This is a compilation of pop music from Cambodia from before the Khmer Rouge came to power – cue the usual stories about how everyone involved in making the songs here were killed in the years from 1975 to 1979, when what might be the most extreme human society that has ever existed turned on anyone associated with the former regime or Western decadence. This features top tunes from the likes of Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea and other less well-known artists, sometimes on their own and sometimes with the others. It also has extensive notes, including attempts to piece together the sad ends to these people's lives during the Democratic Kampuchea* period.
Still, I think it is possible to look beyond the unfortunate fates of the performers and enjoy it for what it is – a recording of mainly up-tempo groovers by people making a very vague approximation of Western pop music. It sounds almost like what you would get if some talented musicians read about the Beatles in a book and decided to make something like that themselves, without ever hearing the originals.
The focus in discussions of Cambodian pop music tends to be on the singers. While the likes of Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea, and Sinn Sisamouth are clearly vocalists of great talent, it is often the backing that music that strikes on this record – both the playing and the production (with the latter probably filtered through several generations of tape copies, as the original studio masters were even less likely to escape the Khmer Rouge than the musicians). Some of it reminds me a bit of the beatier end of the music on the Éthiopiques compilations, to call to mind another musical scene shut down by maniacal far-leftists. Most of these would make great floor fillers for leftfield retro discos, or for party scenes in films set in a world of hipster nostalgia.
Individual songs? Well, is it worth mentioning them? You'll probably never hear this record, so what do you care? Even so, I can mention a few. 'Yuvachon Yuvatey Samai Tmai (New Generation Youth)' is a charming duet between Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea that glides along, the melody leaping gamely from one voice to another in a manner familiar to anyone who has heard Dengue Fever's 'Tiger Phone Card'. 'Tonight Dance' is a hymn to the talents of Ros Sereysothea, her voice climbing to reach notes that should be beyond the range of human hearing, while her 'Oun Chong Rom Leng Ning Bong (I Wanna Dance With You)' adding her vocal talents to a tune that sounds like something early 60s beat Serge Gainsbourg might have served up.
To reflect again on Cambodia's sad history, these people may not have survived Democratic Kampuchea, but their music did. The perpetrators of the terrible crimes of that period are now dead or facing imprisonment for the rest of their lives, but some of us are still listening to this music they tried to eliminate.
* The name by which the Khmer Rouge referred to the country they ruled.
An inuit panda production