Sometimes, for whatever reason, great art slips past audiences and remains woefully underappreciated. Which is why we’ve created an essay series called Fossil Records, devoted to helping people discover work that never got its due.
Like so many budding music geeks before me, one of my first jobs was behind the cash register at a local record store. Obviously it didn’t pay much and I wasn’t exactly pulling anything close to regular hours since this was at the dawn of the record store apocalypse, but it was a perfect job for really learning about music. Being a record clerk was an education not just in developing my own taste, but also in contributing to others’ tastes and experiencing the thrill of curating musical experiences. And my biggest educator was the store’s owner, a small, excitable man from New York named Shawn, a key early figure at Amazon who had cashed out and moved to a weird hippie island to spend more time with his family and realize a life dream of owning a record shop.
Shawn was the antithesis of what most people imagine when they think of record store owners. He always had a smile on his face and he could connect with anyone musically no matter how questionable their tastes might be. And one of his best tricks was to wander into the shop to say hello around lunchtime, sneakily put something on the stereo and then wander back out before you’d noticed. The idea was that sometimes you can turn people onto things better if you don’t make it clear that you’re trying to convince them they need to hear it. I lost a lot of my preconceived notions about genres or artists this way, but nothing compared to the day he brought in a mysterious compilation of Cambodian garage rock.
My musical adolescence was spent mostly in the punk scene and I had always prided myself on digging deep and finding some weirder, lesser known musical artifacts, but I was pretty undereducated on anything more international than the UK. It’s not that difficult these days to connect with music scenes across the globe, but I grew up in a time when zines were still a necessary component of music listening and the bulk of your musical discoveries came through either written or verbal word of mouth. You’d scan liner notes and play a game of connect the dots with the thank yous, or seek out the originals after hearing covers. But the Cambodian Rocks compilation was something that I only could have discovered at the time through someone like Shawn, a tutor who not only knew how to find out about music like this but was also thrilled to share it.
That tutor aspect extends to the compilation’s own origins, too. The story in the criminally scant liner notes is that Paul Wheeler compiled this music after hearing it in buses while travelling through Cambodia. He had to go to bootleg tape booths and try to sing and hum the music to the vendors in the hopes that they could sell him what he was looking for. That’s the kind of story that used to be common before things like Shazam made it easier to track down a song you briefly heard, but even today much of the music on the compilation would be difficult to find due to the backstory of the artists represented.
Compiled from tracks recorded in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Cambodian Rocks is more than a primer on a fascinating musical culture, it’s a tragic glimpse at a scene that was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge regime, destroyed before it could reach its full potential. Years before John Lydon would scream his “No Future” mantra, these artists were living it, staring down the twin threats of the Vietnam conflict and the Khmer Rouge—this is doomsday party music, a hybrid of the violent confusion of the Western psychedelic garage rock scene and the rhythmic communal ecstasy of Cambodia’s own circle dance music.
The music on the mix is unpredictably playful, with songs like Yol Aularong’s “Jeas Cyclo” using traditional Cambodian percussion and scales as an audio cold open before shifting to organ driven garage rock stomp. Each track is a continuous surprise, a fusion of elements that should be contradictory but somehow strike a balance of West and East—organ hooks swerving between fierce guitar riffs that antagonize vocals that frequently sound closer to ghostly siren wails than traditional pop melodies. Ros Serey Sothea, a bonafide Cambodian pop star who is featured on most of the tracks on the compilation in some way or another, is an especially brilliant example of the approach to vocals on the compilation.
I don’t really have the first clue about the message of “Chnum Oun 16,” other than knowing its title is about being 16, but right from the start, with its sinister guitar lick and macabre organ line, it courts danger. Given that Sothea was more than a pop star, she was also a revolutionary figure who fought the Khmer Rouge through music and her appeal to the people and probably died for it (her real fate remains unclear today), it’s hard not to listen to that dark edge of the song and view it as political regardless of lyrical content. By 1970, the Cambodian government was falling apart, crippled by Prince Norodim Suramarit’s disastrous attempts to gain Chinese favor through North Vietnam support, and Sothea was unsurprisingly a supporter of American intervention in the area, to the extent that she was romantically linked to a Khmer Republic general and recorded patriotic songs for the cause right up until the Khmer Rouge took over the capital in 1975. It’s tempting to view “Chnum Oun 16” as an anxious forecast of the future, where teenage hopes are darkened by the horrors looming around the corner; for many of Cambodia’s young artists, 21 would be an age of death instead of maturation, a permanent end to all the hopes and dreams of their youth.
Sothea’s frequent collaborator and idol Sinn Sisamouth utilized a similar darkness on the few songs of his that survived the Cambodian revolution and made it onto the compilation, most notably on “Srolan Srey Touch,” with its sprinkling of Latin tinged rock and Sisamouth’s mournful vocal delivery. If it wasn’t for that signature, eerie opening guitar riff, it would be almost impossible to recognize “Srolan Srey Touch” as a sort of cover of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” but Sisamouth was a huge fan of converting Western rock to Cambodian tastes, and amongst the thousands of songs he apparently wrote before his death are numerous reconfigurations of hits like “House of the Rising Sun.” I say sort of cover because Sisamouth more or less completely altered “Black Magic Woman,” giving it a frantic pace filled with chaotic percussion and a melody that plays off the original but sacrifices its sultry groove in favor of an otherworldy croon.
The fact that this music was never able to develop thanks to Pol Pot’s murderous destruction of Cambodian culture means that today Cambodia’s music scene remains largely stagnant. We talk about bands that never got their due or songs that should have been bigger hits, but that’s not usually because of mass murder, yet for almost every single artist collected here, that was the case. And it’s all the more tragic when you consider that these were artists who at times were literally risking their lives in order to hear the music coming out of the west, but today you can be a musical revolutionary when just an internet connection and a decent understanding of how to maximize search engine efficiency. Years after I first discovered this compilation, I’m still struggling to learn more about the music contained within it, and it remains fascinating to me that even today it’s not something that’s very easy to stumble across. There’s a certain kind of magic that happens when you share music, even if it’s in a less direct fashion than Shawn did with me, and it’s all the more potent with stories like this one, where these voices are still defying their oppressors and winning over new fans even through death and the attempted eradication of their work.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover