Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cambodia

[9 June 2014]

By Rob Caldwell

When Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime took power in 1975 Cambodia, they attempted to return the country to an agrarian age, and began systematically killing every artist, professional, and intellectual in the country. In five short years, over two million citizens were killed. In addition, they attempted to destroy all music recordings. Yet, some people managed to hide what records they had, while other recordings survived in expatriate communities around the world.
The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cambodia is the first high profile compilation to spotlight the blending that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s when traditional Cambodian music began to be filtered through the lens of garage rock, surf rock, and psychedelia. In addition, this release spotlights a handful of contemporary bands carrying on this fusion.

It’s a diverse assemblage, with Cambodian-language covers of Shocking Blue’s “Venus” (“Komlos Sey Chaom”) and an acid guitar-laced “House of the Rising Sun” (“Thgnai Kor Chrer”) rubbing shoulders with originals like Yos Olarang’s “Cyclo”. Olarang’s song comes on like a late ‘70s New York City art-rock band landing in a swinging ‘60s party in Phnom Penh. Elsewhere, selections by Pan Ron highlight a slightly warped mid-‘60s Euro soft rock style, her high, crystalline voice not unlike the young Kate Bush.

One slight issue I have with the collection is that the artist choice seems a little unbalanced. For example, Sin Sissamouth is considered one of the most prolific and important representatives of the genre, but perplexingly he’s only allocated one song. Conversely, Ros Seresyothea—albeit one of Cambodia’s most beloved singers—is allocated six of the 15 tracks. On the other hand, she’s a good choice to dominate the proceedings, as in some ways she was most artistically successful of her compatriots in incorporating western rock influences. Tragically, as with the majority of the other performers from this golden age, she was “disappeared” by the Khmer Rouge and never heard from again.

If Seresyothea is the star of the older works included, The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cambodia focuses on Cambodian Space Project for the contemporary scene. Their epic nine-minute “Whiskey Cambodia” has an eeriness recalling the Doors’ “The End”, though it’s actually a happy song written to celebrate the visit of foreigners to a remote Cambodian village. Space Project is given the whole of a bonus disc as well—Out of the Black and Into the Stratosphere—a sampler which includes two collaborations with Kong Nay, one of the few surviving musicians of the Khmer Rouge era, plus a small dose of rap and electronica.

Cross-pollination of musical genres always results in something interesting and new. What comes through most in this particular mix of cultures is how much fun the musicians seem to be having. There’s a marked spirit of adventure and discovery throughout, from the tracks going back over 40 years to the present day revival of the sound.

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