The enamorment foreign countries hold for Western culture is well known but not always exhibited beyond their own shores. Sometimes that's been because our markets tended to close themselves to competition, sometimes because foreign artists haven't the resources to launch globally, and more than once brutal political factions have erased modernism in countries struggling to emerge from feudal cultures. That last instance is what has occasioned this anthology of Cambodian rock groups from the 60s and early 70s in cuts rescued from complete oblivion via erratic discoveries of cassette tapes thought irrevocably destroyed.
The problem, as history students know, was the formidable existence of the Khmer Rouge, a barbaric political enterprise dedicated to reactionary devolution in the region and one that was shockingly successful in its coercions. As its shock troops moved through the land, advancement and democracy got a hobnailed boot to the throat, and examples of Western "decadence" were crushed, eradicated as much as possible. Now, however, the American-Cambodian rock group Dengue Fever, in collaboration with the Cambodian Living Arts group, has undertaken to resurrect that era, preserving it for future generations. It's a worthy enterprise, as one listen to this interesting, kitschy, catchy, pop-ily intriguing collection demonstrates.
Electric Cambodia filters English and American music modes through the South Pacific's own, relaying the result back to those interested in such things. Previous to this, what Westerners heard and saw of Oriental musics came mainly from Japan and through ensembles like Hiroshima, the Sadistic Mika Band, Osamu Kitajima, and others. Very very little of Korean, Balinesian, Cambodian, Thai, or other fascinating styles found themselves in the market. The most striking aspect of the groups here, however, is how reminiscent they are of Anglo and States groups.
Celebrated singer Pan Ron adapted Cher's Bang Bang into Snaeha and Ros Sereysothea's I Want to Shout found its roots in the Isley Bros. Shout. Then there are the psychedelic guitarists (Pan Ron's is particularly cool) and saxists amid the entrancingly quavering and high register vocals of the female singers (all are female on this disc) incorporating elements of native riffs and styles bridging handily over to Carnatic and Arabic motifs.
The Cambodia of the time was imbued with, to put it in Dengue Fever's bassist's words, "a crazy booming society, socially and economically—it was very progressive". Very true in context but also quite vibrant in its own right. One can almost feel the lights and glitter of a London or Soho discotheque as the cuts flow by in their jingly jangly way, but, sadly, all this material and expression of freedom and creativity was crushed, and in a fashion very personal to the disc: Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Ros Sereysothea were all put to death during the genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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