To even the most intrepid of crate diggers, laying hands on an original vinyl by Pan Ron or Ros Seresyothea is elysian imaginary. The two vocalists, along with Sin Sisamouth, were figureheads of the epochal 1960-1970s Cambodian music scene which reinvented American rock and roll in a way wonderfully its own. The Khmer Rouge’s systematic dismantling of Cambodian culture was so successful that LP’s from this era have only rarely survived either sequestered away by residents or smuggled out of the country with those who left. Under Pol Pot’s orders, the despot’s troops literally gathered up and burned every book, painting, film reel and vinyl record they could find. A history purposefully extinguished. The musicians too met grizzly end: from what we can tell Ros Seresyothea died of malnutrition in a work camp and Pan Ron mysteriously disappeared, mostly likely one of over a million people brutally murdered in ‘The Killing Fields’ genocide.
Over the last two decades years, spirit-guided by Southern California-based band Dengue Fever, interest in vintage Cambodian sounds has spiked. A new wave of DJs, collectors and interpreters now pour over original cuts, the rarer the better, sliding them into their mixes, lovingly remastering their chalky tones and performing the music anew. This handpicked compilation is one of few stacking the shelves that features original re-issues alongside the finest re-workings by Dengue Fever themselves.
Ros Seresyothea opens the album with her soaring voice, it is said she rarely needed a microphone so powerful was her projection. At the height of her career in the late 1960s to 1970s, Seresyothea’s popularity was so great she even ventured into film, starring as an actress. Then King Norodom Sihanouk even gave her the newly created title of ‘Golden Voice of the Royal Capital’, listening to her – you can hear why.
Cambodia’s other great female luminary Pan Ron appears on each side of this vinyl. A prolific songwriter and recording artist, she often collaborated with the ‘Elvis of Cambodia’ Sin Sisamouth. Like her contemporaries, Pan Ron’s sound embodies the Western rock and roll that would have been picked up from the US Armed Forces Radio during the Vietnam War. The airwaves spread these sounds fast and thick and soon the generation’s musicians were melting the music of their Cambodian culture with that of The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Santana.
Dengue Fever give us three tracks on this record. The unique band began in the late 1990s when keyboardist Ethan Holtzmann undertook a six-month trek through Southeast Asia. On return to Los Angeles he soon founded a band along with his brother and saxophonist David Ralick, drummer Paul Dreux Smith and bassist Senon Williams. Cambodian-born Cali-living vocalist Chhom Nimol soon joined the line-up and soon Dengue Fever’s music was gaining cult status. Their sound captures the multi-faceted history of Khmer rock or Cambodian garage rock as it has come to be known.
With the inclusion of contemporary Cambodian band Dub Addiction this Rough Guide’s joins the dots from the country’s vintage rock days to today’s underground scene. Founded in May 2011, Phnom Penh’s Dub Addiction create deep ambient worlds with Cambodian vocals led by DJ Khala and beats produced by Prof Kinski. Once again Cambodia’s creatives soak up international influences and then stew them back down with their own style and attitude. Looking back and looking forward, Cambodia grooves.