Phnom Penh

Discovering the lost sounds of Cambodia

When the Khmer Rouge came to power in the 1970s, they killed the music. Now, the songs of the country’s golden era are being revived and modernised for the new generation

Sitting before a wall of vibrant Cambodian pop art in Phnom Penh’s Space Four Zero, Lue Thy thrusts her phone in my direction. ‘This is my Bokor Mountain Magic Band,’ she says. On the screen is Thy frenetically dancing to a rocking little song. It rumbles along with shimmering guitars and a bouncing bass, unmistakably modern yet also tinged with a retro melancholy. ‘It’s a bit like the old famous Cambodian songs. We call that the golden era.’

That era was the 1960s and early ’70s, a period that saw the greatest cultural awakening in Cambodia’s history. Influences from across the world flooded in during these decades, inspiring everything from film to art. It was in music, however, that the golden era really flourished. Sounds from the US, China, Japan and, notably, Cuba, found their way to the country, leading to music that reflected the world of modern pop. Some were covers, adapted from the work of the likes of The Carpenters; others were rollicking rockabilly influenced by artists like France’s Johnny Hallyday. There were also guitar bands and songs rooted in Afro-Cuban rhythms. All, however, found a Cambodian flavour – a hopeful, longing, joyful air that made it distinctively Khmer.

Space Four Zero, a shop in the Riverside district of Phnom Penh, is something of a homage to golden era music. T-shirts and tote bags hang on racks, and posters of the greats – Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and Pan Ron among them – form a colourful mosaic on the wall. Thy is familiar with their songs, of course – ‘Every Cambodian is,’ she says – but as a twentysomething, she would never have seen any of the greats live. They were killed long before she was born.

They say that when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, they killed Cambodian music. Musicians, including the greats, disappeared during this period, never to be seen again. All the records were destroyed. And the playing of any music, apart from government-sanctioned propaganda, was forbidden.

Through the war, the music found a way to survive. People escaped overseas with records under their arms. In Cambodia, songs were still performed discreetly in households and on the down-low. But in the aftermath of the war, as the country went about rebuilding itself, culture took on less prominence. The music had survived, but it wasn’t broadly seen as important.

‘When I first came to Cambodia, nine years ago, I found the young people knew the golden era music but they didn’t recognise the value. We wanted to bring it the attention it deserved,’ says Julien Poulson, an Australian who is largely responsible for starting a revival of music from this era. In the late 2000s, along with songstress Srey Thy, he started Cambodian Space Project, a band that reinterpreted classic songs with a modern, psychedelic ambience. A spate of bands, including the recently formed Bokor Mountain Magic Band, followed suit, each bringing their own musical inflections to the conversation.

Lue Thy Cambodian singer Bokor Mountain Magic Band
Credit: Callaghan Walsh

That value Poulson speaks of is slowly being realised, but musicians still have a way to go in conveying the importance of the music, even to Cambodians. One of those musicians making the effort is Mealea Lay, who performs under the name Miss Sarawan and sings ’60s covers. She was inspired to explore the golden era when hearing others around the Phnom Penh music scene revisiting these songs.

‘These songs are everything to many people. In Khmer we say, “Even if the singer is dead, the song will never die”,’ says Lay. ‘My mum told me about how, during the war, everybody missed their family or their hometown. All they had were memories and the songs.’

Considering that a staggering 60 percent of the country’s population is under 30 years old, this is a message that Lay is particularly keen to get to Cambodia’s youth, many of whom dismiss the music as ‘for their grandparents’. ‘Most of the younger generation are into K-pop or Western pop. By singing these songs and dressing up like a 1960s singer, I want them to know and never forget about the people in that time,’ says Lay. ‘Some laugh at me, but some are really interested. That’s important.’

Mealea Lay, Cambodian singer
Credit: Callaghan Walsh

While Lay has taken a more traditional approach to bringing the music to Cambodia’s next generation, Sok Visal has done the opposite. Born in Phnom Penh in 1971, Sok’s family fled to France just months before the Khmer Rouge took power. He grew up abroad before returning to Phnom Penh almost 20 years ago – bringing his love of hip-hop with him. Although the genre was largely non-existent at the time, Sok saw its potential as a way to bring old songs to Cambodia’s youth. His label KlapYaHandz, founded in 2005, was the result.

‘I wanted to sample this music and turn it into hip-hop, music that the kids could accept. I was hoping that they would say, ‘Hey man, what’s the original song in that track?’ says Sok. ‘When I started sampling these songs, people thought it was blasphemous. But after a few years, people started to accept that we could mix traditional and modern. Now, it’s getting mainstream.’

Indeed, artists from the KlapYaHandz stable, such as Kdep, Oun and Sreyleak, have found semi-stardom, featuring in movies, commercials and plenty of popular airplay. And together with regular shows from bands experimenting with the sounds of the golden era – which you can find every week across Phnom Penh – there’s a palpable renewal of the creative spirit that emerged during the ‘60s. For Sok, it’s the beginning of something that couldn’t have even been imagined during the darkest days of the war.

‘Cambodia has been through two golden ages. One was during the Khmer Empire, when they built Angkor Wat. The second was during the ’60s. I really feel, in the next few years, there will be a third golden age in Cambodia,’ says Sok. ‘Creativity is in our blood.’

Space Four Zero, music shop in Cambodia
Credit: Callaghan Walsh

See live music

FCC Phnom Penh‬‮

fcccambodia.com

A gorgeous hotel, restaurant and bar housed in a colonial mansion. Regular live music, especially at weekends.

Shark

sharkycambodia.com

A mainstay of the live scene for over 20 years, Sharky has thrown off its once unsavoury reputation to become the city’s most buzzing music bar.

Jet’s Container Night Market

Phnom Penh’s newest hipster spot, built from cargo containers, isn’t just about cool street food and drinks – there are also live gigs here from across the musical spectrum.

Meta House

meta-house.com 

A cultural institution that hosts exhibitions, films and music. Regularly hosts live music and DJs, often playing music of the golden era.  

Check out the Leng Pleng gig guide (lengpleng.com) for a full rundown of all the live music happening in Phnom Penh and other cities around the country. 

Find music

Space Four Zero

facebook.com/space40 

A shop and gallery specialising in golden era art, music and merchandise. One of the only places in Phnom Penh where rare vinyl reissues of golden era recordings may turn up. 

Channthy’s Rockagogo Shop

cambodianspaceproject.org 

Located in the bustling Russian Market and run by Srey Thy, lead singer of Cambodian Space Project, this shop sells memorabilia, art and CDs relating to the golden era.

CDs and Cassettes

Original vinyl of the golden era music is almost impossible to find today. But in the streets surrounding Russian Market, there are plenty of small stalls selling MP3s, CDs and cassette tapes (!) of classic songs.

Cathay Dragon flies to Phnom Penh from Hong Kong 14 times a week

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