When Phnom Penh went pop – The Telegraph

From beehives to yé-yé bands – for a magical moment in the 1960s, the Cambodian capital saw an unlikely explosion of rock ’n’ roll
‘Whenever the bombs came, I ran with my 45 rpm records and the clothes on my back,” says Keo Sinan. “I didn’t care about saving anything else, I had to save my records.” 
Sinan is a session drummer, from Kampong Thom province in central Cambodia. In the early 1970s, when civil war closed the clubs in Phnom Penh, he was forced to move back to the countryside to find work. 
By 1974, his village was under the control of the Khmer Rouge, and “it was too dangerous to have records. People who were found with records were killed, because they didn’t allow people to listen to popular music anymore,” he tells me, with Clint Eastwood-like cool, his age disguised by a full head of jet-black hair.
“Our village leader asked everyone to bring any music records to them to be destroyed. At the time, I had been put in charge of planting vegetables, so I hid my records in metal boxes in an abandoned outhouse near my home. I didn’t bury them, as they would have been destroyed with no air getting to them. So, I put them in loose plastic bags inside metal boxes […] The outhouse contained chemical fertiliser and, because of all the poisonous chemicals and pesticides, people were reluctant to go near it. I visited the outhouse once a week to check on the records, always around noon, when most people stayed indoors to escape the heat.
“One time, a Khmer Rouge officer summoned me to tell me that he had heard that I was in possession of old records, and that if I did have these records I should not have them as they were prohibited. I told him that all my records were lost when my [old] house burned down after being bombed. But two officers kept visiting my house and investigating. I guess I was frightened so I gave them both two watches as a gift. There was constant danger.”
When Sinan’s village was taken over by the Vietnamese army in early 1979, the first thing he did was uncover his collection, although it took a lot longer to find a record player. The Khmer Rouge had taken the country back to year zero. Children would toss unplayable vinyl records into the rivers like frisbees.
Roll the clock back to 1962. In Laos, Operation Pincushion was turning hill tribesmen into guerrillas. Totalitarian rule was enforced in Burma. South Vietnam’s President Diem was spending a quiet moment reading George Washington’s biography when a faulty 500 lb bomb dropped through the ceiling of the palace library. In neighbouring Cambodia, the popular king, Norodom Sihanouk, had abdicated the throne to take a political lead and be closer to the common folk.
Against a backdrop of corruption, war, crumbling colonies and dissolving monarchies, a period of fierce modernisation gripped every aspect of south-east Asian life. As Bob Dylan went electric to shouts of “Judas!” from die-hard folkies, “Luk Thung” country music went electric in Thailand. Burma’s Bo Hein was pushing the boundaries of free jazz with the first hint of noise music long before it – or the drugs to tolerate it – was synthesised. Roziah’s silk-spun voice captivated the rubber tappers of Singapore, their transistor radios strapped to their heads as they worked.
In Cambodia, rock ’n’ roll exploded with Chum Kem’s 1962 hit Kampuchea Twist, inspired by a Chubby Checker record. While the youth polished the packed mud of Phnom Penh nightclub floors with the brand-new twist – hair flinging and hips gyrating to the sound of liberation – the national newspaper, La Dépêche du Cambodge, was flooded with disgusted letters from the old guard over Kem’s vulgarity. At the Kbal Thnal, Phnom Penh’s first true rock ’n’ roll club, “there were no walls, just curtains made from leaves,” says the session musician Svay Sor, who used to clean the instruments there as a teenager.
Cambodia’s first fully fledged guitar band was Baksey Cham Krong, who were inspired by Cliff Richard’s band the Shadows to move away from accordion-led folk and French cabaret, and reinvent themselves as a surf rock band in the early 1960s. Cambodians called them yé-yé bands, a French term mimicking the Beatles lyric “yeah yeah”. Another early yé-yé band was Apsara. “I learnt to sing from listening to black music,” its lead singer, Sisowath Panara Sirivudh, tells me. “Artists like Ray Charles and Little Richard. He was very hard to imitate but I’d try and then I wouldn’t be able to speak after – I’d lose my voice!”
He chuckles and, rising an octave, imitating his aunt at home: “ ‘Oh, what is that music? Saxophone! Too noisy!’ What did I do? Turn up the amplifier! Every time I think about my aunt, oh my God… they suffered a lot.”
