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Bangkok Post
Bangkok Post

Travel notes

Cambodia, like many Southeast Asian countries, enjoyed a golden era of popular music during the 1950s and 1960s, when Phnom Penh, known as the "Pearl of the Orient" became an important cultural centre, a breading ground for the meeting of Western rock and pop and Cambodian music. Author Dee Peyok in her fascinating new book Away From Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia (Granta, UK, 2023) notes that "the music of East and West merged across Southeast Asia to the most fascinating mélange of instruments, attitudes and expressionism".

Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon), Jakarta and even Singapore all boasted lively entertainment scenes during this period, and in the opening chapter, Peyok gives a handy overview of the development of Cambodian popular music. She traces the country's cultural history from the original golden era of the Angkor kings and highlights the importance of traditional folk music in Khmer culture. But while we can research the roots of Thai or Vietnamese popular music and even interview surviving musicians and producers from the 1960s, the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge genocide means that nearly all the musicians from that era, and indeed any cultural worker, were killed and much of the infrastructure of the entertainment industry was completely destroyed.

The author explains how she came to be in Cambodia and how she became interested in contemporary Khmer music. She had discovered the early cassette of old hits, Cambodian Rocks, various World Music labels, as well as the revivalist music of San Diego-based Dengue Fever, who have taken their version of the Khmer sound across the globe, and Cambodia-based The Cambodian Space Project. She moved to Cambodia with her partner, an English teacher, and began crisscrossing the country in search of music and musical survivors. What makes this different from the few other books that have been written on Southeast Asian pop history -- mainly academic -- is that it is written in the form of a musical travelogue, and the adventures Peyok has on her journey. As a result, the book is a very enjoyable read indeed.

Cambodian Rocks compilations, and then the releases of Dengue Fever and Cambodian Space Project, brought to international audiences the music of the "rock'n'roll monarch" Prince Norodom Sihanouk and singers like Pen Ran and Ros Ros Sereysothea, as well as the "renaissance man", composer, bandleader and singer -- of just about any style you can think of -- Sinn Sisamouth. Peyok describes Sisamouth as "a chameleon who could turn his hand to any style, from folk to rumba to music for popular dances like the cha-cha-cha and the jerk, as well as a popular circle dance called ramvong and psychedelic rock'n'roll". In Southeast Asian popular music, only Malaysia's P. Ramlee comes close to Sisamouth's versatility and his immense output (he composed between 1,000 to 4,000 songs according to the author).

The book also reveals much about one of World Beat's favourite Khmer musicians, the chappei (a long-necked lute) player Kong Nay who has featured in previous columns. The blind master is one of the last of the Khmer troubadours who used to go from village to village singing their songs and retelling epic history. Peyok also reveals a palace-derived band Apsara, the country's first guitar band, Bakesy Cham Krong, and a moving meeting in New York of those surviving musicians from the Cambodian diaspora.

John Clewley

Peyok ends her book with a reality check on Cambodians' unique and tragic recent past as she attends the final stages and verdicts of the Khmer Rouge tribunal case in Phnom Penh and concludes that during her research she had seen "at first hand, the healing power of music".

This is a great read and a must for fans of Cambodian pop music and Southeast Asian music in general. One error that the author might want to correct is the confusion she seems to have over the khene (khaen in English) bamboo free reed mouth organ in Laos, which she wrongly attributes to uplanders from the Hmong ethnic group, when it is the iconic instrument of the Lao ethnic group in Laos and northeast Thailand, and the National Instrument of the Lao PDR.

John Clewley can be contacted at

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