I am presently being seduced by the voice, the music and the story of Ros Sereysothea. I've not been able to stop listening to her, reading about her, obsessively digging up anything related to her. Rarely have I been as emotionally affected by a stranger's fate.
Before Pol Pot assumed power and the Khmer Rouge killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million of their own people, Cambodia had what has been described as a "cultural renaissance", where among other things, Cambodian rock developed and thrived. Then came April 17, 1975, year zero for the Khmer Rouge's half-baked political ideology. If you were an intellectual or an artist, you topped the death list. Pol Pot's black uniformed Khmer soldiers rolled through Phnom Phen and evacuated the city by telling everyone bombs were about to fall. The city was emptied and the population transferred to the countryside. When a Khmer found a person of education or maybe if he simply didn't like the way someone looked, armed soldiers marched them out to the execution grounds. They often used shovels or anything thick and blunted to beat in the heads of men, women and children--they didn't want to waste bullets. Spalding Gray, in his one man performance-art film, Swimming to Cambodia, describes the scene in graphic detail, much more poignantly than in the watered-down Bruce Armstrong-penned movie, The Killing Fields, which though it has its merits, in the end leans toward melodrama and the typical war narrative trappings.
By all accounts, the above was the kind of fate that met Ros Serey Sothia: Beaten to death and dumped in a shallow grave somewhere in the killing fields of the horror that was Cambodia.
Images of those events are inescapable when listening to Ros Sereysothea. Thus it is much more of a reflective and contemplative listening experience. The recordings here are rough. Most, if not all, are culled from cassette tapes that were either hidden during the Khmer Rouge genocide, or were smuggled out to Thailand or the USA. For me, the rough if not poorly recorded sound is even more attractive for it is closer to how it would have sounded at the time.
Ros' voice ranges from sass and cool to deeply haunting. Listen to her flirtatious vocal fills in the song, "Chot Me Machureach Solthea"; the spectacular crescendos of "Pros Roeung Avey"; the transcendent operatic moments on "Kbot Heuy Kbot Tiet"; the nostalgia of "Superstar"."Ouy Khn Yom Yom Thov" and "Poup Kmoa Ngo Ngit" become almost unbearable when one considers the fate that awaited her. But at the same time, these are the kinds of songs we live for:
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p.s. There's a documentary in the works which details the rise and fall of the Cambodian rock scene. It seems that it has been in production for more than five years, so whether it'll get completed and receive proper distribution is of great interest to me personally. They have managed to put together a nice little trailer (below) which sets a backdrop to the period. Unfortunately, video of Ros Sereysothea is not known to exist.