Between 1960s and early 1970s a flourishing music scene based in Phnom Penh was led by singers like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, and Pen Ran. The scene was further influenced by Western rock and roll and soul music before all perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Below a trailer and its soundtrack album for a documentary called “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll” which give a good overview what this is all about.
Here’s my personal favourites and way forward to find yours.
Mercurial Frame playlists & mixtapes
More about the artists
Ros Serey Sothea – រស់ សេរីសុទ្ធា
In Phnom Penh, she adopted the alias Ros Serey Sothea and became a singer for the National Radio service, first performing duets with Im Song Seurm. Her first hit, “Stung Khieu (Blue River)” appeared in 1967 and she quickly became popular across Cambodia, particularly for her high and clear voice. Eventually she became a regular partner with Sinn Sisamouth, the era’s leading singer, resulting in many popular duet recordings. She also collaborated with other prominent singers of the era like Pen Ran, Huoy Meas, and Sos Mat, while maintaining an active solo career as well.Wikipedia
Sothea’s early recordings were largely traditional Cambodian ballads. She would eventually adopt a more contemporary style incorporating French and American influences, adding western pop/rock instrumentation, as was common in Cambodian music starting in the late 1960s. Eventually Sothea and her contemporaries were strongly influenced by American radio that had been transmitted to U.S. troops in nearby South Vietnam, inspiring experimentation with American/British rock and soul sounds. Sothea combined her high and clear voice with backing provided by young rock musicians, characterized by prominent electric guitars, drums, and Farfisa organs. This resulted in a sound that is often described as psychedelic or garage rock, and Sothea became the leading female singer in the thriving Cambodian rock scene. Sothea was also one of many singers in that scene to create new versions of popular western rock songs with Khmer lyrics, such as “Cry Loving Me” (based on “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival) and “Wolly Polly” (based on “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham).
Romantic ballads would remain her most endearing work amongst the more conservative populace. She was often sought out by film directors to perform songs in their movies. Sothea’s collaboration with the Cambodian film industry is invaluable in identifying over 250 films lost during the Khmer Rouge regime. Sothea never sang under any one record label and made a modest living as a musician. She was recognized as a national treasure and was honored by Head of State Norodom Sihanouk with the royal title of Preah Reich Theany Somlang Meas, the “Queen with the Golden Voice” (sometimes translated as “Golden Voice of the Royal Capital”). During the Cambodian Civil War in the early 1970s, Sothea became involved in the Khmer Republic military and recorded patriotic songs supporting the Republic’s stance against the Khmer Rouge insurgents. Her career would continue until the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975.[
Sinn Sisamouth – សុីន សុីសាមុត
While performing with the Cambodian national radio station, Sisamouth became a protege of Queen Sisowath Kossamak, mother of Head of State Norodom Sihanouk. The Queen invited Sisamouth to join the Vong Phleng Preah Reach Troap (the classical ensemble of the Royal Treasury) with which he performed at royal receptions and state functions. He also achieved hit songs on national radio around this time, first writing and performing songs based on traditional Khmer music. In the mid-1950s, the romantic ballad “Violon Sneha”, composed by violinist Hass Salan, catapulted Sisamouth into stardom across Cambodia.Wikipedia
Sisamouth became known for his crooning voice, which has been likened to that of Nat King Cole, while his stage presence has been compared to that of Frank Sinatra. By the late 1950s, Sisamouth had established himself as the leading figure in an expanding Cambodian pop music scene. Norodom Sihanouk, a musician himself, encouraged the development of popular music in Cambodia. Initially, pop records from France and Latin America were imported into the country and became popular, inspiring a flourishing music scene based in Phnom Penh. The music produced by Sisamouth and his contemporaries had become popular throughout the country; in 1965, Sisamouth’s song “Champa Batdambang” was the first content played on Khmer Republic Television. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Cambodian music scene was further influenced by Western rock and roll and soul music via U.S. armed forces radio that had been broadcast into nearby South Vietnam. This resulted in a unique sound in which Western pop and rock were combined with Khmer vocal techniques. Sisamouth was a leader of these trends, moving from traditional Khmer music and romantic ballads to Latin jazz, cha cha cha, agogo, and eventually psychedelic rock in which he employed younger rock musicians.
