was obviously for fun and it keeps me excited and inspired. It sounds like nothing you've ever heard.'
The Cambodian public showed a larger appetite for romantic ballads, drenched in loss and death, than garage-rock ravers. Stars like Ros and Sinn Sisamouth recorded weepers by the truckload, as well as dozens of duets. Typically, they sang ballads at weddings by day, and morphed into rockers in the clubs after dark.
Ros transcends all rivals. Sinn Sisamouth has a satiny delivery, reminiscent of Nat King Cole, and shares Cole's fondness for Latin rhythms; Pan Ron hits notes that shatter glass; Yol Aularong is a certifiable maniac. None compares with Ros for power or range, or comes close to the same depth of feeling. She was also a canny songwriter, her melodies twisty and surprising, yet instantly hummable. Thanks to khmerrocks.net and a hole-in-the-wall shop called Cambodiana in a dismal mall near the Porte d'Italie in Paris, I've now heard about 80 of her tracks, and I'd happily wallow in 80 more. Some of the backing tracks are kitschy, and sometimes she picks the wrong songs to cover. It doesn't matter. While her range, depending on the material, shifts from throaty alto to ethereal soprano, she always projects enchantment. There's an airiness about her, as if she's floating free, cut loose from the everyday. Whether she's doing the twist or a Cuban-style rhumba, 'Proud Mary' or one of her own compositions, she defies gravity. On 'I'm Sixteen', her greatest hit and the signature anthem of Khmer rock, she sings: 'Life's like a flower/ Spreading fragrances everywhere.' So long as she keeps singing, she can almost make you believe it's true.
From the net and by talking to other devotees, I've cobbled together a rough outline of her life. Much of my information comes from John Pirozzi, a noted cinematographer and film-maker who worked on City of Ghosts and has become so smitten with Khmer rock he's currently completing a documentary on its stars. Even so, the story isn't definitive - many accounts, especially concerning her death, contradict each other.
What's certain is that she was a country girl, born Ros Sothea in Battambang province, where village life had scarcely changed in centuries. Battambang has always been famous for its singers, and she and her brother, Serey, made their living performing traditional Khmer music at wedding parties. In 1965, when Sothea was 19, she was discovered by Sinn Sisamouth, who brought her to Phnom Penh. Outstripping her brother, she soon went solo, but added Serey to her own name as a gesture to sibling solidarity. Over the next 10 years, only Sinn himself was a bigger star.
Her personality is invariably described as modest and reserved. Seemingly, she was one of those artists who only come fully alive when performing. In spite of which, a Cambodian writer notes, she had 'several kind relationships'. There was a romance with the son of a theatre owner and a traumatic marriage to an older singer, Sous Matt, who was insanely jealous of her success and of the men who came to watch her perform, and is said to have beaten her savagely.
Divorcing Sous Matt, she married an army parachutist, and even did some sky-diving, sporting a single white glove, Michael Jackson-style. She also starred in a number of films, enjoyed an unbroken string of hits and, by 1975, still in her twenties, was seen as a national treasure. Prince Sihanouk honoured her as the Golden Voice of the Royal Capital. Then came Pol Pot, and nightmare.
Within four years, the Khmer Rouge killed more than two million Cambodians, almost a third of the total population. Creativity in any form was viewed as decadence, to be crushed. Musicians, famous and obscure, were rounded up and sent into the killing fields. Some starved to death, some were executed, others died from torture. Sinn Sisamouth was shot, while Houy Samoun, it's rumoured, was forced to strip naked under a baking sun and run in circles, singing, until she collapsed. None of the major stars survived.
As for Ros, stories vary, though all agree she perished. The most common version is that she was worked to death in a labour camp, though one of her two surviving sisters, interviewed by John Pirozzi in Battambang, claims that she was seen in a Phnom Penh hospital, suffering from malnutrition, and died there, weeks before Pol Pot's fall.
The most detailed and, to my mind, convincing testimony comes from a Cambodian website, which has tracked down survivors who knew her during the killing-field years. According to these witnesses, she lived among them in Kompong Speu province and shared their slavery. For a while, she managed to keep her identity a secret, but eventually she was exposed. Her parachutist husband having being murdered, she was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge general and sing revolutionary anthems, adulating Pol Pot. This husband (and some may detect a theme here) was 'a very jealous person' and used to beat her up. Their disputes brought them up before the subdistrict commandant, who, predictably, sided with the general. After one last beating, Ros disappeared. She was seen being taken into the forest on a cattle cart, along the road to another village, but she never arrived there, and she was not seen again.
In the West, Khmer rock remained a secret for decades. It was almost 20 years after the collapse of Pol Pot's regime in 1979 before an American tourist heard cassettes of the classic records and brought a selection back in his luggage. A compilation CD, released in 1999 with no information about the singers, became a minor cult hit on American campuses. Meanwhile, Ethan Holtzman, a Californian keyboard player, went backpacking in the Cambodian countryside and hitched a ride on the back of a pick-up truck. As Holtzman's travelling companion, semi-delirious, suffered with dengue fever, the truck driver played a tape of Ros Sereysothea's 'New Year's Eve'. Holtzman was knocked sideways. When he got back to America, he formed a Khmer rock band - himself on Farfisa organ, his brother Zac on guitar, plus drums, bass, and sax - and named it Dengue Fever.
