Filed under: Cambodia
♬ Sinn Sisamouth • The Favourite Belonging of The Heart
♬ Ros Sereysothea • The Star of My Heart
From the first time I heard “A2“ on Paul Wheeler’s Cambodia Rocks compilation on Parallel World, I knew something wasn’t quite right. It didn’t hit me until many years later, but something in my brain made a note and filed it away somewhere… Thankfully, due to an onslaught of Khmer Pop compilations in recent years, I have since learned that the name of that song was “I’m Sixteen“ by Ros Sereysothea.
By now, anyone with even a passing interest in the popular music of South East Asia and / or Sixties Garage music has probably at least heard of Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth. They were the Queen and King of Khmer Pop. That is, until the Khmer Rouge overthrew the Cambodian government on April 17, 1975. And while the rest of the world is only now discovering their music, their popularity in Cambodia has never really faded.
Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a number of channels devoted to Khmer Pop on YouTube. There, you will find loads of songs by Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth as well as others. But on most of the songs, they have left the original vocals and replaced the music with a synthesizer and a drum box grafted on top of older recordings. How long have Cambodians been recycling their pop songs?
Since most of Khmer Pop collections of Sixties pop are compiled from old cassettes that have been floating around, most being dubbed copies with little or no liner notes, the sound quality is lo-fi at best. And as a fan of the music, you come to accept that. There are no master tapes. They’re all gone. But because of that fact, on many of these compilations the vocals and the instrumentation sometimes sound as if they were recorded at different times – perhaps even different decades.
My suspicions were piqued even more when I picked up a copy of the “Cambodian Psych-Out“ compilation, released on Defective / El Suprimo. Besides the spelling discrepancies (Ros Sereysothea is spelled four different ways in the liner note – Sinn Sisamouth seven different ways), is the inclusion of the song “If You Wish To Love Me Don’t Laugh Or Cry“. This same song was entitled “If You Wish To Love Me“ on “Cambodian Rocks Vol. 2“, except their version does not have the xylophone (or is that a glockenspiel?) in the first part of the song. You can also tell that the guitars and drums have been re-recorded over the old track. When was this done? Who knows?
I suspect it was not when these songs were originally recorded. And now as I go back thru looking for clues in the liner notes of previous compilations, it was right in front of me all along. They are only briefly mentioned phrases like “overdubbed percussion and keyboards“ and “re-recording“…
I know that the people who put these things together cherry pick the best cuts. The songs they choose may not have been the most popular songs of their day, but to modern ears, they pick out what sounds to them like the best track. And I can tell you, having listened to some of the original vinyl records from Cambodia, as well as records from neighboring Vietnam and Laos, from that time period – I have yet to hear anything remotely similar to the psychotic sounds found on “Cambodian Psych-Out” compilation – especially the first track “Month After Month Always Busy, Can’t Go Out”. Now I am not talking about all of the songs of that compilation, or the others on Khmer Rocks, but for a lot of those songs the studio production just doesn’t match up. The guitars, keyboards and drums that were recorded during mid 1970s just don’t sound like that. The original songs? Yeah. But those searing guitar and keyboard solos? I am not so sure…
Hopefully, whenever the documentary “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten“ is finally released, maybe then will some of my questions be answered.
Thanks to Vatthana Lim for the Khmer translation.
Catalog number P. T. 111 on Bayon of Cambodia. No release date listed.