Song of the Week – I’m 16, Ros Sereysothea & Tiger Phone Card, Dengue Fever



Several years ago I downloaded a compilation of Cambodian rock music called Cambodian Rocks. I can’t remember what blog I found it on, but I remember that the article noted that the original disc provided very little in the way of song titles, artists or other credits. By the time I found the album most of the missing credits had been identified, but the whole backstory intrigued me.

So I was very excited when a documentary film called Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll and directed by John Pirozzi was being shown in San Francisco and Berkeley last May. Unfortunately it was such a limited engagement that I missed it. But now it’s available on iTunes so I was able to watch it in the comfort of my home recently. It’s not for everyone, but as a student of rock music I found it to be fascinating.

Here’s what I learned:

In 1953, Cambodia received its independence from France. Their new ruler, King Norodom Sihanouk, was a flawed dictator with a few redeeming characteristics. He wanted to modernize Cambodia and had a strong interest in the arts, specifically film and music. Artists in those industries were given tremendous creative freedom even though they reaped very little in terms of financial reward.

By the mid 60s, the Viet Nam war brought Armed Forces radio into the country and exposed them to the eclectic sounds of American rock music. Unencumbered with genre boundaries, the Cambodian rockers mixed French pop, Latin, psych, surf, R&B and Asian melodies into a big, boiling pot of rock and roll stew.

The country’s biggest star was Sinn S, known as the Cambodian Elvis. (With his pop crooning style, he sounds more like the Cambodian Nat King Cole to me.) Yol Aularong had a more authentic Western rock and roll style and merged it with overt political protest lyrics. (Let’s say the Cambodian MC5.)

Ros Sereysothea was the queen of Cambodian rock. Her “I’m 16” is today’s first SotW.

In a 2007 article about Cambodian rock in The Guardian, music journalist Nic Cohn writes of Ros:

Her voice was the perfect teen-dream confection, equal parts heartbreak, flirtation, and true romance. Even though I couldn’t understand a word, she affected me more strongly than any female pop singer since Ronny Spector of the Ronettes…

She was also a canny songwriter, her melodies twisty and surprising, yet instantly hummable…

On “I’m Sixteen”, her greatest hit and the signature anthem of Khmer rock, she sings: ‘Life’s like a flower/Spreading fragrances everywhere.’ So long as she keeps singing, she can almost make you believe it’s true.

This golden age of Cambodian rock lasted until 1975 when the communist Khmer Rouge, led by Pot Pol, captured the capital of Phnom Pehn. They evacuated the city and sent everyone to live the life of agrarian peasants… if you were lucky. Almost 2 million people (about 1/4 of the country’s population) were murdered during their near 4 year reign through 1979. Anyone that was suspected of being middle class, intellectual or artistic was executed in “the killing fields.” People disappeared under suspicious circumstances. That included most of the Cambodian rockers and explains why so little information about them survived.

Fast forward to 1999. Again from Cohn’s Guardian article:

… Ethan Holtzman, a Californian keyboard player, went backpacking in the Cambodian countryside and hitched a ride on the back of a pick-up truck. As Holtzman’s travelling companion, semi-delirious, suffered with dengue fever, the truck driver played a tape of Ros Sereysothea’s ‘New Year’s Eve’. Holtzman was knocked sideways. When he got back to America, he formed a Khmer rock band – himself on Farfisa organ, his brother Zac on guitar, plus drums, bass, and sax – and named it Dengue Fever.

For authenticity, a Khmer singer was needed. Long Beach, California – Little Phnom Penh – is the world’s largest Cambodian enclave outside the homeland, founded by refugees. There, Dengue Fever found Ch’hom Nimol. A popular performer at weddings, she came from a famous family of singers. Though she lacked a little of the range and raw power of Ros, Ch’hom was dazzling in her own right, with the seamless high vibrato characteristic of all the best Khmer female vocalists.

Today’s second SotW is Dengue Fever’s “Tiger Phone Card.”

Musically the song preserves the spirit of the Cambodian Rocks selections. It cleverly takes the form of a conversation between lovers. And I love the economical guitar solo that comes in at about 1:37.

Enjoy… until next week.

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