Cambodian Rock ’n’ Roll – A Brief Introduction

Cambodian Rock n Roll
Album covers mainly featuring Ros Serey Sothea, Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth.

The tragic history of Cambodia’s musical golden age.

Phnom Penh in the 1960s was the cultural gem of Southeast Asia. At its heart was its thriving music scene, a unique sound rooted in Khmer classical traditions and influenced by French Yé Yé pop, and American rock and soul (which permeated into Khmer listening habits via the radio broadcasts transmitted to US troops in Vietnam).

Further to this, the young king Norodom Sihanouk, a musician himself, was a keen supporter of the arts. He employed orchestras and singing ensembles, and his mother Queen Sisowath Kossamak gave young singer Sinn Sisamouth – who would go on to become the country’s most famous recording artist – his first job in music, as part of a royal ensemble. Alongside Sisamouth, artists such as Chhoun Malay, Yol Aularong, Ros Serey Sothea, Pan Ron (sometimes spelt Pen Ran), and Sieng Vanthy filled the airwaves with their Khmer twist on funk and soul.

The heyday of Cambodian music was extinguished seemingly overnight when Pol Pot’s extremist Khmer Rouge government came to power in April 1975.

The Cambodian genocide lasted from 1975–78 and wiped out 25% of the population (approximately two million people). Musicians were first in line as propagators of Western culture and the fate of many of Cambodia’s most famous stars is still unknown. Pol Pot declared “Year Zero”, meaning a total societal reset where all relics of the past were destroyed. As part of this purge, records and master tapes were burned, meaning much of the music, art, and film from 20th-century Cambodia has been lost. All that survived were hidden personal collections.

After the war, Ros Saboeut, the sister of famous singer Ros Serey Sothea, set about reuniting the surviving musicians to make music once more and the government poured its efforts into revitalising the country’s radio industry. 

And thus, the record started spinning once again for Cambodia’s music industry. However, that glistening pre-war soulful rock ’n’ roll sound was no more. A relic of a bygone era and a reminder of painful memories, the world had moved onto new sounds, and so had Cambodia.

Since the late 1990s, musicologists and fans alike have made efforts to identify the singers on newly uncovered old cassette tapes, and to re-master and re-release new compilations, bringing international recognition to Cambodia’s lost art.

Three Khmer singers you should know:

Ros Serey Sothea

Emblematic of the Cambodian rock scene, Ros Serey Sothea (c. 1948 – c. 1977) is the name that springs to the lips of most Cambodians today when the mention of 1960s music arises. Declared the “Golden Voice of Phnom Penh” by the then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, she used the traditional “Ghost Voice” a style of singing in a high register and jumping octave intervals. She disappeared during the Khmer Rouge genocide and it’s assumed she perished.

Sinn Sisamouth

King of Khmer music Sisamouth (c. 1932 – c. 1976) draws comparison to Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley for his velvet crooner singing voice and charismatic stage presence (start with the sublime Kung Prous Srolanch). He was instrumental to the flourishing of the Cambodian music scene and he often collaborated with other singers such as Chhoun Malay. He is further credited with launching the career of Ros Serey Sothea when he invited the relatively unknown wedding singer to duet with him. As a high-profile figure, it’s likely he was executed during the Khmer Rouge regime, but his remains have never been discovered.

Sieng Vanthy

Vanthy (b. 1948) was one of the few musicians to survive the Cambodian genocide. In the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2014), Vanthy explains that she survived by convincing Khmer Rouge soldiers that she was a banana seller, not a performer. Her only surviving song on record, Luong Loum Oun Phaang (Console Me), is one of my favourite songs from this era. Her trembling voice has a melancholy tone as she pleads with her lover not to be angry while dazzling electric guitars, jazz organ, and shakers lend a vibrant backdrop. 


The Rise and Fall of Cambodian Rock and Roll (Alex Benson, 2018)

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (dir. John Pirozzi, 2014)

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