Sisamouth had become established as Cambodia’s most popular singer and songwriter. Nevertheless, his popularity did not eclipse that of other recording artists such as Eum Song Seurm and Huoy Meas. He collaborated directly with Mao Sareth and Chounn Malay, among others. He also wrote songs for, and duetted with, other popular Cambodian singers in order to nurture their careers. For example, starting in the mid-1960s he recorded many popular duets with Pen Ran. Sisamouth is credited with launching the career of Ros Serey Sothea, who had been singing at weddings and later became the leading female singer in the Cambodian rock scene. Sisamouth and Sothea recorded many very popular duets from the mid-1960s into the early 1970s. In later years, Sisamouth contributed songs to the soundtracks for a number of popular Cambodian films, such as Orn Euy Srey Orn, Tep Sodachan, and Thavory Meas Bong.
Sisamouth’s highly prolific songwriting became well known during this period; he is confirmed to have written more than one thousand songs for himself and others (see Sinn Sisamouth discography), and the true total may be considerably higher. His son Sinn Chanchhaya believed that Sisamouth wrote roughly one song for every day that he was a professional musician, a period of nearly 20 years. In 1973 the music publisher Kruorch Bunlyhe issued A Collection of Sentimental Songs, which contained 500 of Sinn Sisamouth’s songs. He was also known to adapt popular Western pop and rock songs with new Khmer lyrics, such as a song based on Santana‘s “Black Magic Woman” called “Srolanh Srey Touch” (translated as “I Love Petite Girls” in English-language compilations); plus covers of “Hey Jude” by The Beatles (titled “Always Will Hope”), “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum (titled “Apart from Love”), and “Love Potion No. 9” by The Searchers (titled “Other Than You”). By the 1970s he was working regularly with lyricist Voy Ho, and had adapted some traditional and popular Thai songs into his repertoire (for example, “Promden Jet” with Ros Serey Sothea).
During the Cambodian Civil War in the early 1970s, Sisamouth was a supporter of the Khmer Republic military and recorded patriotic songs supporting the Republic’s stance against the Khmer Rouge insurgents. His career would continue until the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975.
Pen Ran – ប៉ែន រ៉ន
Pen Ran, also commonly known as Pan Ron in some Romanized sources intended for English-speaking audiences, was a Cambodian singer and songwriter who was at the height of her popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s. Known particularly for her western rock and soul influences, flirtatious dancing, and risque lyrics, Pen Ran has been described by the New York Times as a “worldly, wise-cracking foil” to the more restrained Cambodian pop singers of her era. She disappeared during the Khmer Rouge genocide and her exact fate is unknown.Wikipedia
Pen Ran was an early entrant in this music scene, with the hit song “Pka Kabas” in 1963 but she became a national star when she began recording with Sinn Sisamouth in 1966. Starting in the late 1960s Ran recorded many collaborations with Sisamouth and other notable Cambodian singers of the period, while continuing her solo career. The debut of the popular Ros Serey Sothea in 1967 had little effect on Pen Ran’s career and perhaps even broadened her popularity as the second leading lady of Cambodian popular music.
Pen Ran was known for her unrestrained personality and western-oriented hairstyles and fashions, rejecting traditional demands on Khmer women and representing new and modern gender roles. Her onstage dancing and flirtatious lyrics were considered scandalous in Cambodia at the time. Translated titles of her songs indicate her risque focus on romance and sexuality (for example, “I’m Unsatisfied” and “I Want to Be Your Lover”) and a rejection of traditional courtship (for example, “It’s Too Late Old Man”). Near the end of her music career Pen Ran was still an unmarried career woman in her early thirties, which was also unusual for Cambodia at the time. She addressed this topic in the song “I’m 31” which was an answer to Ros Serey Sothea’s hit song “I’m 16.”
Pen Ran was known to be a very versatile singer, having a repertoire consisting of traditional Cambodian music, rock, twist, cha cha cha, agogo, mambo, madizon, jazz, and folk. When discussing her vocal abilities, one researcher has said “Pan Ron hits notes that shatter glass.” Decades later, Nick Hanover described the unique combination of Cambodian and Western influences in the track “Rom Jongvak Twist” as “a Cambodian spin on American dance crazes that sounds less like Chubby Checker than Lydia Lunch.” Throughout her career, she is believed to have performed on hundreds of songs, many of which she wrote herself.]
Cambodian Vintage Music Archive – បណ្ណសារ ចម្រៀងខ្មែរពីដើមល្បីល្បាញ
CVMA project works to promote the legacy of the musicians before Khmer Rouge regime to gain their royalties and to digitally transfer Cambodian music records in high fidelity sound.