It would be disturbing anywhere to see a mob gathered around a street-pole as an electrocuted utility-worker’s lifeless body was lowered down by rope as if lynched, but especially in a land with so many ghosts.
Amidst skin-whitening overdoses and marijuana-pizza for the sex tourists, the stench of colonialism does more than just linger in Phnom Penh. “We hate the Vietnamese,” said the taxi-driver as a stark naked child ran into the street to urinate, “But our people are tired of war. We are tired of fighting.”
A reported three-million tons of carpet-bombs were dropped on Cambodia by the USA in the 1970s, more than were unleashed on Germany during all of WWII. And still today, Cambodia is laced with more landmines than anywhere else in the world, which results in two or three deaths on average daily, mostly to “peasants” in the field.
Following the bombings, dictator Pol Pot seized the moment, emptying the cities into shells, then pitting rural residents against the urbanites and launching a genocide that claimed somewhere around two-million lives (i.e., nearly 1/4th of the population). This particular holocaust was especially catastrophic culturally as it specifically targeted the artists and “intellectuals”, of whom it is estimated that less than 10% survived. During this period, daring to wear eyeglasses— which had become a stereotyped symbol between classes— guaranteed almost certain death.
Singer Thorn Seyma, had discovered by chance just days before our arrival that her father, Thom Mouy, had apparently been quite a famous singer in the Sixties before perishing himself in the killing fields.
As in many post-genocidal countries, communal living is common, with people assembling ad hoc, surrogate families. With a large group of such survivors, we visited a crowded shopping mall full of things that no one buys, just display after display of what people can’t have. And there singer, Chea Sean (age 45)— who has spent her life nearby as a rice farmer— rode an escalator for the first time, which was a main attraction for having brought us there.
With the majority of the population under age twenty-five, the populace has been shaken by a secondary, post-traumatic wave: that of the majority having little memory of the relatively recent tragic events that ravaged the country. That so many of the elite who were involved with engineering those massacres have remained unbrokenly in power ever since, and are now conducting mass evictions and selling off nearly half the landmass of the country to private foreign investors, is chilling.
The roads are dotted with glamour-shot posters of aging, military men in makeup. And along the lone stretch of oceanfront area, vacationing Russian gangsters openly assassinate each other in the streets and set luxury-cars afire at beachside resorts. A recurring theme of resignation among residents is “if you have money here, you can do whatever you want.”
We had the good fortune of recording with sixty-year-old Han Nai, from the mountainous far north, near the border of Thailand. He is reportedly one of two people left in the world who play the Kann (a bamboo horn). In a country where the pop-charts revealed that 19 out of 20 hit songs were in English, concerns about cultural extinction in this region are far from hyperbole.
Fifty-year-old poet and guitarist, Thuch Savanj, bears the scars of war on his face, having been deformed by the same shrapnel that claimed his mother’s life.
Musical director, flautist, and percussion player, Arn Chorn Pond managed to survive, first by playing music to entertain the Khmer Rouge troops, and later by himself becoming a child soldier against the Vietnamese, in a kill or be killed scenario. His weight had dropped down to 30 pounds due to lack of rations, before he was rescued by an American adoptive father.
“If you're a soldier, they will kill you if you cry. Now I cry and feel better. The turning point for me was learning to cry and listen to my own words, rather than just preaching peace and forgiveness to others.”
On the road to visit the legendary Kong Nai (“the Ray Charles of Cambodia”) we passed aging bomb-craters the size of ponds that had filled with stagnant rain water.
Parents commonly warn their children, “If you try to play like Kong Nai, you too will go blind,” as a way to scare youngsters away from music, so that they will hopefully instead follow some other, more respectable career pursuit.
But as amazing a musician as Kong Nai is, he was rivaled by another virtually unknown chapie dwng veng (long neck “guitar”) master, Soun San. San was left with a crooked leg and walks with a crutch, but all struggle seems to vanish from his being when he enters trance-like blues states, where he literally tears the shirt from his own chest and beats the floor and walls to emphasize vocal phrases. Being that he lives in the capital’s flight path, that is a jet airliner that is audible, almost clipping his building and dovetailing exactly at the end of one song.
Another blind-singer, sixty year old, Keut Ran, keeps the Smot vocal style alive, one that bears an uncanny resemblance to the hollerin’ style of America’s backwoods in the Deep South.
When a young hipster from the city talked of knowing elders that played, “Country music,” it was intriguing. But upon further examination, it was discovered that what she meant was not cowboy hats and fiddles, but the murdered music of Cambodia’s own roots tradition.
There is an inherent disconnection of logic amongst Westerners that claim a culture like Cambodia, who speak a tone-language— where the meaning of many otherwise identical words is dependent on the pitch with which they are spoken— are not musical by nature. And, prejudice’s self-destructiveness is nowhere more apparent than in the common underestimation of an entire racial group as “passive,” particularly one with such a history of upheaval, perseverance, and resistance. - Ian Brennan
1. Phnom Domrey Trom (“Where the Elephants Go to Die”) vocals by Rab Ban, accompanied on Kann by Mon Hai
2. Pjanch Meah (“Defeat the Giant”) vocals & Chapey Dawng Veng by Soun San
3. Aasojet Anet Mai (“Have Mercy on My Mother”) vocals by Keut Ran
4. Orano (“I Hate My Husband that Drinks”) by Rab Ban
5. Jivit Rongkroh Proh Songkream (“My Life as a Victim of War”) by Thuch Savang
6. Kontriev Doeung Kon Mai (“All Children Must Show Gratitude to their Mother”) vocals & Chapey Dawng Veng by Kong Nai
7. Prolop Phkaypreat (“Evening Stars are the Masters”) sung by by Mon Hai
8. Kamara Rongkaam (“Nation in Grief”) by Kong Nai
9. Ao Sat Sarika (“Where Has My Husband Gone?”) by Prom Chantol with her daughter Ouch Savy
10. Boonchnam Kamkosal (“My Grief Begins”) by Kong Nai
11. Pineak Doeulang Knong Soun (“Walk in the Garden”) by Keut Rann
12. Phleuv Dail Treuv Deu (“The Path You Should Take”) by Soun San
13. Bong Euy Sdaap Pkor (“Hear the Thunder”) by Thorn Seyma with Arn Chorn Pond on flute
14. Preh Kon Euypok (“A Father’s Honor”) by Soun San