For authenticity, a Khmer singer was needed. Long Beach, California - Little Phnom Penh - is the world's largest Cambodian enclave outside the homeland, founded by refugees. There, Dengue Fever found Ch'hom Nimol. A popular performer at weddings, she came from a famous family of singers. Though she lacked a little of the range and raw power of Ros, Ch'hom was dazzling in her own right, with the seamless high vibrato characteristic of all the best Khmer female vocalists.
Ch'hom, in her early twenties, initially thought of Ros's hits as old news. That didn't prevent her from nailing eight of them, including 'New Year's Eve', on the band's magnificent first album, Dengue Fever , which married Khmer rock to the band's other obsessions - Ethiopian R&B of the 1970s, California surf guitar, Ennio Morricone. Flavoured by the brooding sax of David Ralicke, the music subverted the sunlight and play of Ros's originals and darkened them, conjuring up vintage Hollywood noir films like Macao - opium dens, dark alleys, forbidden lusts. I can't think of any other album in recent years, apart from Calexico's Feast of Wire , that is as cinematic.
A couple of months ago, having built a solid following on the West Coast, Dengue Fever made their debut in New York, where I'm based, and I seized the chance to meet them. Visually, they're an incongruous bunch - plus-size black bass player; neo-hippie scruffs on keyboards and drums; Zac Holtzman, with gentle, luminous eyes and a long beard that suggests a second runner-up in a ZZ Top lookalike contest; and Ch'hom, welded to her mobile phone - a fashion-plate in stiletto ankle boots, cropped jeans and a tight black jacket. As a group, they seem affectionately dysfunctional, with Nimol in the role of family gadfly.
They performed at Joe's Pub, a hip downtown boite, before an audience of A-list Manhattan scene-makers, including Matt Dillon and Ethan Hawke, sad to say, in a bottle-green velvet suit. The set list included numbers from the band's second album, Escape From Dragon House , which moves beyond covers to complex and sometimes tortuous originals. Ch'hom, glorious in Khmer costume, seemed ill at ease with these. When she sang Ros, however, all trace of discomfort vanished. As she ripped through one classic after another, she did little shimmying dance steps and twirled her arms, as if invoking spirits. And, gradually, an eerie power was conjured up. The crowd's pose of cooler-than-thou melted and a ghostly presence could be felt, charging the room with mystery and allure. The Golden Voice of the Royal Capital was in the house.
A few days later, I went to John Pirozzi's walk-up apartment in Greenwich Village to view rough footage of Don't Think I've Forgotten, his film about Khmer rock, and another documentary, as yet untitled, chronicling Dengue Fever's recent tour of Cambodia. Both are brilliant, and one scene from the latter, capturing the band's visit to an arts school in Phnom Penh, is unforgettable. The children betray no surprise at this gaggle of long-haired Americans playing the music of their grandparents. Instead, when Nimol performs 'I'm Sixteen', young girls sing along, word perfect, their faces alight with pleasure. Their plump and matronly teacher also sings, but in her case pleasure is undercut by something deeper. Both her parents perished under the Khmer Rouge, and this song reconnects her with childhood. To watch her sing is to brush against the horror of Pol Pot and the two million dead, yet also to feel again the joy and freshness of the music, an innocence the death squads couldn't quite obliterate.
Replaying the scene in my mind afterwards, I marvelled at Sereysothea's enduring power. Like the rest of Asia, present-day Cambodian pop is ruled by karaoke, its stars sweet-voiced but insipid. Khmer rock belongs to a vanished world. Still, there's nothing archaeological about 'I'm Sixteen'. To listen and submit to Sereysothea is to touch the essence of pop: raw magic in three-minute doses, pure and wild, frozen at 16 for ever.
The Khmer Rouge: power and genocide
Cambodia, previously a protectorate of French Indochina, was granted independence in 1953. As war deepened in its neighbour Vietnam, and after America bombed the country to disrupt North Vietnamese supply routes, pro- and anti-Communist groups fought a five-year civil war. In 1975 the victorious Khmer Rouge, backed by the North Vietnamese and led by Pol Pot marched into the capital, Phnom Penh.
Originally Marxists, the Khmer Rouge developed a doctrine which held that only rural peasants were true revolutionaries. They forced the urban population into the countryside, and murdered everyone they suspected of being middle class or educated - the wearing of glasses could be enough to warrant execution. Driven from power in 1979, Pol Pot died in 1998 just after the remnants of his organisation had agreed to hand him over to an international tribunal.
· Journalist and writer Nik Cohn's feature on Elvis Presley ('The Greatest Gigs of All Time') appeared in OMM41