Ros the Boss

September 1, 2012

A standard feature of cocktail-party chit-chat here is the question “So, what brought you to Cambodia?”

It’s a fair question – this isn’t an easy place to be, in many ways, and discovering people’s motives for coming to an intensely poor and underdeveloped country gives you a pretty good insight into their character and motivations quite quickly.

My answer to that question, quite simply, is ‘Ros Sereysothea’. She changed my life.

It was a tiny little thing, to begin with, and yet has ended up altering the course of my life very profoundly. One lazy Sunday a few years ago I was flicking through The Observer, and came across an article by Nick Kent, the fabulously dissolute music journalist, about the Cambodian music scene of the late 1960s.

As he described it, the influence of American Forces radio, leaking over the border during the war in Vietnam, had a profound effect on Cambodia, which was, at the time, progressive and enlightened and enjoying something of a cultural renaissance. Suddenly all the musicians in Cambodia were listening to The Doors and Hendrix and the Beach Boys, and they liked it.

So these guys took all these new sounds, and mixed them up with their Khmer stuff, and all of a sudden had this weird hybrid, of microtonal singing and psychedelic surf pop.

“That sounds kind of cool” I thought, and almost forgot about it. But didn’t, quite, and ended up looking it up online. And became, instantly, smitten.

There is nothing in the world quite like the Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960s and ‘70s. It is unearthly, yet recognisable. These guys would take old staples, like House of the Rising Sun, or Black Magic Woman, and turn them into something else entirely. It is as if someone had taken Californian music, and sent it to Mars to be re-imagined.

So I got really quite into this, and tracked down everything I could find by these musicians, and began to delve into their stories. And, though that, I began to learn more about modern Cambodian history.

The most compelling story was that of a young woman called Ros Sereysothea, but her story is also the story of all of these remarkable musicians, in many ways. She was born into a peasant family in Battambang Province, got noticed for her astonishing voice, moved to Phnom Penh, became the country’s biggest star and helped to kick-start a wonderfully self-confident musical and cultural revolution. Then, in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, and everything went horribly wrong.

Ros, apparently, spent the next couple of years digging ditches and starving and pretending to be anyone else. Eventually, the KR discovered her identity, and killed her. Along with one third of the country’s population. In one of the most evil periods that mankind has ever visited upon itself.

The same went for all, and I mean all, of the other musicians. All of them. Murdered. Not overdosing in seedy hotel rooms, but taken outside and killed, with an axe to the back of the head. For the crime of being a musician.

“Wow” I thought. “There’s a story.” And a while later, I had to take up a pile of accumulated holiday time, and decided to go to Cambodia, to see what I could find, and maybe write a book about Ros Sereysothea.

What there might be to find was: ‘nothing’. The Khmer Rouge killed everyone, and burned everything else. No records, no archives, nothing. So my book was somewhat stalled; I’m still considering it, but am not sure I can do justice to the scale of the crimes that went on here, and I’m not sure I want to try. I don’t want to exploit the incredible, indescribable suffering that this country went through – it’s not mine to use like that.

But I fell in love with Cambodia on that first trip. With the people, the culture, the climate, the sense of being on the verge of something new. So now I live here. Because of Ros Sereysothea. The Khmer Rouge might have murdered her, but, I hope, something of her lives on. She deserves that.

I adore the music that was left behind.  The wonderful Dengue Fever, from Los Angeles and Cambodia, are keeping the flame alive. The Cambodian Space Project are also doing their bit. But there are people like Pan Ron, who is my heroine, who made music in the late 1960s that prefigured dub reggae and heavy metal, and astonishes me every time I listen to her.

These people weren’t just ciphers in some bien-pensant western book-trolling author’s imagination: they were here in Phnom Penh, walking these same streets as I am now. And then they were killed, for being artists.  They deserve to be remembered.

Reading over this little disquisition, I’m not sure I’ve adequately rendered how important Ros Sereysothea and her fellow artists have become to me, how profoundly important it is that musicians aren’t murdered in the name of ideology, and, in the end, how much fun the music is. Dive in, if you have a moment, and let the light triumph over the dark.

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5 Responses to “Ros the Boss”

  1. Nick Bartle said

    Great read Ru.

  2. RDE said

    I agree with Mr Bartle…..really good read Ru. Music always does it!!

  3. Kevin said

    After nearly four decades since her disappearance and death it is miraculous that Lady Sothea still manages to touch people. I do not think that she even imagined she would be known beyond the borders of Cambodia.

    In regards to records about her very little is left. What has survived has become part of private collections especially the vinyl recordings. Also do not be discouraged about writing a book on Sothea. I would one day very much like to see it a reality.

    Despite everything that has transpired, music from Sothea and her contemporaries have endured. Their gift has largely remained intact by many brave and unknown Cambodians who either hid or fled with these albums. To this day Cambodian’s listen to the music from this era as if it was the current pop music. It’s quite the phenomena.

    Check out a user by the name of Nate X, formerly known as Natesterx for a variety of genres from her. You may also want to check out Cambodian cinema from the era too as it went hand in hand with the music. A lot movies from then incorporated songs from Sothea. Unfortunately when compared to what has survived from the music industry, very little remains of the movie industry. Of the 300 or so films produced from ’65 to ’75 maybe less then 30 remain in a tarnished state.

    Thanks for writing about Ros Sereysothea. It warms me to know that the music that my parents grew up listening to continues to endure.

  4. jonathan said

    there’s a wonderful dance club called ‘Golden Town’ in PP where they cover her songs sometimes. Watching the gorgeous finger-dancing locals is mesmerising. I don’t know the club’s Khmer name, sorry, but can tell you that they sell Johnny Red by the bottle only, which isn’t a huge hardship, and the mini-skirted waitresses are divine. Amazingly, I’ve never seen another barang there.

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