Few people were aware that Cambodia was an incredibly modern and cultural society before the murderous Khmer Rouge* regime took over Cambodia in 1975. “Before the Khmer Rouge, it was a crazy, booming society, socially and economically – it was very progressive,” says Senon Williams, bassist of the Los Angeles rock band Dengue Fever. As American fever was sweeping through groups of young and hip teenagers, Cambodians adopted the sweeping, bass heavy Sixties rock and roll sounds and made it their own with Khmer lyrics and melodies.
Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia is an exciting new retrospective collection of Cambodian rock music from the late Sixties and early seventies and it features the unearthly and haunting sounds of musicians such as Dara Chom Chan, Pan Ron and Ros Serey Sothea. It represents a golden era in Cambodian culture and music that was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era.
All of these artists lost their lives in what has been called the Cambodian genocide but their musical legacy can continue with this wonderful collection. It is a musical legacy that was almost lost though and were it not for the older sister of Dengue Fever’s Cambodia-born lead vocalist Chhom Nimol, many of the songs would have remained unnamed and anonymous.
As it is, there is one song on the album where the artist has not been identified and another where the name of the song remains unknown. This is a testament to the destruction of war time situations and regimes such as the Khmer Rouge that in the end, people are only left with incomplete and tattered snippets of their culture.
The songs on Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia are unmistakeably Cambodian and while the sounds may not appeal to everybody, lovers of world music will appreciate the ethereal vocals of Pan Ron and Ros Serey Sothea and the Cambodian interpretation of Sixties music. These are emotional and engaging songs that speak to the excitement, hope and innocence of the era in much the same way as Western songs of that time do.
Ros Serey Sothea was Cambodia’s most famous, prolific singer of the time and the albums features her songs “Flowers in the Pond” and “Shave Your Beard” among others. Pan Ron’s “Don’t Speak” is a fine example of Sixties rock and roll music and you can imagine leagues of young Cambodians doing the twist to songs like this. Her song “Snaeha” is a remake of the massive Cher hit “Bang Bang” and deserves mention too.
The collection has been compiled by Los Angeles rock band Dengue Fever as a way of preserving the music and introducing their fans to the original versions of some of the songs that they had covered. Proceeds from the sales of the album will benefit Cambodian Living Arts, which is a project of the non-profit Massachusetts-based Marion Institute devoted to supporting the revival of traditional Khmer performing arts and inspiring contemporary artistic expression.
*The Khmer Rouge was a communist, Maoist party that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 under the leadership of Pol Pot. They set up a radical form of agrarian communism where city dwellers were forced to leave cities and work on farms. Their murderous regime resulted in genocide – between 850 000 and 1.5 million people died from execution, torture, forced work or starvation, representing between 20 to 25% of the total population.