Earlier this week I was feeling desperate to find some new music for listening. That all changed when my forever friend Jo introduced me to Cambodian rock n’ roll oldies; I’ve been hooked ever since. Jo has been living in Cambodia for the last a year and half. Today she kicks off a new column about life abroad as told, in this case, through music. Enjoy!
This week I left Phnom Penh for a long holiday weekend trip with friends to beach-y Sihanoukville. Right away we got a proper hang going on the beach with a bottle of wine, crabs and squid perfect in a Kampot pepper sauce (haggled over at the market!), and a gorgeous sunset over the Gulf of Thailand.
For the finishing touch to get our beach hang jammin’, my friend started playing a soundtrack of Cambodian rock n’ roll oldies that knocked my socks off. At first I thought I knew the music – at times, it sounds like surf rock, Motown or even psychedelic – it sounds so familiar to the rock n’ roll I grew up with and yet completely foreign. It also sounds much more original than the conservative and sappy Khmer pop music being made today.
I found out this mesmerizing music is from a creative burst during the 1960s & 70s between Cambodian independence from French colonial rule and the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, in which there was a flourishing and unlikely Cambodian rock n’ roll scene. This music was influenced by the incredible rock music happening in the US and the UK filtered through a French lens, but decidedly Cambodian.
The music from this time was mostly lost due to persecution of the artists by the Khmer Rouge and has been widely forgotten. When I pressed my friend for the name of the bands he said nobody knows and just to google “Khmer Rock n’ Roll.” However, there have been some efforts to preserve and resurrect this musical moment, including a documentary released this year: “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.”
Living in Cambodia for the past year and a half has been a kaleidoscope of perspective-altering friendships and work, charming culture, remnants of a dark history, converging Asian and Western influences, and nearly constant sensory input. It often feels hard to make sense of it all and write home about how it has been to live here. So, to know about Cambodia and what I can’t articulate with words, please listen to this haunting and oh-so-cool music.
*Revisit Jo’s previous post on Sister Disco looking at portrayals of women in art through the unlikely combination of Karen O + Kandinsky