So I got another song stuck in my head, and I figure it might be an interesting case to present to y’all. This one is a garage stomper from sixties Cambodia. I was first exposed to Cambodian garage rock this year when I saw the LA group Dengue Fever open up for Man Man at a McCarren Park Pool Party out in Brooklyn. My reactions were as followed: 1) that lead singer is quite foxy 2) that is a very impressive beard on the bassist (I think it is the bassist with the insane beard) 3) this is some of the most far-out shit I’ve heard in a while, and I’ve heard what I would consider to be a fair amount of far-out shit 4) it’s also quite good and danceable. Cambodian garage rock is sort of like combining salsa and eggs, not necessarily intuitive, but it makes a whole bunch of sense when you taste it. Khmer has a very odd sound palate to my ears, full of spat out, short words with a whole bunch of vowels, and the vocal delivery tends to have a reverberating, lingering quality reminiscent of say, Bollywood. And then you back it with drums, fuzzy organs and guitars that reverb so heavily they sound half broken. It doesn’t sound like it should make sense, but all of a sudden, you’ll be dancing, and you won’t have time to think about it.
I liked Dengue Fever a good deal, but then I forgot about them and Cambodian rock for a while until I read this post on the famed and feared WFMU blog. Remembering Dengue Fever, I downloaded a few of those MP3s and woah, totally blown away. First of all, the musicianship and just plain fierceness of these tracks is beyond belief. The guitar solos in “I’m Sixteen” might give Hendrix a run for his money. Or maybe not, but hyperbole aside, it’s the kind of brutish, passionate axe-work that brings an instant guitar face to any male who has ever been an adolescent. The drums are steady but dependable, and they just don’t quit. And then there’s that sneaky, deliriously fuzzy organ, working its way in the back, so you almost don’t hear it gloriously rocking its way through the song. And then of course, the vocals. Ros Sereysothea was once officially honored by the King of Cambodia as the “Golden Voice of Cambodia”. Her voice is clear and melodic, songbird-like. You could tune to that voice. She blasts her way through the song, but keeps it expressive. You can hear the tease in her voice, and you know what the song is about without needing to understand any of the lyrics. This is what rock music is supposed to be, thuggish, crude and sexual. Except it’s from Cambodia.
So the balls-out rock music will lure you in, and make you play it again and again as you cram for finals, and as you drink after finals. But what has me listening to it on repeat is the haunted quality of the song. Like the Ethiopiques collection, this song is a glimpse of an alternate universe. The vibrant Cambodian scene came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge came to power in ’75. The “Golden Voice” of Cambodia was sent to the Killing Fields. The more I listen to the track, the more I hear a ghost, Ros’ voice haunting ithe music. In the same way, sometimes when I listen to the Ethiopiques collection, I can hear the footsteps of the Derg not far behind. We, the residents of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, have the eerie experience of being able to listen to recordings of people who have not only died, but whose whole worlds have died. I think there are some tracks, even fun ones like “I’m Sixteen”, where the musty old past crawls inside and entwines itself with the music itself. Listening to songs like these, we have the terrible burden of dramatic irony. We know how the story ends, and where these people will go. These recordings are tragedy itself, an inexorable path that the listener cannot change. Listening to haunted songs like these, I have become increasingly convinced that history is what LP dust is made out of.
Here’s a link to a documentary about the Cambodian scene of the sixties, with some sound samples (including “I’m Sixteen”)