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The Death And Uneasy Rebirth Of Cambodia's Psychedelic Rock

Many of the old images in Bochan Huy's "Chnam Oun 16" musicvideo are haunting — fleeting, grainy footage of workers in rural Cambodian labor camps and Phnom Penh's crumbling shops and streets, emptied of life.

But Huy says the eyes were the hardest — the photographs of Khmer Rouge victims, whose stares she and her producers would use to gauge how much pain could be tastefully set to electric guitar and thumping hip-hop beats.

"They tried to stop us; they tried to rob us. They tried; they tried," Huy sings. Her voice is throaty, defiant — almost jeering — as she shifts between lyrics in English and Khmer.

Somewhere underneath it all, Huy's "Chnam Oun 16" is a cover. Its origins are unlikely: a psychedelic rock song about a carefree girl, curious about love in 1970s Cambodia. In English, the title translates to "I am 16."

Though abruptly silenced by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Cambodian psychedelic rock has seen a recent rebirth in the modern world of hip-hop, rap and pop music — replayed and remixed by young Cambodian-American musicians. Connecting first over social media, through family and friends, or sharing mics in Long Beach noodle shops, they've recently made a series of larger debuts together — like last week's Cambodian Music Festival in Los Angeles.

But few have performed the oldies quite like Huy.

"I wanted to shock [listeners] a little bit," says the 34-year-old Oakland, Calif., musician. She says she hoped to spark dialogue in a community where conversations about Cambodia's genocidal and refugee experiences are still muted by pain. But works like "Chnam Oun 16," she says, also attempt to make that history tangible in a country where Cambodia's plight remains largely foreign — folded into America's history lessons as a footnote of the Vietnam War.

There have been the messages of solidarity in that effort, Huy says, but also accusations of cultural destruction: talk of using genocide images without sensitivity, and concerns about her dress and the musical influences that disrupt the original psych rock sound. Some ask whether Huy is right to pluck pieces of her cultural heritage — both its darkest moments and most cherished artistic artifacts — and fit them into works that are, as she's been told, "not Cambodian."

"I'm pretty confident that this is the first time somebody has dissected a Khmer song so much, in the sense it alarmed a lot of people — like, what is she doing," Huy says. "But I can't quite figure it out: Do people want more of this or do they not?"

Psychedelia, Silenced

Psychedelic rock flourished in Cambodia in the years after the end of French colonial rule, combining textures of Western surf and blues rock — heard in large part thanks to U.S. Armed Forces Radio — with soaring Khmer vocals.

Cambodian psychedelic rock star Sinn Sisamouth (right) performs in the 1966 movie <em>Apsara</em>.
/ YouTube
Cambodian psychedelic rock star Sinn Sisamouth (right) performs in the 1966 movie Apsara.

The sound wasn't what you would hear from The Doors or Jefferson Airplane. It featured its own dance beats, guitar licks — and, of course, rock stars, like Sinn Sisamouth, who serenaded dancers as the "Elvis of Phnom Penh," and Ros Sereysothea, the daring frontwoman who sang the original "Chnam Oun 16." (She was once filmedhopping out of a military airplane.)

Even as the carpet bombings spread over the Vietnamese border and the countryside began to unravel, Cambodia pulsed with a music that, like the country itself, looked outward into the world.

"That was Cambodia's golden era," explains Khatharya Um, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. "Short-lived, but certainly an era of real possibilities."

It was precisely that cosmopolitanism the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy upon taking power in 1975. During its four-year reign of terror, traces of Cambodia's psychedelic fling would be all but smashed: the music banned, recordings destroyed, and an artistic community marched with millions of others to the killing fields.

That loss has been profoundly felt across the spectrum of Cambodian arts, silencing a generation of mentors; scattering elders into the global diaspora; and, as Um notes, traumatizing many parents who might share cultural traditions with their kids.

"Many younger Cambodian-Americans grew up in the shadow of trauma — in silence or in stuttered speeches or fragmented conversations," she says. "They're picking up these bits and pieces of the history, but have very few ways of meaningfully engaging it."

'Starting From Scratch'

That's part of the present urge to create new music and art among a younger generation of Cambodian-Americans, Um says. They're often the children or grandchildren of survivors who didn't live through the golden days of the '60s, but did grow up with pieces of its legacy. They included the surviving sounds of psychedelia.

Both Huy and Laura Mam, a fellow singer-songwriter from the Bay Area, heard the classics on old records growing up, but their immersion in the music was greater than most: They also watched their fathers perform covers onstage — sometimes joining them.

Huy's father wanted her to be a Cambodian pop star.

In her early teens, she became a full member of her father's cover band, singing a mix of '60s Cambodian hits and American pop covers for noodle shop performances, weddings, and political fundraisers. But, like many young musicians, Huy admits a rebellious streak.

"It wasn't my passion," she says, describing stubborn resistance among her bandmates to stepping beyond straight covers. "For me, it was very confining." At 19, on the eve of her first trip to Cambodia — a big boxing match event — she broke up with the band. She later joined a hip-hop/funk group in Colorado.

But Mam is living that Cambodian pop star dream.