When I ask Panara what it was like, being in a band in Cambodia in the 1960s, he replies wistfully, “Oh, possibilities… No problems; it was the golden age.”
In 1962, aged just 16, Panara wrote and recorded his first song with Apsara. Everything played on the radio was live, with no margin for error, no re-run. Panara recalls in horror the untameable echo of the Ministry of Information’s studio, with its Stasi prison-like tiles, Soviet-era sage-green paint and Bakelite machinery.
With the escalation of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, Cambodians were able to tune into American military radio shows. Foreign music was no longer the commodity of the wealthy Cambodian record collector, and the Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze, among many others, flooded the airwaves, while pre-recorded Cambodian songs could finally go out to the masses, rather than having to be played live.
The new dance craze of the twist engaged a part of the female anatomy that had been harnessed by tightly wrapped traditional Cambodian skirts – called sampots – since the 1st century’s Funan Empire. However, as the 1960s progressed, and the miniskirt arrived, singers like Sieng Vanthy put their best go-go boot forward – although no woman in Cambodian music embodied the liberation of the 1960s quite like Pen Ran. With her trademark backcombed bob, flirty poses, figure-hugging outfits and voguish moves, Ran flouted convention and injected post-war fun and the sexual revolution into songs like It’s too Late Old Man and I’m a Maiden, Not a Widow.
Her ex-schoolmate, Ros Sereysothea, played the romantic heroine to Ran’s tomboy. Like Ran, Sereysothea had a beehive, but her clothing was less provocative; A-line dresses and buttoned-up-to-the-neck shirts. Her biggest hit was the garage rock belter Chnam Oun Dop-Pram Muy (I’m Sixteen) – to which Ran responded sarcastically with her own pop classic, I’m Thirty-One.
Sereysothea’s romantic duets with Cambodia’s biggest star, Sinn Sisamouth, were so potent and prolific that many were convinced that the love they so often sang for each other was real. They were the king and queen of Cambodian pop. By the mid 1960s, Sisamouth was such a prolific songwriter that his wife Gnut remembers how he would order noodles at a restaurant, then set to writing the lyrics and notes of a new song. By the time the steaming noodles arrived at the table five minutes later, he would have finished the song.
At the nucleus of all that was glamorous about 1960s Cambodia was (the ex-king) Prince Sihanouk’s cousin Chariya, husband of a famous movie star, and booker at the state-run nightclub, the Magasin d’état, nicknamed the “Magetat”, during its heyday from 1965 to 1970. Allegedly worried that foreign dignitaries would be bored in Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk had instructed the Magetat to be built after becoming head of state in 1955. Musicians performed in front of a rouged silk curtain, and military men jived alongside embassy workers, American and French journalists, and the hostesses, known as “taxi girls”.
The enchantment of this golden age fell apart in 1970, starting with the unexpected closure of the Magetat on March 17. “The military were coming to get us,” Chariya tells me. “We were just told to pack our bags and leave the Magetat immediately!”
The next day, while Prince Sihanouk was on a state visit to Moscow, a bloodless coup d’état led by his cousin, Lon Nol, installed their own nationalist, Right-wing military government in his place: the Khmer Republic.
The political leaning of the new power and its links to America – who were at war with North Vietnam – ended Cambodia’s neutrality and plunged the country into almost five years of war. The Khmer Republic’s troops were attacked on all sides by the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) and the Communist Party of Kampuchea, by then known as the Khmer Rouge.
Lon Nol’s regime knew that music was a powerful tool for instilling ideas, particularly in the youth. They encouraged the sounds of the early 1970s that lent themselves so well to the fighting spirit of protest songs – from hard rock to psychedelia to bohemian folk – but pressured artists to perform in military garb and cut their hair. Members of the King’s Guard Orchestra were sent away for a month of “re-education”. The other Phnom Penh musicians were given a choice: join us and work, or resist and don’t. Sisamouth held out the longest; his wife claimed he was out of work for a whole year as a result.
Lyrics that disparaged Sihanouk and roused age-old hostilities against the neighbouring Vietnamese were encouraged, as were songs that might inspire young men to enlist and take up arms against the encroaching Khmer Rouge guerrilla army, like Sisamouth’s Tomorrow I’ll Join the Army and rockers Savoy and Yol Aularong’s garage screamer, Dying Under a Woman’s Sword, which condemns “cowards hiding behind women’s skirts”.
