In the 1950s Khmer rock music started to blossom. Initially influenced by Western rock and pop culture, Cambodian musicians created a unique sound by mixing Western melodies with Khmer lyrics. The upbeat sound with the high-pitched voices of Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea, Yous Aularang, Em Yeang, Sos Mat, Meas Samon, and the “King of Cambodian Music” Sin Sisamouth created the legendary Golden Age of modern Cambodian music.
When the Khmer Rouge murdered the Golden Age singers, Cambodian rock almost died with it. Many recordings of the time only survived in the luggage of refuges.
For a few years now Cambodian rock has made a comeback, starting from a group of rock music lovers from Phnom Penh who gather for headbanging and share their music, which is completely different from the sounds of the Golden Age.
The history of Cambo headbangers
Prom Veasna, Buth Puthea Roth and Chhuth Sen Propey – the three founders of the Cambodian rock and metal society – have got together Cambodian teenagers who are passionate about rock music. The group was established in 2010 under the name of Cambo Headbangers on Facebook.
“In the past, Cambodian teenagers thought they were the only ones who loved rock music. Everything started individually. They did not know that there were some other Cambodians who listened to rock music, too. After they joined our group, they started to realise that they were not alone,” said Cambo Headbanger founder Veasna, 27.
Happy to have found like-minded people and a common music taste, the Cambodian rockers have grown in numbers dramatically. They get together and encourage each other to enjoy rock music by sharing common music and goals.
The young rock lovers and musicians, aged from 15 to 27, take their inspiration from Western rock bands like the Golden Age singers. Yet, their sound is unequally hard, with bands representing the deathcore and metal genre and they mostly sing (or scream) in English.
The annual Cambo Headbanger festivals are the nucleus of new bands. The Anti-fate – considered the first punk rock band – and Sliten6ix – the first blast Cambodian deathcore band – are the first two bands that were formed in the 2010s. Because there is no music industry apart from the pop mainstream in Cambodia, the punk and deathcore pioneers keep their unique style underground. Relatively few people understand the purpose and quality of their sometimes violent sounds.
“People think that we are monsters – even the musicians and the listeners. They said why do you play this kind of music? It is useless. It doesn’t earn you any money,” said Veasna, the lead guitarist of deathcore band Sliten6ix.
“If we try to create something new, people think we’re crazy,” said Propey, the 24 year-old frontman of Anti-fate. “But if we make it work, it is not crazy anymore – they instead follow us.”
Challenges of creating a unique sound
Creating an individual style in contemporary rock music has become more challenging over the decades.
During the 1950s rock came to Cambodia through wealthy families who travelled to Europe and came back with Western modern music and guitars.
The sound of the Golden Age resembled a psychedelic garage rock sound which was popular during the mid-60s. The lyrics often describe love and the free spirit of being an adolescent, which reflects the real aspect of Cambodian society at that time.
Many rock sounds of the 2010s are loud and heavy, however, with offensive and inappropriate lyrics full of social criticism and taboos. Drugs, sex, violence and corruption are omnipresent themes in the songs.
While the softer sounds of the 1950s and 1960s with their harmless lyrics were compatible with Cambodian ears, language and morals the new Cambodian rock bands find it hard to develop today’s Western sounds into a style of their own. The tone of Khmer language is unsuitable for deathcore scream-singing. Cambodian traditions are hardly compatible with intrusive and offensive addressing of social problems.
“Making rock music is different from designing clothes,” explained Veasna. “Music is made from our brain – what we have in mind will appear like what we want it to be. If Cambodians tried to make their own rock sound, it should sound more like Thai rock because we have a similar language tone and traditions.
“In Khmer language it is quite difficult to go more hardcore – not only in rock, even in some other genres such as hip-hop or rap. And we can’t have offensive words in our lyrics due to our traditions.”
Propey added: “Cambodian traditions are humble and polite. We are not born aggressive.”
Despite the difficulties in composing original lyrics and melodies that fit into the harder genres, the young rock musicians do not lose hope to add heavy Khmer rock to the Cambodian music scene. Instead, they believe that eventually rock music will become a popular genre in Cambodian society.
“People need more time to get familiar with new things,” Propey said.
“In the 1990s and early 2000s, not many people picked up a guitar to play. Now you see a lot of teenagers playing guitars everywhere – wait and see what happens over the next 10 years.”