The Tragic, Bloody History of Cambodian Surf Rock
The Khmer Rouge didn't tolerate artists and intellectuals.
Cambodian surf rock artist Ros Sereysothea
When a friend invited me to a “Cambodian surf party” in his run-down Sheffield flat, I figured he was just being a pretentious idiot. ‘It’s a retro novelty,’ I thought. ‘The kind of thing people who collect surrealist-noise vinyl lose their minds over because it’s kitsch and obscure.’
Upon arrival in Sheffield – where there was a distinct lack of anything Cambodian – my drunk friend rushed straight over to his laptop and loaded a song up on YouTube. “Listen to this,” he said. “It’ll blow your mind.” The song was "Jam 10 Kai Theit" by Ros Sereysothea and it sounded like all the best bits of Jefferson Airplane, a barbershop quartet and the soundtrack to a Tarantino film squeezed into three minutes of distorted wonder.
I was compelled to find the story behind the genre, so downloaded a compilation album – The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cambodia – and was captivated by the erratic rhythm and chants of Yol Aularong and the Sinatra-like presence of Sin Sisamuth. But while discovering their music was a joy, researching the lives of these artists led to a horrific discovery: most of them were brutally killed by the Khmer Rouge, or disappeared during the genocide that decimated Cambodia during the 1970s.
As Vietnam faced the onslaught of American invasion in the 1960s, neighbouring Cambodia was exposed to an unintended cultural bombardment. From Phnom Penh to Pailin, young Cambodians were able to tune into American Forces Radio and hear unadulterated rock music for the first time. Gradually, the psychedelic aesthetic began to seep into the country’s consciousness, with many Cambodian musicians inspired to recreate what they had heard.
But the scene didn’t last long. In 1970, a brutal civil war broke out between Cambodia’s government forces and the Khmer Rouge, the militarised communist party of Cambodia. The Americans supported the Cambodian government, which outraged swathes of the country’s agricultural population and unintentionally raised support for the militants.
“[The Khmer Rouge] was born at a time when covert American bombing of Cambodia and overt American aid to the Cambodian government brought devastation to the countryside,” said Professor Ashley Thompson, Chair in Southeast Asian Art at SOAS. “With pre-drone-style random massacres in the countryside, refugees from the bombings filling the capital and a freewheeling, highly corrupt militarised government contributing further to societal breakdown, there was a lot to be angry about.”
The skulls of Khmer Rouge victims (Photo via)
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh and exiled the city’s residents and renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. In reality, of course, the Khmer’s regime was anything but democratic, with Pol Pot – general secretary of the Cambodian Communist Party – assuming totalitarian control of the nation.
The Khmer Rouge wanted to rid Cambodia of what they saw as decadent Western culture, calling the agricultural utopia they had envisioned “Year Zero”. The social engineering of this Year Zero resulted in the consignment of huge swathes of the population to work camps, where they were effectively treated as slaves. Unimaginable amounts of people were worked to death and routinely executed, with current estimates placing the death toll at around 2,000,000.
The Khmer Rouge was particularly mistrustful of artists and intellectuals, viewing them as part of an educated elite that had sided with the Cambodian government. "Once the Khmer Rouge were in power, the elision of artists and intellectuals was taken to a hyperbolic extreme,” said Professor Thompson.
One of Ros Sereysothea's LP covers (Scan via)
Ros Sereysothea – undoubtedly the queen of her genre – became made her name singing traditional Cambodian ballads in the late 1960s. However, in the early 70s she began adopting Western styles and instruments into her music.
Despite having a relatively short career, she was a prolific songwriter and is credited with penning and appearing on over 100 songs. And it’s easy to understand why she achieved the fame she did; after all, it was one of her songs that drew me to Cambodian rock in the first place. Sadly, though, it’s thought that many of her recordings – along with countless other “decadent” artworks – were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
"Penh Jet Thai Bong Mouy (Ago Go)" by Ros Sereysothea
Sereysothea herself was last seen in Phnom Penh before it fell to the encircling Khmer Rouge forces. One account has her leaving the city under the protection of a small band of remaining government forces. Another has her put in charge of feeding pigs in a Khmer work camp. It’s also rumoured she was executed for unknown reasons in 1977.
However, none of these accounts have been confirmed. All that’s certain is that, after the genocide, she was never heard from again.
Sin Sisamuth on the front cover of a Cambodian compilation CD (Scan via)
If Ros Sereysothea was the Cambodian Janis Joplin, then Sin Sisamuth was the country's Frank Sinatra and John Lennon packed into one.
Like Sereysothea, he became famous singing traditional Cambodian pop songs and ballads, but it was the introduction of a rock ’n’ roll backing band – and Sisamuth’s playful meddling with Western melodies and musical tropes – that led to the creation of his most memorable work.
You only have to scroll through YouTube comments on uploads of his songs to see the kind of adoration he garnered as a musician; many young Cambodians refer to him as “grand master Sisamuth” to this day.
“Sin Sisamuth in particular has, as far as I can tell, never lost his place as an idol, an incarnation of a specifically Khmer modernity by which artistic perfection took innovative yet recognisably culturally specific turns,” said Professor Thompson.
Although it will never be possible to absolutely confirm the exact circumstances surrounding Sisamuth’s death, it’s widely accepted in Cambodia that he was brought before an execution squad.
As well as being an artist and an intellect, Sisamuth was a friend of the recently deposed royal family, making him a prime target for eradication by the Khmer Rouge. The story goes that when Sisamuth was presented to his executioners he accepted his fate, asking only that he be allowed to sing one song for the gunmen before his death.
He was granted his wish, but when he’d finished his song he found the soldiers unmoved and bored. They killed him there and then, without remorse.
Two hours of Sin Sisamuth songs
Part of what makes some music timeless is the story behind it. Just as listening to Daniel Johnston’s erratic outsider folk becomes a wholly different experience upon learning of his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, knowing the grim fate of the Cambodian rockers is sure to influence the way their music sounds.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If the stories of Sin Sisamuth, Ros Sereysothea and the countless other musicians who perished on the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields can help bring their music to a wider audience, then they need to keep being told.
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