“The government wanted songs about the war but the people didn’t want these, they wanted to hear romantic songs,” guitar virtuoso Thach Soly tells me. “The music style was still the same but the lyrics of the songs changed; they weren’t catchy like before…”
On the other hand, mimicking English and American accents, which had been banned from the radio as a form of youth defiance in the 1950s and 1960s, was now allowed under the Lon Nol regime, and the folk songstress Pou Vannary had a natural talent for it. The original Cambodian hippy, Vannary was the first Cambodian woman to play a guitar on stage – a vast, acoustic copy of a Hofner Congress.
An iconoclastic band called Drakkar, meanwhile, ushered in a harder, more American rock influence, thanks to the sounds they emulated from US military radio and their own experience playing for the troops in war-torn Vietnam. Drummer Ouk Sam Ath taunted the establishment by performing shirtless; and frontman Touch Tana picked fights with the audience and other bands on the roster.
Another silver lining for Cambodian music fans in the early 1970s was the compact cassette, which eclipsed vinyl far more quickly in the East than it did in the West. Expensive vinyl was beyond the reach of many young Cambodian music fans, and easily warped in the tropical heat. Every record label in Phnom Penh soon had a cassette maker. 
But the civil war raged on. Up to 300,000 Cambodians are estimated to have died between 1970 and the Khmer Rouge’s victory in 1975. As the Lon Nol regime failed, Phnom Penh “suddenly became a city of refugees, barbed wire, and the nightclubs began to close or they started having wired screens on their windows because grenades might be thrown in”, as Jon Swain, the English journalist portrayed in The Killing Fields, put it in his memoir, River of Time:
Everyone knew that Lon Nol had lost the war: the unscrupulous generals in their Mercedes; the cyclo-drivers carrying the wounded to hospital; the blind soldier-minstrels wandering the streets; the legless cripples; the fortune-tellers… At the O-Russey open-air market in the central area, women in long coloured sarongs slowly went about, doing their shopping amid the flying splinters of the falling rockets.
Lon Nol’s government was corrupt and disorganised, its army untrained, unpaid and outnumbered. Khmer Rouge fighters, on the other hand, were hardened radicals, skilled in guerrilla warfare. Unlike many communist regimes, they lacked an idolised figurehead like Mao or Stalin. Many Cambodians didn’t know who their leader was until the last year of Lon Nol’s regime, when a human identity emerged by the name of “Pol Pot”. Until then, Pol Pot and his brotherhood of senior officials were simply known collectively as “the organisation”, or in Khmer, “Angkar”.
Lon Nol began to depend on the counsel of Buddhist mystics, reportedly ordering his helicopters to sprinkle a girdle of consecrated sand around Phnom Penh to protect it from approaching Khmer Rouge forces. On April 17 1975, the Khmer Rouge invaded the capital and overthrew Lon Nol. They brought with them an extreme form of Maoist communism: a utopian dream of agrarian life, a classless society of Khmer equals who lived and ate together, a rewriting of history, a return to year zero.
Within hours, the army began evacuating Phnom Penh of its two million occupants, spreading the lie that the Americans were coming to bomb the city. Civilians walked for days, in some cases weeks, to forced labour camps. In the evacuated cities, banks were dynamited and the city’s 20,000 hospital patients were turfed out to stagger and crawl to the countryside.
The provincial lower classes were put in charge, while the metropolitan middle and upper classes harvested rice and built dams. The Khmer Rouge believed in the Cambodian proverb: “With water make rivers, with rice make armies.” But the harvests – farmed no longer by the traditional peasant class, but by accountants and shopkeepers – failed, and the district leaders, under pressure to fulfil their rice quotas, grew ever more paranoid.
They refused all outside aid, instead hunting for “the enemy within”, filling mass graves that came to be known as the killing fields. Approximately 1.7 million people – over 20 per cent of the population – are estimated to have died from disease, exhaustion, starvation and murder between 1975 and 1979.
