Culled from cassettes passed down following the 1975 Khmer Rouge genocides in Cambodia, the songs collected on Electric Cambodia are well worth their hallowed status. Compiled by the Los Angeles based Dengue Fever, who cover some of these tracks in their live shows, the proceeds from the release benefit Cambodian Living Arts, a Massachusetts institute dedicated to preserving pre-genocide Khmer art, and nurturing modern creative work. Indeed, the very word “Living” provokes a wide range of definitions, and the nature of the demise of many musicians, their music, and whole artform within the tragic pages of Cambodian history, gives this release added dimension.
But just because this music was lost—almost destroyed by the evil hand of fate, and a government wishing to wipe out all modern culture, and re-establish a completely agrarian, yet totalitarian society—doesn’t always mean that it is historically significant. Hell, you could wipe your ass with the Declaration of Independence and call it macaroni if the words didn’t mean shit. Yet, the document resonated then, and still does now.
So does the music on this disc. These musicians were exploring a wonderful mixture of Eastern and Western influences, especially the latter, that only seemed to exist in the late ’60s and ’70s. Indeed, the international flavor of music at the time favored a cross-pollination of as many cultures as possible, and you can hear that burning desire to seek new inspiration by assimilating various genres on these recordings. Other Cambodian cassette archival releases have featured a wide range of musical offerings, but Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia is far more centrally focused on the strange combination of psychedelic and surf music that found a home in the ’60s. Nowadays, of course, this would sound like heady indie music, conjured in a garage, loft, or tiny performance space, and fueled and finagled with nary a Pro Tools app in site.
Featuring Dara Chom Chan, Sinn Sisamouth, and the extraordinary vocal performances of two female singers, Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, the recordings sound fresh, somewhat exotic, oddly familiar, and yet wrapped up in a timeless aura that seems to surround really genuine music that just wants to get off on itself. And these tunes do. They move along with beats (the fun, hook-y opening track “Give Me One Kiss”), heroin-dreamscape rhythms (“Hope To Meet You”), soundscapes that parallel acid head trips (“Jomband Jet”), capture the Mellotron-infused yesteryear tastes of post—World War II European cafes (“Snaeha”), head to Jamaica and back (“Shave Your Beard”), touch the Cambodian sky with heartfelt passion with those circling, high vocal notes…so high, it sounds processed, but ain’t (“I Will Starve Myself to Death”), and never quite risk crazy noodle amalgamation of wrecked tortured extravagance.
The musicians, many of whom were murdered during the genocide, did not survive. However, the music lives on, and this release is a profound and moving statement about the durability of the human spirit. Art doesn’t have to mean everything. Often doesn’t. But listening to these songs reminds one that it can mean something special.