The Death and Reborn of Khmer Music

Written by iHeartKhmer, May 7, 2019

The Khmer culture was, and still is, a very strict, polite, and spiritual culture.  But when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia from 1975-1979, they tried to demolish the culture completely.  Khmer Rouge was looking to change the ways of the Cambodian people and completely destroy the life they used to know.

Over their four year rule they succeeded in destroying all recordings and records of their music, destroying all art facilities, books, and schools, and killing off twenty percent of the population which included the intellectuals, musicians, artists, and government officials.  They kept the Cambodian people in labor farms where they worked and starved them to death. They took away all important items for their culture and did not allow them to walk, greet, or talk in the way that their culture taught them. Khmer Rouge literally tried to strip away everything they once knew.  

In January of 1979, Vietnam finally intervened and drove Khmer Rouge out of the country, allowing Cambodia to restore their lifestyle.  People immediately began to reunite at the nation’s capital to try to bring the culture back to life, but unfortunately many others suffered, and are still suffering, from post traumatic stress and are too afraid to go back to their normal, peaceful lives.  Artists called for all other musicians to come forward and bring back the happy culture of music and dancing. Some artists did, refusing to submission and fear, but other surviving musicians and dancers kept their identity hidden.

Today’s people are still recovering, and so is the culture.  Old songs have been restored thanks to tourists who still had their cassettes and people who escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge rule and took their cassettes with them.  A CD was released in 1999 with the pre-war songs that had been saved. The CD had no information about the singers or the names of the song, so there was still much recovering to be done.

Today, the Khmer’s traditional music is almost completely restored, along with the rest of the culture.  The Khmer people have strived hard to keep passing their culture traditions down through its generations, and the culture is very much alive.  The music’s popularity is mostly among the older generation, but the pre-war songs are being mixed into current hip hop and rap music tracks, so it is slowly exposing it to the younger audience.  For example, there are many new love songs that are coming out to suit the younger generations, but they are mimicking the songs made back in the sixties.

A current musician, Visal, is working particularly hard to restore and create popularity with the music.  He returned to Cambodia in 1993 and started experimenting with music editing software and traditional Khmer music.  He started editing the traditional music to make it sound more modern, but have the same complexity, creativeness, and peacefulness as it did back then.  At first people thought it horrible, but the younger generations love it, and at least this way the traditions will live on.

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