The Khmer Revival Of Rock ’n’ Roll: Indie Music In Cambodia

Photo of Francesca Baker
24 October 2016

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.

© Yab Moung

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.

But Cambodia’s punk and rock scene was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge after they took power in 1975. As they sought to eradicate the corrupt and decadent culture, networks were systematically dismantled, and anyone using their voices and instruments to make a political statement was quickly silenced. Since then, electronica and K-Pop, full of saccharine sweetness and inoffensive melodies, have prevailed.

It’s taken a while, but things are definitely on the up and up, with people willing and wanting to express themselves with passion and ferocity through their music. Cambodia is home to a scene again. While most of the scene rotates around electronic and dance music, there is a growing euphony of guitars, as indie and alternative music is starting to make a home for itself. The capital Pnomh Penh is home to regular gigs. Back at the start of 2013, The Cambodian Space Project (formed by an Australian but now very much a local band) released the first vinyl record since 1975. New bands are emerging, support networks in the form of promoters and labels are starting to emerge, and the fans are passionate. The Cambodian Headbanger fan club is a loyal and excited one, and growing fast: the second year of their festival saw the audience increase tenfold. On the line up were noisy Deathcore bands like Slietn6ix, punk collectives like The ANTI-fate, and alt-rock bands such as No Forever.

© Yab Moung

These bands are all signed to the first indie rock label in the kingdom, Yab Moung, set up in 2012. An Aussie, a German and an American are behind it. Myles (the Aussie) co-owns The Show Box music venue and bar, Tom is a German festival and events organiser and Chris the American owner of Moonlight Rock in Otres Beach. Mad musos themselves, heavily involved in scenes back home, they noticed the creativity and skill in the region and knew that young local musicians would benefit from any support to make something. It all started at the first Khmer Punk show they saw. Chris says ‘it was random and we were blown away, after some investigating it appeared that there was no venue, support or equality in terms of financial appreciation within the Khmer alternative scene. No recording or support and yet the bands were some of the most unique and awesome we had ever seen.’

Knowing that these bands could succeed anywhere, be it Pnomh Penh, London, Berlin, or New York, they sought to develop a handful of scattered sounds into a thriving and cross-border scene. Yab Moung plan to get the music promoted – to them, it is all about ‘accessibility to Khmer firstly’, but also about the Khmer bands’ ‘access to the world while giving the world access to Cambodia.’ They only sign Khmer bands, choosing to focus on the local talent, but do book expat and touring bands for their shows, booking schedules that are ‘epic, small but completely unique for South East Asia’. In this way, the cultural exchange that started in the sixties, and has been revived with YouTube and movies and continues on stage and in the dressing room. Their shows are regularly sold out and filled with hedonism and hormones, the chords and choruses acting as some kind of elixir.

Nevertheless, it’s not easy. Khmer culture is relatively restrictive, and this music offers an outlet for emotion and expression in a way not often seen. Community-minded, Khmer musicians know that in a country where fewer than ten percent make it to university, education is not something to be shunned in favor of the lure of the limelight, so whilst fostering musical ambitions they also work hard to support their education and work. Khmer bands seem to be lacking in any of the rock ‘n’ roll excess that is often associated with the lifestyle. Rather than overt rebellion or decadent lifestyles, they focus on the thrill of speaking out. As Pnomh Penh band No Forever vocalist Pheng Sovandaeriza attests, ‘it comes with a certain kind of freedom to express yourself. Even if it’s brutal or cruel, it’s always so pure.’ However, the government is a topic to be avoided.

© Yab Moung

Far from being uneducated or dropouts for whom no other option exists, these bands and musicians are talented and bright, passionate about their craft. After their gig, Slietn6ix singer Tin, the lead guitarist, Veasna, and Propey, the singer of The ANTI-Fate, can be found hanging out at the newly opened indie venue The Showbox Tin. Tin studies English at University and Veasna is the director of a private music school. Propey has finished his IT degree and is looking for a job.

Their dynamic and DIY ethos is what keeps them bubbling. Where talent is unbound, a hard work mentality exists, and with the support that is given, success can prosper. With their careers on the horizon, no desire for a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and a culture that is only slowly opening up, success is difficult to define. Chris from Yab Muound states that ‘sucess, I imagine, is Khmer Punks delighting and startling New York, or a dude whose girlfriend just dumped him in Australia finding salvation through a track done by one of our artists.’ If Cambodian music became a global presence, transmitting itself across the globe in the way the west transmitted itself to Cambodia forty or fifty years ago, that would certainly signify success.

Far from being a case in point of Americanization or westernization, efforts like this are an example of the cross-boundary power of music and the fusion of syncretic styles. A willingness to experiment with hybrid styles and an openness to other styles makes for a more fertile artistic ground. This new wave of an independent rock scene is proof that young Cambodians are using music and its magic to invigorate and illuminate their lives. Which is what good art should be about.

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