Ros Serey Sothea, The Queen of Cambodian Rock
The Power for Change
Popular culture is a key indicator of not only an audience’s tastes, but also the social causes that are important to them. Cambodian music has been known to reflect the nation’s ways of life, like when internationally inspired pop and rock music gained popularity in conjunction with the push for modernization. The most popular Khmer music represented a freedom to engage with French, Afro-Cuban, and American styles while preserving and honoring Cambodian identity. Even during the Vietnam War, Cambodians learned American songs from the American Forces Vietnam Network, a radio station that broadcasted music for nearby US soldiers. Historically, authoritarian governments have targeted artists because their work’s influence threatens tyranny. The Khmer Rouge used “traditional” music and art in their propaganda, but the regime’s creations did not unite Cambodians or generate national pride in the way popular music had. One of the most powerful stories of music’s significance to freedom comes from Sieng Vanthy. When Vietnamese troops defeated the Khmer Rouge, they recognized the singer and asked her to return to Phnom Penh, where she would perform on the radio to signal to surviving Cambodians that it was safe to return to the city.
Have some extra time on your hands? Want more Cambodian rock? Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is a documentary about Cambodia’s 60s and 70s music scene, as well as how music was suppressed by the Khmer Rouge. It’s available to stream for free online.
Khmer National Radio operator. Photo: Don't Think I've Forgotten
Singer recording at Khmer National Radio. Photo: Don't Think I've Forgotten
Art & Resistance
“If you want to eliminate values from past societies, you have to eliminate the artists. Because artists are influential. Artists are close to the people.”
- Prince Norodom Sirivudh
The Women of Cambodian Rock
How does art thrive or suffer under an
authoritarian system? If today's popular music
was government-restricted, how would your life change?
Keeping art alive
Though many Cambodian films and music recordings were destroyed in the late 70s, dedicated audiences and new technology have allowed for the sharing of art that might’ve been lost otherwise. For example, Ros Serey Sothea’s fans escaped with some of her records, and clips from 1960s Cambodian movies can be found online. In 1994, an American tourist made a popular compilation of 22 untitled and uncredited songs from the era, which listeners have since been able to update with the proper information.