After a brief YouTube career in college, she arrived in a country where karaoke, alongside Korean and American pop, had become king. The industry had preserved the golden age of psych rock in its own way — singalong style, with synthetic instruments and voices that sounded stuck in the '80s and '90s.

"I saw that we had this void, and I saw that it was probably going to be me and probably the rest of my generation that would be filling that void," Mam says.

In Cambodia, her efforts to compete with karaoke and K-pop have driven young people — and sponsors — wild. Her songs, dealing almost universally with love and heartbreak, are most often folky and playful.

While Mam acknowledges star status in Cambodia does mean certain taboos — particularly when it comes to politics — she says that's not the kind of music that would fly in Phnom Penh dance clubs anyway. Instead, she describes her audience as a generation not so unlike the young people of Ros Sereysothea's time.

"There are two things I can honestly say that they like," she says. "It's love and dancing."

New Sounds — And Controversies

Huy says she returned to Khmer music still uninterested in the "crossover," as she calls the move to Cambodia.

"I didn't want to make these sappy love songs," she says. "I wanted to bring back that time when we could talk about a little bit of patriotism and politics, whether it's cultural observations or experiences."

She says there was complex political dialogue in the 1960s music that's often lost in the nostalgia that swaddles the era, and is rarely heard in current Cambodian music. She points to the daringness of Ros, for example, the sky-diving star who sings openly about choosing her love amid patriarchy.

Her hope was to give listeners a bit of a shock.

That effort began with "Chnam Oun 16," a cover with hip-hop rhythms that intentionally diverge from typical Cambodian dance beats, and sung with a kind of aggression foreign to the high-pitch singing of traditional Khmer female vocalists — screechy or delicate, depending on whom you ask.

Bochan Huy's remixes have sparked debate over the use of pre-genocide-era music.
Heath Orchard / Bochan Huy
Bochan Huy
Bochan Huy's remixes have sparked debate over the use of pre-genocide-era music.

With the video, Huy says that her intention was to avoid "bringing back nightmares," but she hoped the images would spark dormant conversations about the genocide and the refugee experience among Cambodian-Americans — and make their story more tangible to non-Cambodians.

Huy also wore the headdress of an apsara, a goddess elsewhere seen intricately carved into the ancient temples of Angkor. Considered a sacred image, the outfit is largely reserved for Cambodian classical dance — an art form that nearly vanished under the Khmer Rouge. In Cambodia, the cultural ministry banned Huy's video, citing the lack of sensitivity in donning the outfit for a music video.

"I'm in America; I didn't think of a 'Ministry of Culture,' " she explains. "We have freedom of speech here."

Huy says the reaction has stirred some regrets about including the apsara — whether she ran too quickly with her own idea of the goddess as a symbol of female empowerment. But she resists the idea that it involves some type of miseducation in her Cambodian heritage.

Her goal isn't just "Cambodian music for Cambodians," she says, but a music that relates her American upbringing and heritage — picking up the pieces of a shattered past and infusing new experiences. Among many young Cambodians, particularly in the states, her narrative of resilience constructed with the outfit, the Oakland sound and the in-your-face images did become the conversation piece she had hoped for.

For others, it didn't quite translate.

As Um points out, entangling a beloved oldie, sacred dress, and imagery evoking the killing fields is a recipe for deep unease among those who have personal memories of pre-war Cambodia. In Huy's words, if members of an older generation ask any question about her music, it's likely to be: "What does this have to do with the war?"

"It reminds them of their teenage years," Huy says. "That's it."

Mam says she's cautious about tainting those memories. But she adds that the pain of war can be found in any song recovering pieces of Cambodia's past — even if nods to the genocide aren't explicit.

She points to her cover of Pan Ron's "Sva Rom Monkiss," performed with her former rock band, The Like Me's. Her rendition largely preserves the sound and rhythms of the original. It's a cover your grandmother could still dance to, even if the American voice and electrified beats might give her pause, at first.

That's the spirit of the video, at least, which tells the story of a Cambodian New Year's celebration, occurring at once in the San Jose of today and Cambodia circa 1966 — a scene drenched in nostalgic black and white. As a mother remembers, seeing fresh parallels between her daughter's experience and her own, it's clear she stopped discussing some memories long ago.

Beyond The Genocide's Shadow

Both Huy and Mam, who shared the stage at last week's Cambodian Music Festival in Los Angeles, emphasize that their music can't try to be for everyone — their community, riddled by geographical, generational and personal divides, is far too varied for that.

While tensions remain concerning certain uses of the past, Mam says that among the young musicians themselves, at least, the trend is for "everyone to just embrace everyone."

Mam is moving forward with a solo album that hops off the '60s trend, mixing ancient Cambodian music with electronica, while Huy aims to keep on shocking: Her next album will feature at least one more familiar psych rock tune, coupled with an even darker tone. She sees resilience in those kinds of remixes.

"We're straddling these two worlds and trying to figure out our sense of home, our identity, who we are, our history, accepting it, and changing to move forward," Huy says. "Right now I see this as a moment of light."

Still, she adds, a Cambodian pop star would have done a much better job packing last week's festival.

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Gregory Barber