Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ros Sereysothea

My usual compulsion is to obsess over various figures, events, etc. My life then gets sidetracked by a particular preoccupation which may last anywhere from a few hours to a few months. For instance, I became obsessed a while back with asteroids and how one is bound to hit Earth (it will happen people!). I spent about a month watching asteroid documentaries, consuming asteroid and space-related information in mass quantities. At a party I trapped a guy in an asteroid conversation, animatedly spelling out doom and gloom for our planet. In 2009, I watched only Czech New Wave films for almost the entire year, resisting any attempt by any person or entity to inculcate me with unrelated materials. 

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:


Press play for a taste... takes a few seconds to load.

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.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Indo-Groove: Freak Fuzz & Funk from 1970s Cambodia & Thailand

What would it have been like to experience the underground music scene in early 1970s Bangkok? It might be of surprise that the place was every bit as decadent, as full of sex, drugs AND ROCK N' ROLL as anywhere else on the planet. What little recorded music that does exist and is available gives us a glimpse of the possibilities. Crucial releases in the last few years from labels like Sublime Frequencies are helping to grow the listenable canon by the month.

I read something in a liner note for a collection of Bangladeshi rock and pop songs that because foreign records were practically impossible to find in the country, and their price exorbitant, very few people had any, not to mention had enough money for a decent record player. There were only a few records passed around a small group of musicians. Somebody might have had a Kinks record, passed it around, the next guy gave it to his friend, and so on. The bands would shamelessly ape a Keith Richards guitar riff or a Ray Davies vocalization. But what came out was anything but a carbon copy

I'm nowhere near an expert on Thai underground music, and Thailand is not and has never resembled Bangladesh, but it wouldn't be ridiculous to suggest that the Thai scene at the time was much the same in that not many American or British artists' records would have been available for consumption. In the case of Cambodia, the radio stations from the American armed forces stationed there during the Vietnam War would have been a major influence. Of course, bands like the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and a random bag of western rock songs were pretty much universal. Their paw prints can be found the world over, including Thailand and Cambodia.
Film poster for a Thai exploitation film circa early 1970s

Certainly, none of the music on this mix would exist in its form without the 'western element", but we have to be careful not to exaggerate its influence. Luk Thung, Northern Thailand's "country pop", and one of the styles broadly displayed on this mix, gradually implemented western and other popular styles. More traditional Luk Thung has a very distinct and unique sound of its own. The sound that most impresses is that of the khene, a mouth organ of Lao origin, which creates a mushroom cloud of trance-like psychedelia. The implementation of the more "modern" elements results in a bitches brew of surf guitar, Kinks-style "You Really Got Me", Latin soul, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, James Brown funk, Hank Williams on acid, even some weird coincidences with late 1960's Ethiopian Jazz (though the connection is an impossibility).

 I picked up a copy of an album called Cambodian Cassette Archives somewhere around 2004. It blew my mind. I have savagely consumed '60s and '70s Thai and Cambodian pop on and off since. However, it must be said that I've failed to convert all but one or two listening buddies to the Indo-Grooves that famously play around our house on random evenings. Thus, its become a mission to pass on those glorious sounds to anyone with a pair of willing ears. Free you mind and dip into the deliciously far out music of Thailand and Cambodia...


Dao Bandon, or is Jimi Hendrix alive and well and living in Thailand?
Just a sip...