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Singing the Khmer Rouge Blues

It is a sad truth that an entire culture can be completely wiped out. Many find solace in the fact that museums exist for this very reason, but not every artifact finds a place within one. Gone are the Sumerians, Harappan, and Inca; but what of more contemporary cultures, say, wiped out in 20th Century warfare? In the 1980s, tape-traders around the world helped catalog and preserve a nearly lost music scene, because of this very horror.

While many envision wartorn jungles or impoverished villages when they think of Cambodia, it was actually quite a modernized country by the late-'60s. A bit Western in their ways—due to French Imperialism—there was a thriving music scene in the capitol of Phnom Penh, with influences from big band jazz, soul, garage rock, and movie soundtracks all mixed in with the local elements.

In 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea—more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge—took power. Led by Pol Pot, the group forced all of Cambodia to isolate itself from foreign influences; closed hospitals, schools, and factories; abolished banking and even a formal currency; outlawed religion; confiscated private property; then relocated urban citizens to forced-labor farms. In a massive "brain drain," the Khmer Rouge also murdered intellectuals and subversives, including musicians and celebrities. They burned or destroyed all forms of media, new and old: newspapers, cassettes, vinyl, movie reels, television sets, and radios. It was thought that much of Cambodia's history, dating from 1860 - 1975, was completely lost.

In 1992, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia arrived in the country to hold peace talks, as well as free elections. Cambodia has since restructured from its horrible past, and with continued open borders, the flow of information went back and forth. Thanks to that steady stream, much was rediscovered, and a lot of it is kick-ass music.

Thought to be the "King of Khmer Music," Sinn Sisamouth was born in 1932, the youngest of four siblings. After completing medical school, he became a protégé of Queen Nearyrath, and was then selected into the classical ensemble Vong Phleng Preah Reach Troap, which would perform at royal and state functions. In the mid-'50s, he recorded a violin ballad, "Violon Sneha," and was thrusted into stardom. He followed that with hit after hit, and it is thought Sisamouth had written over 1,000 songs up until the '70s.

After the 1970 coup by the Lon Nol government, Sinn began singing propaganda songs in support of the Khmer Republic, but once the Khmer Rouge took power, he is thought to have disappeared into the Killing Fields.

Pan Ron had a minor Cambodian hit in 1963 with "Pka Kabass," but she didn't become a star until a duet with Sinn Sisamouth in 1966. Considered by many music journalists as one of the most versatile singers in music, she swung from jazz to rock with ease, and from folk to mambo in a breeze.

She was a very private person, so little is known about her life, but rumors have it that she met her fate when the Khmer Rouge asked her to play a show, during which they executed her.

Ros Sereysothea was born in 1948, as Ros Serey Sothea, growing up poor as one of five children. Gaining recognition after winning a singing competition in 1963, she changed her name to Sereysothea, and worked for National Radio. Later that year, she got her first hit, and was even pronounced the "Queen with the Golden Voice" by King Norodom Sihanouk.

While producing a number of Cambodian chart-toppers, she made her way into films in the 1970s, but few of them have currently been found. Like Sisamouth, she later sung patriotic songs for the Republic, which sealed her fate with Pol Pot's crew.

While most find the music pretty amazing, the historically dismal affair just keeps repeating here, with sorrowful stories aplenty. There is Eng Nary...

...Voa Saroun...

...Yol Aularong...

...and the list of missing or dead Cambodian artists just keeps going.

Thanks to American tourist Paul Wheeler—who picked up six bootleg tapes while on vacation there in 1994, and later bootlegged them himself with the help of NYC label Parallel World (as the Cambodian Rocks LP and CD compilations)—interest in Cambodian music grew, and he may have even saved many of the tracks above from being lost relics.

On a final note, in October of 2004, the Cambodian National Assembly approved an agreement with the UN on setting up a tribunal to hold living leaders of the Khmer Rouge responsible for atrocities committed in the 1970s. Hopefully, some of this music will get a little more justice.

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