First They Killed the Musicians:
Cambodian Rocks (Parallel World CD-6)

review by Kevin Nutt

While DJ Tricky Dick was busy “secretly” bombing Cambodia and the CIA was looking the other way as their planes were flying kilos of junk around Southeast Asia, far below Cambodia was nurturing an eclectic music scene.  Up until 1970, Cambodia was ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk.  Since the end of World War II and Cambodian independence Prince Sihanouk had held together the various political factions of Cambodia.  Only in 1970 did the turmoil in neighboring Vietnam finally reach the future Kampuchea.  As Nixon bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southeast Cambodia, General Lon Nol with the help of the U.S. staged a coup and took power.  Prince Sihanouk was deemed too weak and isolationist to deal with the growing guerrilla threats from the countryside including a small and then relatively unknown group the Khmer Rouge.  Lon Nol turned out to be another in a long line of incompetent nit wits the U.S. invariably put into power in a host of countries during the Cold War.  He fled to America just as the Khmer Rouge were entering Phnom Penh in 1975 and missed the ensuing party.

I suspect that like the music that is documented in the now seven volume Ethiopiques: The Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music, 1969-1975 series on Buda, the music of Cambodian Rocks probably grew out of some kind of night club scene in urban centers like Phnom Penh during the 1960’s.  Ironically, both Ethiopiques and Cambodian Rocks document thriving Western influenced musics that were squelched by communist takeovers.  The lights went out on both scenes in 1975 and in Kampuchea the commies killed the video stars.

There are no band or song names much less any discographical information on the CD.  (For a minute I thought this might be some kind of hoax a la John Lurie’s latter day black-face Marvin Pontiac Zip Coon act.  Compiler Paul Wheeler’s initials are also the initials of the label Parallel World.)  The story goes that Wheeler was on his way to the ancient Cambodian ruins of Angkor when he noticed the bus driver incessantly playing a cassette of this music.  Intrigued, Wheeler was later able to hum one of the tunes at a cassette stall and purchased a handful of cassettes.  Cambodian friends told him it was a style known as circle dance music. Cambodian Rocks is drawn from these cassettes.

There is no doubt that the musicians of Cambodian Rocks were not only listening to Western rock and R&B but mastering it.  Bits of surf, wild R&B, girl-group vocals, garage, post-garage psychedelia, Cuban bongos, and even some pre-punk snarling vocals swirl about often in the same song.  One song features a strangled screaming vocal on a cover of the Booker T and the M.G.’s  instrumental “Hip-Hug-Her.” There is a long standing tradition in popular Cambodian music of singers teasing their audience during performances and that playfulness is apparent on Cambodian Rocks. There is a knowing self awareness to many of the vocals that anticipates the absurdist tongue-in-cheek irony of so many contemporary Japanese bands.  Not only have these musicians absorbed late 60’s Western Rock and R&B their chops are so flawless and assured it’s almost if they are actually mocking the Western models, deconstructing them—in the correct Derridaian sense, thank you—and one uping the sources, more hijacking than parodying.

Despite this virtuosic tomfoolery with Western rock, regional folk styles are in the mix most notably the Thai-Laotian mor-lam whose accents and I-IV-V chord structure merge neatly with rock’s 4/4 beat and blues chord progressions.  Track 14 is basically an electric mor-lam in the style that would later dominate Thai radio in the 1980’s.  Track five reworks Santana’s cover of  “Black Magic Woman” with full nods to the original Fleetwood Mac version.  Track six sounds like Poly-Styrene fronting  Screaming Jay Hawkin’s band circa 1958 while track 13’s take on the garage standard “Gloria” might be the coolest since The Belles' “Melvin” (can you say P-O-L-P-O-T?).  Track 14 features a vocal take that sounds like it’s coming through street corner propaganda speakers and sung by someone with some serious amphetamine shrieks and the Mersey Beat vamp on track 18 could be mistaken for the “rock” music you hear in the background on a Dragnet episode.

Rock culture loves obscurity and mysteries and often zealously guards them. For the moment it appears no one knows much about this music and that probably suits all the hep-cats just fine.

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