The best ideas soon take on a life of their own and my, they are sociable creatures. As soon as they leave your head, good ideas are off gallivanting. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of something sparkly as your good idea disappears around a corner and makes its way into a welcoming world. So it is that a conversation with my friend K. at last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival has evolved into 40 or so people descending upon Ubud, Indonesia, this week to celebrate K.’s 40th birthday.
‘What shall I do for my 40th?’ was K.’s idle query over a post-show glass of wine. ‘Hmm….Why don’t you rent a villa in Ubud?’ I said, mindful of my resolution a few years ago to do something about Melbourne’s long winter apart from whinging about it. Like, skip it, for example. I’d never been to Indonesia. It’s close enough and cheap enough to be accessible for a mass holiday. Recognizing the plain common sense of my suggestion and being a woman of action, K. rented a villa worthy of a Hollywood producer and sent out the call. That good idea was wearing something low cut and glitzy, alright. I should add that K. has warmth to rival the sun and is guaranteed to know every second person in any given room, so it’s not surprising that so many heeded her call.
A few of us, including the birthday girl, are travelling on to Cambodia. As well as enjoying hearing music and watching people play it, I’m interested in how music reflects different countries’ cultures. And I love the Internet for its ability to sate my curiosity about the big, wide world. So it was, that my Internet search, ‘music and Cambodia’, led to me disappearing down the rabbit hole of the Interweb. Time and space warped and dissolved in hours of reading, YouTube watching and email conversations with people involved in music-making there. The story that revealed itself from that simple three word search was fascinating and tragic and thankfully, still evolving. I’ll attempt a summary…
There are few countries in the world with such a recent experience of violence on a mass scale as Cambodia, violence perpetrated not by an outside enemy but by compatriots. While Pol Pot was in power from 1975 to 1979, an estimated 1.5 to two million people were killed, or died through starvation and over-work in Khmer Rouge camps. Pol Pot’s ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge were propelled by the idea that Cambodia would only be truly independent if it was self-sufficient. So they drove everyone out of the capital, Phnom Penh and set about creating an agrarian culture, in which manual labour was lauded and anything associated with ‘the free market’, education or culture was stamped out. Around 90 per cent of the country’s artists were killed or died during this time. It’s almost unfathomable, the scale of the loss of life and of a country’s culture.
Among the artists who died were singers Pan Ron, Sin Sissamouth and Ros Sereysothea, who were at the forefront of a psychedelic music movement in Cambodia during the late 60s and early 70s. At first I was surprised to hear this music but it makes sense, with the Vietnam War going on next door and the accompanying influx of thousands of soldiers from the US and other Western countries. From my own musical city, I hear the recordings of these Cambodian singers and think that for them, the Khmer Rouge takeover must have seemed like a nightmare from which they would surely awaken.
There is light in this story. It seems there is a flowering of music in Cambodia now, of everything from traditional music to hip-hop, dub electronica, to karaoke and pop. Of course, many of those music-makers are young, born after Pol Pot was run out of Phnom Penh by the Vietnamese army. Bands like Cambodian Space Project and musicians like Ouch Savy are keeping the music of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia alive at the same time as creating new music and new forms. Through many contemporary musicians, the singers and instrumentalists who disappeared in the killing fields of the Pol Pot era have not disappeared without trace. Their music still lives; they are remembered. Check out Cambodian Space Project’s great version of a song from the 60s golden era of Cambodian music, Pan Ron’s ‘I’m unsatisfied’:
And the original version by the late, great Pan Ron:
Too cool, huh?
My three-word Google search also led to being told about a music festival that’s happening in the south-western town of Kampot. So I’ll get to hear a lot of ‘music in Cambodia’ there and I’m looking forward to meeting many of the musicians who are behind the regeneration of Cambodia’s music scene. Yep, I’m excited. If I don’t write while I’m away, I’ll be sure to post when I get back in July.