Various Artists

Cambodian Cassette Archives: Khmer Folk and Pop Music

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Pol Pot's horrific regime in Cambodia wreaked destruction in multiple directions, including irreparable damage to the country's culture and musical heritage, as well as the loss of so many lives. It's sadly appropriate, then, that this compilation of Cambodian pop music, spanning the 1960s through the 1990s, had to be pieced together from more than 150 cassettes (described as "ravaged" in the liner notes) found in the Asian branch of the Oakland, CA, public library. Though some of this was recorded in Cambodia before Pol Pot's ascension, much of it was likely done from the 1970s onward by expatriates in the United States and other countries (the presence of synthesizers on some cuts makes it pretty certain that they don't predate the '70s). Here is one case where you really can excuse the lack of documentation in a historical archive release: artists are known for only two of the 20 tracks, and even more than half of the song titles are unknown. Despite the mystery surrounding who made this music where (and the inescapably subpar, erratic sound quality), it's an interesting and, to an admittedly variable degree, fun anthology that captures different admixtures of Western pop/rock with more indigenous Cambodian influences. For Western listeners, much of the interest lies in the sheer novelty of hearing unfamiliar collisions, with melodramatic Cambodian vocals, melodies, and operatic orchestration charged by raw psychedelic guitar, cheesy organ, and fusion-like horns. Some of the later-sounding recordings suffer a little from mechanical synths and percussion, though even then there are some intriguing combinations, like "Sat Tee Touy (Look at the Owl)," which sounds a little like Fairport Convention gone disco. It gets even more unpredictable than that, with one sadly untitled, uncredited number (it's track number 11 on the CD) fusing girl group-inflected singing, British Invasion-type melodic drive, hi-life horns, and upper-register nasal vocal tone in quite invigorating fashion. Though late-20th century Cambodian pop can probably never come close to being documenting with any reasonable thoroughness, this unusual reissue captures at least a slice of it, performing a valuable artistic and musical service.

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