This largely plaintive and occasionally rocking music is the propaganda of resistance.
The 2015 documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten told the tragic story of Cambodian rock musicians who thrived in the ‘60s and were killed when Pol Pot began his reign of terror in 1975. The Banteay Ampil Band’s 1983 album Cambodian Liberation Songs is, in the words of reissue label Akuphone, propaganda. But this largely plaintive and occasionally rocking music is the propaganda of resistance.
Oum Dara composed music in the ‘60s for singers like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea, who disappeared or were killed after the new regime outlawed any music that was not nationalistic. Furthermore, Pol Pot for the most part killed anyone who wasn’t a peasant, so his one-to-three million victims included many of the nation’s best-loved musicians. Oum escaped with just deportation, avoiding harsher punishment by keeping his talents a secret. He took shelter in a refugee camp in Ampil, near the Thai border, where he formed the Banteay Ampil Band.
Also known as the Band of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, the group went to Singapore to record their only album, distributed in vinyl and cassette editions like musical samizdat. While its music at times recalls the doomed artists on the Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten soundtrack, it’s an even more somber affair.
Oum, who played violin and keyboards, conducted members of the band, which included two female singers, three male singers, bass, two guitars, violin and drums. Song arrangements echoed music from an era that had been largely destroyed, and Oum and his group preserved its memory and inspired the resistance.
Even with the rock instrumentation, ballads dominate. “My Last Words” opens with a sorrowful vocal from female singer Khoy Sarim. “Please Take Care of My Mother,” led by male vocalist Meas Sopha, is a moody rocker with a biting one-note guitar line. The aching violin that opens “Tuol Tneung (The Hillock of the Vine),” a duet with Khoy and Meas, is a Cambodian blues that evokes the pain of genocide. “Please Avenge My Blood, Darling” is in a similar vein, the intense violin timbre accompanying Meas on another soulful lament.
Somewhat more upbeat, at least musically, is “Don’t Forget Khmer Blood,” a duet led by Nhep Davy and Khuon Khemarin that has a wistful melody and rock guitar fills. Melodic, reverbed surf-like guitar opens “Destroy the Communist Viet!,” another duet by Nhep and Khuon, and “Look at the Sky.” “Follow the Front” is appropriately martial, with a marching beat, and it puts the cheesy organ of the ballad “I’m Waiting for You” in a startling context of pre-Beatles pop appropriated for propaganda.
The album ends with its most rocking number, “The Vietnamese Have Invaded Our Country,” led by Khoy with a fuzztone guitar intro and a male chorus that almost affects a rockabilly hiccup. Perhaps it’s a function of Western music not reaching Cambodian ears, but it’s curious that this resistance music of the early ‘80s is in such stark contrast to the angry political punk that came out of the West in the ‘70s and ‘80s; The Dead Kennedys did not appropriate local musical styles for “Holiday in Cambodia.” Cambodian Liberation Songs documents the gentle music of a people struggling to recover from genocide. It’s sobering to hear pop music forms that seem so benign to Western ears used to tell the story of a national tragedy.
The release of this album coincides with a reissue that may be the label’s most entertaining entry yet. Lam Seung!! is an EP of sinuous Lao synth pop (and two contemporary remixes) by the mysterious Sothy, whom the label has been unable to locate. Akuphone’s growing catalog focuses on musicians who have endured great political upheaval, and Cambodian Liberation Songs is its strongest and most powerful release yet.