Books

How the Twist ignited Cambodia's musical golden age

In the 1960s rock'n'roll came to Cambodia. Dee Peyok describes the post-colonial music scene, a sweet, brief moment of swinging liberation before the communist revolution snuffed it out

Touch Chhattha

Touch Chhattha, TVK network television, 1970. Image courtesy of Touch Chhattha.

The year 1962: a year of extraordinary firsts. The first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, The Beatles’ first single, the first Black man to enrol at the previously all-white University of Mississippi. And the year a new dance move – the Twist – gyrated its way from West to East, and onto the dancefloors of Cambodian cities. Igniting the sexual revolution and shaking the post-colonial establishment. Chubby Checker’s dance move was brought to the Southeast Asian country by nightclub singer, Chum Kem with his hit song, Kampuchea Twist. The old guard wrote outraged letters to the national rag, La Dépêche du Cambodge about the “vulgarity” of Kem, his followers and their hips, swinging to the rhythm of liberation. Rock’n’roll in Cambodia was born.

Touch Chhattha, Drakkar Band, in the late 1960s.
Touch Chhattha of Drakkar, in the late 1960s. Image: courtesy of Touch Chhattha

The next 13 years became known as Cambodia’s golden age of music. Traditional folk instruments – wooden floor zithers, gongs and gourd fiddles – blended with western instruments – electric guitars, Hammond organs and mandolins. Mid-century travellers returned home, their suitcases laden with bossa nova, modern chanson and rock’n’roll 45s. Cover songs and originals incorporating these new sounds were accented by centuries-old indigenous and courtly music to create a sound unique to Cambodia. 

Sinn Sisamouth record sleeve
Sinn Sisamouth record sleeve. Image: courtesy of CVMA

This was also the year that Sinn Sisamouth broke through with his hit song, The Flower of Battambang. A cover of Ary Barroso’s 1939 samba classic Aquarela Do Brasil, it’s still played heavily on Cambodian radio, 50 years on. A chameleon who traversed almost every genre of modern music from go-go to easy listening to flower-pop to hard rock, it’s estimated that Sisamouth recorded between 1,000 to 4,000 songs in less than two decades. He is unquestionably Cambodia’s King of Pop. Every young child – from the rice fields of Battambang to the fee-paying schools of the capital, Phnom Penh – still sing his songs. 

Ros Sereysothea – Cambodia’s Queen of Pop – burst onto the scene a few years later. With her beehive, A-line dresses and captivating voice, she accumulated a vast back catalogue spanning from her first hit, the orchestral ballad, Blue River to her greatest hit, the garage-rock belter I’m 16, extolling the wonders of youth. Her rival, Pan Ron, played the feminist to Sereysothea’s romantic heroine. With her satirical wit, mini skirt and voguish moves, Ran answered I’m 16 with her Sixties pop classic I’m 31, waving the flag for women’s liberation. Surf rock bands like Baksey Chamkrong and Apsara reduced teenage girls to screaming fandom with hits like Baksey’s instrumental BCK.   

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As the neighbouring Vietnam War escalated towards the 1970s and radio waves grew in frequency, American Military Radio ushered in a new sound for a new era. Psychedelic garage rock arrived along with artists like proto-punk star Yol Aularong and trailblazing bands like Drakkar. By then, Cambodia was battling its own civil war. Many of its nightclubs shut down, but artists like Pov Vannary played folk ballads and Carpenters covers on a vast copy of a Hofner Congress guitar, providing her fans with occasional respite from life in a war zone.  

Aspara record sleeve
Apsara record sleeve. Image courtesy of CVMA

On April 17, 1975 Pol Pot and his communist rebel army, the Khmer Rouge, seized control of the capital, putting an end to the civil war. They brought with them an extreme form of Maoist communism: a utopian dream of agrarian life, a classless society, a rewriting of history, a return to year zero. Phnom Penh’s two million occupants and the residents of other Cambodian cities were evacuated into work camps in the countryside. Slave labour was enforced and an estimated 20 per cent of the population – 1.7 million people – and 90 per cent of the artists died in the killing fields during Cambodia’s 1,358 day auto-genocide.  

Fast forward to 2012: while exploring an abandoned casino on a mountain’s peak in Southern Cambodia, I stumbled upon Sinn Sisamouth’s cover of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, which he’d renamed Away From Beloved Lover. Captivated, I immediately wanted to learn everything about the mystery singer and his music. Curiosity catalysed a seven-year quest across three continents to piece together Sisamouth’s life story and the stories of Cambodia’s ’60s and ’70s stars. It culminated in a book of the same name, charting interviews with surviving superstars in traditional stilt houses in Cambodia’s rice bowl, cafes in its capital, townhouses in Paris and hotels in New York. An accidental encounter with today’s Khmer Rouge guerrillas and a day in court, witnessing the war tribunal verdict of the movement’s most senior surviving figureheads. Adventures on a haphazard tour across Cambodia with a revivalist, and a band reunion, 40 years and 9,000 miles from where they formed as young men. 

Dee Peyok’s Away From Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia book cover

Away From Beloved Lover celebrates the treasure of Cambodian music, and the incredible resilience and fascinating tales of those living and past treasures who made it. 

Away From Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia by Dee Peyok is out now (Granta, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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