Album review: The Cambodian Space Project – Whisky Cambodia

The Cambodian Space Project, who release a new album later this year, are leading a revival of a lost ‘golden age’ of Khmer music.

The Cambodian Space Project performing live against a projected backdrop of images from the lost pre-Khmer Rouge years of Cambodian music. Courtesy Michael Laub / The Cambodian Space Project
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Non-anglophone pop music, fashioned on American and British styles, is an under-written part of pop culture’s first wave of globalisation. Long before the digital pathways opened up, there were already a plethora of multimedia networks tying together the West with the rest: chiefly, though not exclusively, international vinyl sales, tapes, TV clips and, most importantly, radio. From Maori heavy-metal gangs to the Japanese psychedelic-rock scene of the 1970s to the multiracial, apartheid-era punk scenes in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, these sounds and their attendant dances, clothes and attitudes have rarely spread without controversy: usually around the perceived western imperialism of culture and values, set up against protectionists concerned about the erasure or assimilation of traditional musical styles. These controversies have often been fascinating – although too often the debate drowns out the art itself and devoices the young people revelling in sounds and youthful rebellion imported from afar.

One such moment in pop-cultural history is that of the 1960s and early 1970s pop scene in Cambodia, a thriving period of joyous rock ‘n’ roll after the country gained independence from France. The essence of Motown, American funk, surf-rock, psychedelia, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Bee Gees rang out across the capital Phnom Penh – this spirit was captured and sung in the Khmer language and blended with local instruments and traditional rhythms. Everything changed when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, and in their deranged, agrarian, xenophobic-communist revolution, pop culture was eliminated with unflinching brutality, along with anything else seen as foreign, decadent or urban – temples and libraries were destroyed, city-dwellers forced out to the countryside and even western medicine was outlawed. It’s believed there’s something in the region of 20,000 mass graves across Cambodia, and somewhere between 1 and 2 million of the country’s population perished – either executed or via starvation or disease.

In recent years, Cambodians have sought to excavate not only the meaning of one of humanity's greatest tragedies, but the artistic freedom that reigned before 1975. The once-flourishing sound of Khmer pop music has been revived by the Cambodian Space Project, a band combining covers of songs from the lost "golden age" with their own compositions. They were formed in 2009 when Julien Poulson, an Australian, visited a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh and heard a singular, astounding voice singing Peggy Lee's Johnny Guitar. It belonged to Srey Thy, who, together with Poulson and a cast of others, has since taken the sound of the Cambodian 1960s to the world, producing their third and most effervescent album yet, Whisky ­Cambodia.

It’s astonishing to think that most of the 1960s and 1970s songs that they cover were physically destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, along with their owners: even a vinyl record by someone like Sinn Sisamouth, “the King of Khmer Music”, was seen as an obstruction to Pol Pot’s fanatical vision of a new society. Pop music was outlawed as decadent and dangerous; like any intellectuals or artists, musicians were obvious targets for the Khmer Rouge. While the terror swept through Cambodia, the possibility of survival for musicians was slim, and meant desperate adaptation: Thy’s mother, also a great singer, abandoned music, cut her hair short (even female beauty could be taken as incitement) and darkened her skin to avoid persecution – an ethnic element to the genocide meant lighter-skinned Cambodians were especially at risk. The legendary blind lute player Kong Nay, known as the “Cambodian Ray Charles”, only survived the 1970s by performing propaganda songs for the Khmer Rouge government. When Vietnamese troops liberated Phnom Penh in 1979, it wasn’t the end of Pol Pot’s terror, but it was the beginning of the end – and it meant that Thy’s mother could sing again. Thy was born in 1980, and has said in interviews that her mother barely stopped singing, that the radio was never turned off – in a childhood immersed in this cathartic musical outpouring, how could she do anything else but sing herself?

Whisky Cambodia overflows with poignant musical legacies, even beyond Cambodia itself. There's a direct connection between the album and the very music that inspired the 1960s Khmer pop scene: it was recorded and produced in Detroit by the American guitarist Dennis Coffey, who once played with the Funk Brothers and The Temptations, among others – the most high-profile of several original Motown session musicians on the record. And yet Whisky Cambodia is no stale throwback, nor a kitschy pastiche: Coffey's guitars spring with youthful energy, and Thy's singing on even the more balladic songs, such as Mountain Dance or Rom Rom Rom, boasts terrific range and zest. She is accompanied – naturally – by the irresistible shimmy-shimmy sound of trumpets and handclaps. Tracks like If You Wish To Love Me launch back into a different 1960s, abounding with funky basslines and psychedelic keyboard sprees. They sound as spookily warped and lush as anything from that era, while Black To Gold is just terrific pop music, Thy's voice languorously coasting along atop the garage rock twang and flurries of brass.

Though it’s tempting to refer to them as “lost songs”, they were certainly never forgotten – and now they’re being memorialised with greater enthusiasm than ever. The Cambodia Space Project have as partners in revivalism the perhaps even more globally renowned six-piece Dengue Fever. The latter’s singer, Chhom Nimol, had already established herself in Cambodia in the Phnom Penh karaoke scene, but moved to California to work, where she met her American bandmates. Since forming in 2001, Dengue Fever have produced several acclaimed albums – mixing covers of 1960s classics with new material to produce a heady, psychedelic kind of surf-rock, rooted simultaneously in two different histories; from Cambodia and California’s 1960s and 70s, too.

The process of exploration and commemoration has crossed into film, too: Dengue Fever's story is told in the captivating short Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, in which the band explore the Cambodia of Nimol's youth, jamming with schoolchildren and performing songs in some of the very villages where the genocide took place. There's also a very promising full-length documentary in the offing. John Pirozzi's Don't Think I've Forgotten: The Story of Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll is a joint Cambodian and American production, years in the making, that was premiered in the American Embassy in Phnom Penh earlier this year – hopefully it will be distributed globally, just like the music made by Dengue Fever and the Cambodian Space Project.

Remembering the culture grimly eliminated by the Khmer Rouge has been the less painful side of a tortuous process of recovery of historical memory. In 1997, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was set up in conjunction with the United Nations as a tribunal system to investigate crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and seek justice for the countless victims of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Though not without its own controversies, the tribunals were greatly needed. The ECCC was established to do more than just punish the worst offenders, a quarter of a century after their crimes: as their own stated goals make clear, “the trials are also for the new generation – to educate Cambodia’s youth about the darkest chapter in our country’s history”.

These processes seek to mitigate unimaginable loss, but also look to create a Cambodian future that's not just "remembering in order to forget"; one that acknowledges the country's history – its tragedies and its glories. To this end, the growing catalogue produced by the Cambodian Space Project and Dengue Fever is incredibly welcome, but it's also gratifying that the music of the 1960s is being preserved and catalogued in its original form, too: in the Don't Think I've Forgotten documentary, but also the Groove Club compilations of golden-age classics and a 2010 collection put together by Dengue Fever called Electric Cambodia. Here the songs of performers such as Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron, who met their deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, have been lovingly curated – the crackle on the old tapes carries a poignant warmth. According to one apocryphal story, after the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Sisamouth was brought in front of a firing squad, and he asked if he could perform one last song to the Khmer Rouge troops – he sang it and then they shot him. Like so many Cambodians, the actual circumstances and location of his death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge are unknown. However he died, it's some small mercy that his voice, and his songs, live on.

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review. His work can be found in The Guardian, Prospect and New Statesman.