You might not have known that. I certainly didn’t, not until a work friend happened to put Cambodian Cassette Archives on my iPod. Even then, I didn’t know the extent of the dopeness, just that the psychodelic, garage sounds coming through the little white earpieces were unusual, different, haunting—an echo of another era, most of the songs flashing with an “Unknown/Unknown” track title and band name. What the hell was this, how did it survive, why was it so effing good?
My intro to Cambodian rock
Well, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. People have been digging in, excavating through the darkness, trying to revive the Golden Era of 60s Cambodian pop culture: rock, films, thick lines of black eyeliner and bouffants the color of ink. It’s an exercise in lost histories, untold stories, missing pieces, what-could-have-beens, what-shouldn’t-have-beens. It’s an exercise in facing just exactly how much was lost. And ultimately, it’s an exercise in love.
So when I saw the flyer for a vintage shop, simply named Vintage, opening in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market yesterday—um, yes, count me in.
We waded through the sweaty stalls of the market—Western clothes and traditional trinkets, vegetables and raw meat, housewares and fruit stands. Tucked beside the nucleus of food stalls, it was easy to spot Vintage: sleek, boutique design, a crowd of hob-nobbing Westerners, and insanely good music coming out of the speakers.
The shop was selling remastered CDs, tshirts of contemporary Khmer hip-hop groups, some refurbished 80s ghettoblasters (dubbed as such), a new vinyl record by the revivalist band Cambodian Space Project. It’s the first vinyl, the enthusiastic Frenchman wearing a killer pair of glasses told me, to be pressed in Cambodia since the war. (Composed of an eclectic group of Westerners and fronted by a working-class Cambodian woman, the band is actually out of town for SXSW, so I’ll have to wait til April to catch them. For a super interesting interview, check out this link.)
Cambodian Space Project’s cover
One of the most interesting things for sale at the shop—and what had attracted me to the flyer for the opening in the first place—were the “reprints” of Cambodian film posters from the 60s. All the originals of these posters had been destroyed, not to mention the films themselves. But Sithen Sum, from the Kon Khmer Koun Khmer (Khmer Film Khmer Generation) repainted versions of the lost posters. We chatted, I got his business card, yes, yes, there’ll be an interview.
I’m forming an image in my head. It’s of Phnom Penh in the 60s. It’s aided by photography books I’ve browsed at the posh English-language bookstore. It’s populated with the people I’ve seen on grainy black-and-white videos at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, where I’ve spent hours clicking through the archives, where the people don’t look so different from how they do today, where the markets look the same and cyclos look the same and you could almost imagine none of it had ever happened.
The image has a sound. Behind the spotlights and sequins of it, it echoes of guitar riffs and mystery.
I’m sure this image is grossly inaccurate and veiled in layers of romanticized mystique, but right now I don’t really care. Sometimes you need a fantasy, a vision, a place in your head you can go to where everything is safe—just the glowing lights and the dancing limbs of some other time, that doesn’t seem so dead or so far away—that you let yourself pretend isn’t.