Aside from Indonesia’s Gamelan ensembles, Southeast Asia rarely features on the global music scene. This is a shame, given the region’s incredibly diverse musical and cultural landscape, which stretches across ten countries from Myanmar to Indonesia. It therefore means a lot to Southeast Asians such as myself, when individuals such as Grammy-award winning music producer, Ian Brennan shares our vision with the world. Brennan works with underrepresented international artists as well as labels like Glitterbeat, which challenges pre-conceptions of what regional music should sound like.
Both Brennan and Glitterbeat Records are known for searching for the world’s forgotten musical stories, and Cambodia is unfortunately a good example of this, being a nation of disappearing musicians at risk of cultural extinction. What used to be the pearl of Southeast Asia as a musical hub in the late 1950s to the early ’70s, is now at risk of a deteriorating cultural memory due to the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79). After World War II, Cambodia’s independence gave rise to a booming popular music scene, with prolific home-grown musicians of the ’60s such as Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. However, as artists in particular were targeted during the regime’s brutal genocide, up to 90% of its musicians and performers were executed. The musicians featured on this album make up a small minority of Cambodian artists who survived, so the fact that we are even able to listen to their voices as survivors of one of the world’s most massive genocides in living memory, let alone their music, is more than enough to grateful for.
They Will Kill You, If You Cry is a collection of 14 songs in Khmer and is a true testament to the crucial role that the arts plays in society, giving individuals voices and helping them cope with life’s challenges. Through his field recording style, equipped with the distant sound of airplanes overhead and the sob-like breathings in between singing phrases, Brennan creates a bridge of intimacy between musician and listener, demonstrating how art can spread empathy and seek understanding on an international level.
This album is packed with national musical treasures, from musical director Arn Chorn-Pond, who lost his family to Pol Pot’s regime at age ten, and who’s heart-breaking story forms the title of the album, to legendary blind chapei (lute) player, Kong Nai, and khene (mouth organ) player Mon Hai – both survivors of disappearing musical traditions.
Prom Chantol and Ouch Savy’s stripped down version of the old Khmer popular song, ‘Ao Sat Sarika’, is an apt and poignant reflection of how Cambodia’s past golden musical era is at risk of fading away and being forgotten. Thuch Savanj’s ‘My Life as a Victim of War’ is an unusual piece with a rather uneasy musical accompaniment of sawing and scratching. His song, reflective of the pain and trauma suffered across generations of Cambodians, ends rather unsatisfyingly – but that in itself is a powerful statement concerning the enormity and complexity of his experience. It closes with the line “if there is more time/I will tell it all to the end/There is so much more”.
This is an uncomfortably real album. With songs in Khmer accompanied by Cambodian folk music instrumentation, the album will undeniably sound unfamiliar to untrained ears. But most importantly, it’s real – packed with stories of grief, pain and heartache, but also of the strength of the human spirit and survival from the aftermath of genocide. These songs are not exactly easy listening but they contain voices that very much need to be heard.