One of their victims was Huoy Meas, Cambodia’s answer to Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, known for her melancholic songs and her radio show, which Cambodian teenagers in the late 1960s and early 1970s tuned in to religiously to hear the hottest new sounds. The Khmer Rouge sent Meas to her native Battambang to work the fields, and build a dam. She then disappeared to be “re-educated”. In fact, she was raped by Khmer Rouge cadres, then executed.
Music was seen as another way for the Khmer Rouge to brainwash their slaves with extreme communist ideology. Singers were made to extol “glorious Angkar” in prescribed lyrics through loud speakers set on tall poles. The blind bluesman Kong Nay was sent to a village and ordered to sing his chapei – rhyming and improvised folk protest songs – but “they asked me to sing only about their politics,” he tells me. “First, the Khmer Rouge would tell me a story, and then they would ask me to play the chapei to explain the story to the people. Songs like The Bourgeoisie Taking Advantage of the Poor.”
Nay had to strip 40 fronds of palm leaves per day for making brooms, but as he was blind, the food he received in exchange was a sick person’s ration: just one large spoon of rice a day. Starving and frail, he managed to survive.
In another village, Touch Tana of Drakkar took a great risk when Khmer Rouge officers secretly asked him to sing them old songs from the bygone era, or, after a little convincing, to play songs by Sinn Sisamouth, the Apsara band and even American and British songs. On one occasion he picked the light-hearted Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by the Beatles, and the soldiers went wild.
For Minh Sothivann, famous songwriter and later judge of Cambodia’s Pop Idol, music literally saved his life. “I got diarrhoea and there was no medicine,” he tells me. “Because I saw many dead bodies around me, I believed that I would die by the morning because I was seriously sick and I couldn’t eat anything.”
His heart sank when Khmer Rouge cadres came to his house to shelter from the rain. “They kept their guns with them, but one of them, he had a small mandolin.” Believing it was his last night alive, with nothing to lose, Sothivann asked to play it. “I wanted to hold this instrument before I died.” 
He was terrified as “normally the Khmer Rouge did not allow us to play modern music. It was the first time in a long time that I had seen a modern instrument.” To his surprise, the Khmer Rouge cadre assented. “The rain stopped and the Khmer Rouge changed their attitude and they were good to us. […] This one cadre had never heard the voice of the mandolin before. In the forest they never heard music […] we were happy together. The music brought us together.”
Exhausted, Sothivann dropped the mandolin. The cadre ascertained what was wrong with him, and found some medicine. “It looked like it had gone bad – the packaging was broken and wet – and he didn’t know what the medicine was for. But, because I was hopeless, I decided to take this medicine, and, besides, I could not refuse the Khmer Rouge.” Miraculously, it worked. And the Khmer Rouge cadre never left his house. “He changed my job to just playing music for him each time he returned home… Music saved my life.”
In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. By then, Sothivann had been moved on to another village, where he had no shoes and his hands were destroyed by the relentless hoeing. 
On the road to Phnom Penh, he tells me: “I saw Vietnamese military soldiers playing music. A soldier put his gun down and picked up a guitar next to him. Then when I saw it, I immediately ran to them and listened to their music. They could tell that I really wanted to play that guitar! They gave me the guitar and I was very happy and I embraced the guitar because I had not seen one in over three years. I wanted to sing a Grand Funk Railroad song, I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home), but my hands were so destroyed that they couldn’t play the song like before…”
After the Khmer Rouge genocide, there were 13 years of Vietnamese “liberation” – or “occupation”, depending on who you talk to. In 1982, Svay Sor received word that his family had been relocated to Japan from a refugee camp. By then, Thailand was no longer operating an open-door policy, and the deaths of desperate migrants trying to get into the refugee camp – crossing a minefield – were rising. After travelling 500 km to the camp, against the odds, Sor made it in. 
“We were told people could stay in the camp for up to three years, but I ended up staying for five years because they loved me for playing music to the refugees in the different camps,” he tells me. “They had Christian songs in their songbook and I didn’t have a problem playing Christian songs, so long as I got to play music.”
Pre-war Cambodian rock still dominates the country’s airwaves. Looking back at the 1960s and 1970s, Touch Tana tells me: “Music brought social change, it hit the heart of everyone. The only way to help the country to become a democracy is freedom of mind… rock ’n’ roll.”
This is an edited extract from Away from Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia by Dee Peyok (Granta, £16.99)
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