When All Goes Silent

An Analysis of the Khmer Rouge's Impact on the Cambodian Music Scene

Written By: Andrew Koehler


Exploring the Unknown

            Cambodia is a country largely unbeknownst to most Westerners; the true tragedy, however, is how little the locals know about their own past.  While there are countless genocides throughout history, the Cambodian Genocide is arguably the most culturally devastating.  Due to the Cambodia’s orally transmitted nature, most scientific works were “written by foreigners or scientists living in diaspora...after most members of the elder generation have been killed by the ‘Khmer Rouge’, only the foreign and diaspora scientific works remain as a source.” [1]  In order to truly understand the impact of the Khmer Rouge, we must first realize how Cambodia’s music culture was initially formed and subsequently maintained.

Cultural Hybridity

The early ocean port near the Mekong delta known as Oc-Ec and called by later observers a “crossroad of the arts,” was the most likely point of infusion.  The Cambodians absorbed diverse influences from these peoples—language, concepts, writing systems, literature, religion, art styles, and musical instruments.  But the Cambodians absorbed and adopted Indian, Chinese, European and other cultures to suit their own traditions and tastes, resulting in a distinct Cambodian Culture [2] 

Cambodia’s propensity for artistic appropriation can be traced back thousands of years and through various art forms.  While the primary scope of my research is on the Cambodian music scene, exploring parallel art forms helps demonstrate the widespread cultural fusion that defines so much of Khmer life.  Literature is one clear manifestation of this pervasive acculturation: “The Reamker is the Cambodian interpretation of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana...since the era of Angkor, [the Reamker] has formed a cornerstone of Cambodian cultural life.”[3]  While there is a clear Indian origin for the Reamker, the Khmers have altered it in a such a significant manner as to make it their own: “the Indian epic of Ram was not so significant to the Cambodian people as were selected motifs coinciding with their belief structure and the rituals which gave it life.”[4] Cambodian culture demonstrates an aptitude for not only adopting components of other cultures, but for adapting them to align with their values and beliefs.  Many art forms in Cambodia are interconnected, and the Reamker is no exception; it is often performed in dance, masked theatre, shadow theatre and mural art.[5] 

Photograph of the Khmer Reamker.[6]

            It is important to realize how discriminating they are about which elements of other cultures become internalized, and the Ramayana was drastically transformed to coincide with the Khmer lifestyle.  Outside influences (such as Hinduism and Islam) are often so altered to reinforce Khmer principles that some historians deny Indianization’s profound impact on the region.  Jacob van Leur describes Indian influences as a “thin, easily flaking glaze on the massive body of indigenous civilization.”[7]  While Leur’s views are a bit extreme, similar arguments can be made about Cambodia’s selective incorporation of musical influences.  Khmer music adopts elements from France, Spain, North American, the Caribbean and the South Atlantic[8] to form an entirely unique style of music.  This fusion of cultures “reflects both geographical and historical relationships to neighboring cultures.  The Indianization of Southeast Asia nearly 2,000 years ago included the area that became Cambodia and deeply influenced lowland peoples, especially the ruling elites.  In later periods Chinese, French, Vietnamese, Cham came as well, all leaving their mark.”[9]  All of these influences are selectively filtered, resulting in a highly developed hybrid genre, fusing cultures from all over the world.

Decade of Peace, Love and Harmony

            For many Cambodians, the 1960s epitomize the calm before the storm, their so-called ‘Golden Age of Pop’.[10]  Staying true to the culture’s hybrid nature, the thriving music scene of Phnom Penh was characterized by tremendous musical fusion.  The ever-evolving style of music seamlessly blended elements of traditional music with heavy Western influences, resulting in a large psychedelic rock movement: “…[t]he raw, psychedelic sound made famous by Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors was pervasive throughout all of the music of the masters of 1960s and 1970s Khmer rock.”[11]  From the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, a Cambodian man explains “It [Phnom Penh] was the hub where bands from the countryside met.”[12]  Led by artists like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Seresothea, Phnom Penh was a center for performers from across the globe to exchange musical ideas.  These rock stars had great influence on Cambodian society; they were the voice of the people, which would soon lead to their demise.

The Khmer Rouge Regime

           Founded in 1951, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (also known to as the Khmer Rouge) began its underground campaign in Cambodia.  Spearheaded by ruthless dictator Pol Pot, the CPK began to overtake the country.  The United States fueled the conflict via Operation Menu, a bombing operation approved under the Nixon administration.  While their aim was to stifle the communist movement, it in fact did the opposite.  Cambodian President and palindrome Lon Nol had the United States’ support, as he shared a common interest in repressing the Khmer Rouge regime.  Nol, however, leveraged his relationship with the US by feeding falsified information that supported his own political agenda.  Many of the carpet bombings he requested were later discovered to be “political sessions in small villages.”[13] These ill-advised bombings left many innocent Cambodian civilians wounded and killed. It is estimated that “…between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing[s].”[14]  The Khmer Rouge took advantage of the resulting anti-American (and anti-Nol) sentiments and garnered support for their own cause.  Many rural folk consequently embraced the communist campaign, as the Khmer Rouge was the party fighting to keep the United States out.

