I am a non-musician but a serious fan of a wide range of music from a wide range of cultures and traditions. That said, I don’t get as much time as I once did for listening. Nevertheless, I retain a seemingly unending curiosity about and desire to hear music and set aside what time I can to do so.
Thus, last night I began a serious listen to a compilation in the esteemed and generally excellent Rough Guide series that goes out under the heading: ‘Psychedelic Cambodia’. I’d bought it in part because a friend of mine had played me an album by Dengue Fever and it had produced quite a high reading on the old thrillometer.
Dengue Fever, a mixed race, USA based band, have made something of a name for themselves in the last few years. I hope to find time to hear more of their work, but know that it is based in part on a relatively short lived interlude in the musical history of Cambodia which occurred between the Khmer independence from the French and the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. This was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And that music is mainly what is featured on this compilation.
Psychedelia? I can’t say for sure.
If you’ve read the ‘Ptoof!’ piece on my website about Western psychedelic music and culture, you’ll know something of the style of music to which I consider the term is genuinely applicable. Whilst it is not necessary to be on or even to have experienced the effects of psychedelic drugs to play it, it is music which is produced with a layering and attention to detail that – when listened to in a psychedelically enhanced or even a simply mindful state of reception – becomes evident and apparent. Psychedelic music works like those ‘Magic Eye’ 3D pictures that on first appearance is but a pattern or random visual ‘noise’ on the page. You hold one close to your eyes, gradually move it away and at a certain distance, with the right degree of concentration, you find yourself looking at a 3D image, previously unseen. Sometimes in the music those ‘hidden’ elements are tricks of the mix, sound effects or vocal elements picked up only if you are paying close attention, sometimes they are contained in the weave of improvising instruments.
This compilation contains a dozen songs from the original era of this music, and three by modern bands, recreating and developing the style. The older songs (several tracks by key singers Ros Seresyothea and Pan Ron, plus a couple more) may or may not have been intentionally psychedelic. In the words of compiler Sean Hocking, they blend ‘elements of traditional Khmer music with the sounds of rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll’. They do so with a quality of exotic beauty, combining often-female vocals, delicate and winsome, with a mixture of traditional and rock/pop instrumentation. I’d say that what largely earns the ‘psychedelic’ tag are the instrumental breaks, featuring guitarists who play in a style that clearly resembles that of, say, Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish, or keyboard breaks reminiscent of the Doors’ Ray Manzarek.
Well, there I am listening to these songs and thinking: ‘Wow! This really is great stuff.’ It veers between a charmingly dated 60s kitsch pop feel, the purity and ‘folk’ feel of the Cambodian instrumentation, and these wonderful, wild instrumental breaks. Intentional or not, it satisfies many of my psychedelic criteria. Particularly with the strange dreamlike feeling engendered by well known western song tunes that have been co-opted into this music (such as Pan Ron’s ‘Kom Veacha Tha Sneha Knom’ which is credited as traditional but is clearly the tune of ‘Bang Bang’ – as sung in the west by both Cher and Terry Reid). But there’s something that bothers me too. Something that stops being able to enjoy it fully.
I don’t have the same problem with the work of the modern bands – the aforementioned Dengue Fever or the trancey tracks by Cambodian Space Project and the Terence McKenna sampling Dub Addiction. That material all swoops and swerves into my ears delightfully, with the full benefit of modern production techniques.
No, the problem with the original stuff is not its sound but the story that goes with it. The majority of these musicians were to become victims of Pol Pot’s genocide regime. They were executed by the Khmer Rouge. I cannot get this fact out of my mind as I listen. It brings a dark edge to work whose main attribute is a quality of light grace and delightful celebration. A taint I am unable to ignore.
I will continue to listen to it. Maybe that feeling will pass. I hope so. Those musicians would have wanted their music to be heard after their deaths, I’m sure. As did, according to Sean Hocking, ‘the Khmer people themselves who hid records or took them overseas and kept them as treasures of a lost past’. My gratitude is to all of them, those who died perhaps purely for the sake of this music, and those who took risks to preserve the recordings.
As for Dengue Fever et al – looks like I’m going to need more room on my shelves.
Toodle pip to one and all.