Page last updated at 23:06 GMT, Tuesday, 28 July 2009 00:06 UK

Khmer rock revival seeks new audience

By Sarah Cuddon

Chhom Nimol - Dengue Fever
Chhom Nimol fronts the LA-based Khmer rock band Dengue Fever

Decades after Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge silenced the sound of Westernised music in Cambodia, the little-known 60s genre "Khmer rock" is finding new fans.

Khmer rock is the sound of the West meeting the East in the 1960s - a mixture of US surf guitar music, early rock and doo-wop mixed with Cambodian traditional instruments.

At the time, the music was virtually unknown outside Asia but its followers in the West are now burgeoning.

Music writer Nik Cohn is a new fan who stumbled across the sound by chance.

He said: "One night I was watching (the film) City of Ghosts, and there's an amazing moment when Matt Dillon jumps on a motorbike and rides through Phnom Penh and this incredible music comes on. An unbelievable voice.

"(I'd) not heard anything that good since Ronnie and Ronettes... and then I began to think about it musically."

Today, the sounds of the old Phnom Penh are being revived in the West by the Los Angeles-based band Dengue Fever, which is fronted by a Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, the daughter of musicians who played with the original Khmer rockers.

The band's guitarist Zac Holtzman loves the sound and stories of Phnom Penh's music scene.

"It was modern city, with lots of musicians. By day they played traditional stuff and by night they'd rock out.

The Ronettes
Music writer Nik Cohn likened the Khmer rock sound to The Ronettes

"In general the Khmer culture is reserved, but this is the closest to stepping out and going crazy. We can really have fun here."

The country's former controversial ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was a big influence on the sound.

Despite presiding over an often corrupt and repressive regime, he was passionate and liberal about the arts, and encouraged the traditional court musicians to experiment with Western styles.

But influences also came directly from the US - as the American military presence in Vietnam increased, the American Forces Radio Network also became more well-known.

Flying studios operated by the US Navy spread the sound of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music to Cambodia.

Phnom Penh's young musicians did not necessarily know who Jimi Hendrix, the Doors or the Beach Boys actually were, but they loved the sound and they started to imitate it.

"They just took the sound and re-channelled it through instruments equivalent to guitars… a primitive drum kit, and they certainly had bass guitar," Nik Cohn said.

The Khmer rock musicians did not have elaborate studios, and most of the songs were recorded live - often in one take - with any keyboards or guitars they could find, and incorporated traditional instruments.

For a decade, this experimental Khmer rock music transformed the nightlife of the capital, Phnom Penh.

But in 1975 the fanatically anti-Western Khmer Rouge marched in, led by Pol Pot, and the vibrant rock and roll scene was silenced.

Within four years, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million Cambodians in the notorious killing fields, including many of the Khmer musicians.

Him Sophy was one of those sent to a labour camp.

Human skulls displayed at Choeung Ek memorial, Cambodia
The scene's leading lights were all extinguished by the Khmer Rouge

"Ninety percent of the famous singers were killed. I saw the prisoners they took," he said.

Jon Swain, who was the Sunday Times war correspondent in South Vietnam and Cambodia at the time, said: "Educated people, musicians, people with glasses… a lot were taken to the killing fields… so the great singers disappeared."

All the local heroes the scene had produced - like Sinn Sisamouth, who became known as "the King of Khmer music" - were wiped out, killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Cambodian musician and composer Sophy Him was a young music student in Phnom Penh and remembered him well.

"Sinn Sisamouth would play (royal) court music, then rock music… improvisation from traditional and rock."

Guitarist Zac Holtzman said Sinn Sisamouth was a songwriter who he initially thought "was like the Elvis of Cambodia", but then he found his lyrics were more like the "Bob Dylan of Cambodia".

When you know that every one them was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, many in hideous ways, it deepens the experience of listening to it
Nik Cohn, music writer

No one quite knows what happened to the famous diva of the time, Ros Sereysothea, but it is believe she also died under Pol Pot.

Like almost all the Khmer rock artists, Ros Sereysothea came from a poor farming family.

She moved to Phnom Penh, where was heard singing by Prince Sihanouk, who later honoured her as "The Golden Voice of the Royal Capital".

It was her voice that Nik Cohn first heard on the soundtrack for film City Of Ghosts, and he said there was always "something tragic about her".

The music was wild and anarchic, but the lyrics often told a different story of teenage angst, death, betrayal and sorrow.

The translation to Ros Sereysothea's funky rock song "Have You Seen My Love" is: "I drink until I get drunk, but I can't seem to get drunk. The sky is all black, love has wings to fly."

It is this strange mix that appeals to fans like Nik Cohn. "It's the sound of innocence, teenagers and innocence, symbolising everything that was lost - and when you know that every one them was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, many in hideous ways, it deepens the experience of listening to it."

Khmer Rock is adored in Cambodia. It survived on bootlegged cassette tapes and vintage vinyl kept hidden during the Communist years at enormous risk to the owners.

"The name of Sinn Sisamouth is still there… after Khmer Rouge was overthrown, his songs came back on the radio.

"I remember hearing them again and they are still going on now," Jon Swain said.

And the old songs are winning new fans through reissues and compilations, a presence on the internet, and the new recordings by Dengue Fever.

Khmer Rock and the Killing Fields presented by Robin Denselow, is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Tuesday, 28 July, at 1330 BST.

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