            The Khmer Republic’s resistance, coupled with United States reinforcement, was unable to prevent the Khmer Rouge from seizing control following the siege of Phnom Penh in April of 1975.

Khmer Rouge fighters celebrate their victory of Phnom Penh.[15]

The communist party would soon rename the state ‘Democratic Kampuchea’.  It was a rather ironic name, as the resulting state was neither democratic nor communist.  During their ensuing reign, Khmer Rouge leaders, known as Angkar Padevat, instituted many cultural and political changes in an attempt to abolish all social hierarchy and create a completely agrarian society. 

The ultimate goal of the Khmer Rouge was to create a new Cambodia based on self-sufficiency through an agrarian society. Based on this type of communism, everyone would be equal and therefore there would be no social or oppressive classes. They wanted to transform the population into a labor workforce that would significantly strengthen the country’s economy.[16]

It is argued that true communism has never been instituted, and the Khmer Rouge is no exception.  This was far from communism, as the ruling elite introduced and enforced extraordinarily oppressive laws. 

           One of the manners in which the Khmer Rouge sought to instill a communist society was by ridding the people of their artistic voice: “If you want to eliminate values from past societies, you have to eliminate the artists.  Because artists are influential.  Artists are close to the people.”[17]  90% of Cambodian artists were killed by the merciless Khmer Rouge regime, and the surviving 10% either fled the country or renounced all of their musical talents.[18]

Propaganda Music

        There are numerous first-hand accounts documenting the incredible physical and mental abuse committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.[19]  But the topic of ‘music’ was scarcely mentioned by any of the interviewees.  In these work camps, where families were torn apart, friends were killed, and food was incredibly insufficient, music was the last thing on anybody’s mind.  The only story that mentioned music at all was when Vorak Ny talked of his sisters’ executions: “In Kampong Cham, the details of how my two sisters were murdered remain hidden.  The questions are endless and will forever remain unanswered.  People claim to have heard loud revolutionary music played in Kampong Cham when executions were carried out.”[20]  Interestingly enough, the Khmer Rouge leaders produced their own music during their reign.  The communist party realized the immense power music can hold over people, so instead of ushering an era of musical silence, they created their own songs to be used as a propaganda tool.  

      Revolutionary music was drastically different from the preceding ‘Golden Era’ of Cambodian rock.  These songs tended to be rather simple in nature, and a return to traditional Khmer music.  Abandoning western rock instruments, Khmer Rouge music juxtaposed beautiful melodies with communist-glorifying propaganda messages.  The below lyrics are an English translation of one of these songs entitled The Society of the Future:

Stand up all the slaves!

Stand up the wretched of the earth!

We suffer cruelly, we stifle, our chest is about to burst!

From today, life or death, no matter!

Let us at once make a clean sweep of the past!

Crowds of slaves, stand up!

Tomorrow our new regime will be restored:

We shall be masters of all the fruits of our labor![21]

        Apart from the uplifting nature of the music itself, every line in the song further disparages the Cambodian prisoners.  The sentiment of line 4 is parroted by the very popular Angkar Padevat saying “No gain in keeping, no loss in weeding out.”[22]  This is devastatingly not an idle threat.  The workers’ lives were incredibly inconsequential to the Angkar Padevat: “If you wish to live exactly as you please, the Angkar will put aside a small piece of land for you.”[23]  The ‘small piece of land’ in the aforementioned Angkar adage is referring to a burial pit.[24]  While there are many variations of these songs, they all carry a similar message: exalting the communist cause as well as belittling the enslaved Cambodians’ worth. While the music of the 1960s provided the people with a voice, Pol Pot’s propaganda music instilled feelings of insignificance and condemnation.

Musical Revival

            Since the Khmer Rouge’s dissolution in 1979, there has been an extensive musical revival movement: an attempt to recapture what was taken.  One such manifestation of this movement occurs in diasporic bands such as Los Angeles’ Dengue Fever.  Comprised of American musicians with a Cambodian lead singer, Dengue Fever seeks to bring back the Sinn Sisamouth-era of Cambodian rock.  They face much criticism for being a group of Americans playing Khmer music, a belief even held by a member of the band.[25]  But it can be argued that their foreign ethnicity and geographic location do not diminish their authenticity.  Cambodian music has historically been a point of cultural hybridity, and Dengue Fever aims to merge 1960s pop music with American indie rock.  The manner in which their music is formed certainly coincides with the spirit of 1960s Phnom Penh: “Dengue Fever is more concerned with a universal groove and breaking down musical barriers than with notions of authenticity.  There are echoes of Bollywood soundtracks, Ethiopian soul, American R&B, Cambodian folk, Spaghetti Western weirdness and girl group angst in the mix, but the resulting concoction is all their own.”[26]  They are a paradigm of what was lost in Phnom Penh, not because of the music itself, but because their musical process and openness to fusion.

