The sounds of drums and rock guitar pierce the air, young voices roar above their buzzing audience: no, this is not a gig in London or New York. It is the sound of Cambodia’s rock revival. As Francesca Baker attests, Khmer music is undergoing a rebirth and emerging as more energetic and determined than ever before.
Cambodia was once home to one of the most advanced and vibrant music scenes in Asia: it was the sixties and there was a thrill in the air. Controversial though he was, ruler at the time Prince Norodom Sihanouk was passionate and liberal about arts, and welcomed western influences. The Vietnam War had played a huge role in introducing rock ‘n’ roll to South East Asia, with the American Special Forces Radio Network dominating the airways, and US Navy flying studios spreading the sound of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music across Cambodia. People may not have known much about the music, but they knew they liked it, and soon started to imitate it in their own Khmer style. Parallel Lines released a compilation of songs – Cambodian Rocks – compiled by an American tourist named Paul Wheeler from some cassettes he bought in Phnom Penh from a local taxi driver. What’s more, two documentaries have been produced about the pre-war scene: The Golden Voice, Greg Cahill’s thirty minute film on the most famous of the era’s female singers, Ros Sereysothea, and Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, a feature-length history of the scene from Los Angeles-based cinematographer John Pirozzi.
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