The Secret World of Psychedelic Cambodia
A Riveting Genre Excavated
Lying in the ash of Cambodia, buried under war and time, there is an almost completely forgotten and destroyed universe of music: the secret world of Cambodian psychedelic rock.
Communism and death spilled into the streets of Phnom Penh as Cambodian citizens were sent to labor camps to be starved and abused under the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge. The ruthless regime used killing fields for executions, buildings that had previously been schools were turned into prisons, and traditional Cambodian culture was destroyed. The world stood by, idle and indifferent, as a bloody genocide raged on from 1970 to nearly a decade later.
Genocide is not a reflection of Cambodia. It is a devastating and shameful period of history, but it does not encapsulate their country or their culture. In fact, during the sixties and right up until the reign of communist terror, Cambodia was known for their beautiful, explosive rock and roll music. Spearheaded by musicians like Sinn Sisamouth and Pan Ron, pictured in the groovy album art shown above, Cambodian Psychedelic rock music was an intoxicating mélangé of traditional music and western surf/beat rock, with Latin influences. Unfortunately, due to the Khmer Rouge and their senseless killings, little is known about Cambodian psychedelic singer Pan Ron, other than she was, at one point, the most successful and popular singer in Cambodia, and that she most likely did not live to see past 1975, when she would have been in her late teens or early twenties.
Cambodian psychedelic rock music, like all psychedelia, has roots in experimental and free-form jazz and early Western surf rock. What makes this genre so special though is its Latin and French influence, which came from foreign records that were sent to Cambodia in the early 60s. There is something so fresh, young, and violently exciting about this genre, and the heartbreaking nature of its obscurity and destruction makes it even more intriguing and important to study. When thinking of Cambodian rock, one word comes to mind: "gem". Something precious and buried, something valuable that one must discover and treasure.
While the genre and the Cambodian rock movement as a whole is largely forgotten, there have been several compilation albums (Cambodian Rocks, 1996 and Cambodian Psych Out, 2006) with the aim of education and preservation of this specific breed of Cambodian music. There's also successful Cambodian psychedelic group, Dengue Fever, which formed in 2001. Comprised of two musicians from California and Cambodian singer and actress Chhom Nimol, Dengue Fever makes old-school Cambodian psychedelia accessible to a new generation of listeners.
Cambodia was robbed of their culture and their music. The genocide took everybody from scholars to children. If only the Cambodian rock singers and musicians of the sixties had been able to continue living and making music for their country, and the for generation of free-thinking, liberated, and expressive young adults that this genre was helping to shape, music could be twenty years into the future right now. All we can do is look into this secret world of vibrancy and music, and cherish what time it did have.
This hidden gem is an exemplar of the true uniqueness of Cambodian psych rock.
Pan Ron's shrill and crystal clear voice is instantly recognizable in this hit.