            The Cambodian sensation Preap Sovath, on the other hand, is a very interesting case.  He is one of Cambodia’s largest current artists, most famous for performing karaoke-style songs in a plethora of genres.  Sovath does not attempt to combine genres in the syncretic manner of Dengue Fever (and 1960s pop stars), but instead leaps from one style of music to another.  This is demonstrated visibly by his wardrobe selection: “[Preab Sovath] has appeared on CD covers in many guises: as a rural folk musician in overalls, wearing black tuxedo tails behind a piano, as an urban rapper in hip hop garb, and as suave disco crooner swaggering with open silk shirt, to name a few.” [27]  Rather than trying to ‘stitch’ together various influences into one unified artform, he superficially toggles between separate and distinct musical personas.  Being one of the most famous Cambodian artists, his popularity demonstrates a clear shift away from the pre-Khmer Rouge music culture that encouraged inter-artist communication and musical fusion.  

But A Whisper

       Music is a dynamic process, and one that cannot be paused and resumed.  Despite the collective efforts to revive the 1960s music scene, bands like Dengue Fever cannot truly pick up where Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Seresothea left off.

The Khmer Rouge effectively severed the creative link between this rich generation of popular song composers—those possessing vast professional experience and teaching skills—from the generation that followed.  The basic social experience of indigenous peoples playing live music to one another, vital for the transmission and maintenance of any oral tradition remained dormant in the immediate post Khmer Rouge period.[28]

While the recordings of the the Golden Era will live on, and musicians will attempt to emulate those psychedelic sounds, the culture responsible for creating that music will be lost forever.  That’s what happens when all goes silent.



[1] Stoevesandt, Ingo. "The Traditional Music of Cambodia." Cambodia: Articles.

[2] Ang, Sam. "Cambodian Music History." Cambodian History. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

[3] Ayres, David M. Anatomy of a Crisis: Education, Development, and the State in Cambodia, 1953-1998. Honolulu: U of Hawai’I 2000. Pg 15.

[4] Cravath, Paul. “The Ritual Origins of the Classical Dance Drama of Cambodia.” Asian Theatre Journal 3.2 (2013) Pg 187

[5] Ayres, David M. Anatomy of a Crisis: Education, Development, and the State in Cambodia, 1953-1998. Honolulu: U of Hawai’I 2000. Pg 16.

[6] Anandajoti. Khmer Reamker (Ramayana). Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

[7] Leur, J.C. Van. Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in Asian Social and Economic History, The Hague: W. Van Hoeve, 1955.

[8] Mamula, Stephen. Starting from Nowhere? Popular Music in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. 1st ed. Vol. 39. Texas: U of Texas, 2008. Pg 29.

[9] Ang, Sam. "Cambodian Music History." Cambodian History. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.

[10] Bell, Clive. “Cambodia’s Golden Age of Pop.” The Wire. Bell Labs, Feb. 2014.

[11] Murray, Bennett. “Khmer Music in the 1960s Cambodia.” Suite. 27 July 2010.

[12] Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. Dir. John Pirozzi. 2012.

[13] Ocko, Evan, and Robby Attia. “Rise of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.” Secret Bombing of Cambodia

[14] Owen, Taylor, and Ben Kieren. “Bombs over Cambodia.” The Walrus. Yale University, Oct. 2006.

[15] Day One, Day Zero. Time. April 17, 1975.

[16] 8RKe, Pranav. “The Goals of the Khmer Rouge.” Cambodia Under the Khmer Rouge. Web. 18 Apr. 2014

[17] Don’t Think I’ve Forogtten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. Dir. John Pirozzi. 2012.

[18] Brown, Roger H. “Music in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge.” Interview. Berklee College of Music. Artist House Music. 2008.

[19] “Cambodia: Oral Histories and Biographies.” Interview by Vorak Ny, Elizabeth Chey, Thida Mam, Luong Ung, and Sophia Sharp.  Cambodia: Oral Histories and Biographies. Beauty and Darkness

[20] “Cambodia: Oral Histories and Biographies.” Interview by Vorak Ny.  Cambodia: Oral Histories and Biographies. Beauty and Darkness

[21] Locard, Henri, and David Chandler. Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar. Bangkok: Silkworm, 2004. Pg 38.

[22] Locard, Henri, and David Chandler. Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar. Bangkok: Silkworm, 2004. Pg 210.

[23] Locard, Henri, and David Chandler. Pol Pot’s Little Red Book: The Sayings of Angkar. Bangkok: Silkworm, 2004. Pg 209.

[24] “The State of Mind of State.” Sayings and Slogans of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Beauty and Darkness.

[25] Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. Dir. John Pirozzi. 2012.

[26] “Dengue Fever.” World Music Central

[27] Mamula, Stephen. Starting from Nowhere? Popular Music in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. 1st ed. Vol. 39. Texas: U of Texas, 2008. Pg 35.

[28] Mamula, Stephen. Starting from Nowhere? Popular Music in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge. 1st ed. Vol. 39. Texas: U of Texas, 2008. Pg 35.


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