From ‘Motown to the Mekong’

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Kak Channthy (right) of the Cambodian Space Project and actress Dy Saveth (left) at the event last Friday. Steve Porte

The Vietnam War and Cambodian Rock ‘n Rolll
The story of Cambodia’s rock n’ roll Golden Era has garnered wide attention over the last decade, with bands such as the Cambodian Space Project and Dengue Fever, and the film, Don’t Think That We’ve Forgotten, shining a spotlight on the kingdom’s recent musical past. Yet in the rush to celebrate the era, the origins of this rock n roll sea change has often been overlooked. 
This topic was center stage of the “Motown on the Mekong” discussion, held last Friday at The Exchange, where music luminaries, including Detroit and White Stripes producer Jim Diamond, Cambodian music archivist DJ Oro and Australian music writer Clinton Walker, were on hand to give their take on what inspired the artists of the era. 
The answer? Well a good deal of it has to do with a certain war: “Cassettes of American music could be recorded and sent across the border from Vietnam. People would send it down the line, and then add their own bits to it later. Then, ‘bang’ you had a Khmer take on ‘Rolling down the river,” noted one panelist.
This concept of musical appropriation is highlighted in Rolling Stone’s 2015 book of the year: We Have Got to Get Out of this Place. Drawing on countless interviews, its authors, Doug Bradley and Craig Werner, reveal the role that rock n roll played, not just as inspiration for the troops, but in fermenting a musical wave across East Asia.
It was, they argue, a surge helped by touring acts from Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia who, after playing to the troops, would head home, bringing new music and ideas – even new instruments – with them. And playing to local audiences once again, they added further spark and inspiration to a generation keen to father their own brand of rock n roll. 
The result: a melting pot of sounds and ideas that fused western popular music with local sensitivities. The Motown discussion suggest that this was as strong in Cambodia as elsewhere in the region, although it was not the sole inspiration for the Golden Era’s brand of rock n roll. 
Technology also played a part, suggests Clinton Walker, another ‘Motown’ panelist: “The question of where their equipment came from is important. I suspect that artists had to improvise with what they could find or afford. This caused the music to change even further.”
But what of the role of the Motown sound itself?  As Bradley and Werner suggest, songs such as Respect (Otis Redding) and Chain of Fools (Aretha Franklin) literally saved the lives of ‘grunts’, who, dehumanised by war, found solace in these Motor City tunes. However, as the wide-ranging discussion on Friday shows, the meanings of these tunes were different for Cambodian artists, adapting and playing them for local audiences. As Golden Era musician Keo Sinorn, of Doney Kasekor, shared: “If it was a good tune, easy lyrics, not too hard to play, that was good enough.” 

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