Various Artists: Khmer Rouge Survivors They Will Kill You, If You Cry
Review by Bruce Miller
"My husband that drinks"
Cambodian folk music survives 40 years after Pol Pot's genocide, which wiped out almost 1/4th of the country's population. In fact, YouTube is covered with videos from Cambodian television featuring Chapey Dong Veng players sitting cross legged, unspooling stories over furious single-chord runs on this incredibly long-necked, two-string lute. Also, a decade or so ago, Sublime Frequencies released a hypnotic collection of ethnic minority music from the country's North East, many of performers old enough to remember hearing of the killing fields. No doubt, younger folks living in Phnom Penh see this music as “country,” but they are at least aware of it. Yet, considering the emptying out of the cities during year zero, the pond-sized craters thanks to Henry Kissinger's “secret” bombing of the place way back when, the fact that Cambodia has more land mine deaths (an average of 3 daily) than any place on earth, and that only about 10% of the “intellectuals” survived the genocide, it's amazing this record got made at all.
The musicians here, as young as 50 but mostly older, have shrapnel scars and stories of being child soldiers fighting against the Vietnamese. At least one of them was reduced to a sack of skin and bones due to a lack of rations. They walk with limps, go without dental care, and have nightmarish stories to tell. So, like the label's release Hanoi Masters, this set captures musicians who know firsthand the ravages of US imperialism and the violent aftershocks that typically accompany such hubris.
"A Father's Honor"
Oh, but the music is fantastic too! Chapey master Soun San wails away with the heaviosity of a North Mississippi blues man or woman, or well, a rural Cambodian Chapey master, on several tracks, one of which spins out for nearly 13 minutes. Blind singer Keut Ran delivers vocal dynamics on par with the twistiest of Appalachian singers such as Dellie Norton or Maggie Hammons. Thorn Seyma and flautist Arn Chord Pond keep the collection from falling into any discernible pattern with a more modern tune driven by hand percussion and acoustic guitar, not to mention Pond's flute. Other chapey players appear; Kong Nai creates conditions for deep trance with his voice and playing. Ouch Savy, who can be found thrumming the aforementioned ancient lute on YouTube clips, sings a song in tandem with her mother, Prom Chantel, accompanied by handclaps.
Ouch Savy and Prom Chantel
"Where has my husband gone?"
Elsewhere there are one string fiddles accompanying songs expressing frustration with spousal alcohol abuse, bamboo kann-driven odes to elephants (see full track, above), and ballads about being war's victims. One need none of the genocide survivor backdrop to appreciate how infectious this music is, but Ian Brennan has once again acted to preserve oral traditions and stories that need to be heard. It's all a world away from pot-laced pizza and sex tourism, too - Bruce Miller