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Op-shops, Radio Waves, and Forgotten Psych-rock

Jack McDermott

Image Credit: Jack McDermott

A few years ago, I found a tape at an Op-Shop in Canberra. A friend and I were going on a road trip, and my car only had a cassette player. We sifted through boxes of tapes, picked up anything that looked like it would still play, and slowly worked through the haul.

One of these tapes was in a blank case, with nothing on the label except for a name, presumably its owner, and a date. The name, a Google search told us, was Cambodian, and the date was 1978. Even more curious was the music itself. Guitars played smooth, gliding arpeggios over bright organs and dusty down-tempo drum patterns. Some tracks were backed by tense, soulful blues chords, punctuated by sizzling guitar solos and playful organ stabs, sunburnt and warped by decades of tape distortion. This was a surprising backdrop for the lead vocalist, a young woman with a commanding vibrato singing in bright, clear Khmer.

It was a striking record with a puzzling collection of influences. But we had no information about the tape except for a place and a date — and these only raised further questions. In 1978, Cambodia was controlled by the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime, infamous for its brutal repression of foreign influences. It seemed impossible to me that music tinged so heavily by surfy, psychedelic American rock could have come from Cambodia at this time.

We returned to the Op-Shop a few months later and found more tapes, with similar labels, full of the same improbable Cambodian psych-rock. On one we heard a familiar tune — a Khmer language cover of Proud Mary. This gave us a lead, a search term, and after a bit of digging, some surprising history.

The tapes were recorded by Cambodian artist Ros Sereysothea. Ros began her career in the 1960s performing traditional Cambodian ballads. But she was later influenced by American music, especially rock, funk, and psychedelic, which reached Phnom Penh through radio signals broadcast to American troops in nearby South Vietnam from the late 1960s. So began a thriving decade of Cambodian rock, which combined traditional vocal techniques with contemporary Western instrumentation and arrangements. Ros was a prominent and prolific figure in the Cambodian rock scene.

This era of music came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. Artists were rounded up and taken to the killing fields; none of the major figures in psych-rock survived the regime. Ros disappeared in 1977, and while it’s assumed that she was killed by the Khmer Rouge, it remains unknown exactly what happened to her.

It was, as ever, disturbing to re-encounter this history. Especially as it affected an artist with whom I’d become familiar—whose music I’d heard and name I knew. But it was reassuring to hear a piece of Cambodia’s cultural history that had endured, and to share in the joy, passion, and creative expression the regime tried to bury.

A few questions remain unanswered. I’m still curious about how these tapes made it to Canberra, and what occasion was marked by the chilling “’78”. Cambodian rock saw a small resurgence in the 1990s in the US, after an American tourist published a compilation of songs from tapes found in Siem Reap. But all compilations released in the West were published on CD. It is much more likely that these tapes were brought directly from Cambodia—whoever brought them might have an interesting story.

I’ve been thinking about the story of Ros Sereysothea, the Cambodian psych-rock era, and my accidental brush with its history a lot in the past year. And as Canberra joins the surrounding capitals in another week of lockdown, I felt inspired to share it. It’s one of many experiences which has reminded me why I’m interested in international affairs in the first place, but of far too few I’ve had without having to leave my city. It reminds me how connected the world is, even with locked-down cities and closed borders, and why that matters — even a stray radio signal from one country can inspire a thriving subculture in another. And it makes me more confident that I can continue to learn about this endlessly fascinating region, and to maintain my connection with it, from home — hopefully next time with some more modern technology.

Speaking of which, a lot of Cambodian rock became available to stream earlier this year. If I’ve sparked your interest at all, I recommend a sunny track with a sombre history: Ros Sereysothea’s ថ្ងៃនេះយើងសប្បាយ—Today We Are Happy.

Jack McDermott is an International Relations/Arts graduate from the Australian National University and current Policy Officer in the not-for-profit sector.


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