Cambodia: Of Sounds and Survival – Khmer music

28 October 2005
1975-1979 was a period of genocidal censorship throughout Cambodia – the music and musicians barely survived. Today, Khmer artistic cultures are in recovery


By Meredith Holmgren

1975-1979 marks a period when Cambodian citizens were ruled under a most violent and oppressive regime headed by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, also known as the Khmer Rouge. At this time, there were extreme restrictions that, if violated, could get you arrested, tortured and likely killed. The regime notoriously romanticized agrarianism, thereby forcing urban populations out of the cities and into labor camps located in the countryside where they were to become “new people” (Khmer: monou thmey). The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University reports that at least twenty percent of the general population (or 1.7 million) died during this period — typically as a result of starvation, work-exhaustion and/or execution.

The arts during Pol Pot

Among the banned was education, religion, professionalism, intellectualism, banking, skilled trade, relationships with family, expressing certain emotions and speaking about the past. In addition, the Khmer Rouge banned all art, literature and music that did not praise the communist party and its leader, Pol Pot.

Cultural and performing arts institutions were promptly closed. Instruments and recorded music were disposed. Artists and musicians vigorously hid their identities. Some musicians (including prestigious musicians, who might have difficulty hiding their identities) enlisted to play ‘revolutionary’ music for the Khmer Rough regime — but even many of these artists did not survive. Cambodian musicians quickly became subjected to the world’s most extreme form of music censorship — genocide. Not only was music itself banned, but it is widely estimated that ninety percent of Cambodia’s musicians and performers were killed during Pol Pot’s rule. By 1979, it became clear that the rich cultural history of Cambodia was all but erased.

The arts after Pol Pot

After Vietnam invaded Cambodia (taking Pol Pot out of power) some musicians returned to the capital city of Phnom Penh and immediately put out a call for all artists to return. Asia Source reports, “Cambodia’s remaining dancers and musicians responded. In 1980, professional artists reunited for the first time in emotional performances that were at once an agonizing recognition of the loss of life — so many were killed or missing — and a reaffirmation of identity.” Ever since, Cambodia and its artists have been striving to recover, in whatever way they can.

The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh was reopened during the same year that the regime fell. The dean of the school, Proeung Chhieng, told a reporter from The American Prospect that a prompt reopening was important, “’Art is like the soul of a country,’ he says, and explains that the school welcomed in hundreds of students, many of them the orphaned children of artist parents.” The music and dance teachers who survived continue to transmit their art to the younger generations, particularly within the framework of the Royal University of Fine Arts or the Buddhist temple of Wat Rajabo in Siem Reap. Master artists of the Cambodian diaspora, particularly those who fled as refugees, are also doing their part to revive Cambodian traditions; many cultural centers, artist workshops and performances now exist worldwide. Some international organizations, such as UNESCO, are additionally funding projects to help retain Cambodia’s artistic and cultural heritage.

Current Issues

But one of the biggest hurdles facing Khmer musicians today may be self-censorship. After years of torment, many Cambodians continue to suffer from extremely high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression. According to reports in a recent issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (August 3, 2005), even Cambodian refugees living in the United States are suffering from extraordinary rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (62 percent, six to seventeen times above average populations). After hiding their identities and witnessing countless acts of murder, many Khmer musicians still live in fear. This fear is perhaps further impacted by the fact that some former members of the Khmer Rouge are assimilated into the current government and, while Pol Pot died in 1998, there has never been a formal war tribunal to bring a sense of justice or resolution. Of musician self-censorship Newsweek (July 2, 2001) writes “after the Pol Pot regime wiped out the country’s artists, a tight-lipped stoicism has taken root. MTV and Western pop culture have yet to make a dent. Most Cambodian pop tunes are love songs that mimic those of the prewar 1960s.”

But quite recently things have started to change. Aside from the resurgence of Khmer classical and folk music traditions, a newer form of popular music is breaking the silence. praCh, dubbed by the media as “Cambodia’s first rap star,” combines traditional Khmer genres and instrumentation with fierce hip-hop style. Born in Cambodia, but raised mostly in Long Beach, California — home of the largest Khmer community outside of Cambodia – his music tells the stories that so many people do not want to tell: horror stories about life under Pol Pot and the ensuing hardships. The lyrics have certainly resonated with the Cambodian population. At first, DJs were admittedly apprehensive about playing the album on the radio, for fear of government reprisal, but it didn’t take much to get the word out. One of praCh’s demo tapes found its way onto Napster and pirated versions subsequently circulated throughout Cambodia, quickly making it the number one album in the country. Though it is important to note that once election time came, his music was temporarily banned from the airwaves.


Thirty years ago everything in Cambodia drastically changed. Since then, the culture, politics and music have never been the same. Khmer traditional art forms have survived censorship of unthinkable magnitudes. Today, it remains difficult for Khmer musicians to speak out, but many who have survived are refusing to accept submission. Not only are many in the new Khmer generation learning from the surviving masters, but some have even gone on to create musical traditions of their own.


Yale University, 2004:
‘The Cambodian Genocide Program’

Asia Source, 2001:

Dance: Spirit of Cambodia
Journal of the American Medical Association, 3 August, 2005:

‘Mental Health of Cambodian Refugees 2 Decades After Resettlement in the United States’

The American Prospect, 18 February, 2005:

‘Children of the Khmer Rouge’

UNESCO, 22 Dec 2002:

‘Rehabilitation of Cambodian performing arts’
‘The project of assistance to the Royal University of Fine Arts’

Newsweek, 2 July, 2001:

‘Hip-Hop about Pol Pot’

Asiaweek, 20 April 2001:

‘Hard Rap on the Rouge’


Cambodian Masters Organization: Cambodian Living Arts

Cambodian classical music

Sin Sisamouth – Biographical profile

Ros Serey Sothear – Biographical profile

Arn Chorn Pond:
Article with listening example
Documentary: ‘The Flute Player’

Official website
PBS article/interview with listening examples


Cambodia masters listening examples
Khmer website directory
Cambodian music in MP3 quality
Cambodian Cyber Culture
Homrong: Classical music from Cambodia – CD
Pre-Khmer Rouge Rock
Pin Peat info


Phnom Penh Arts Festival 2005


‘Drechos’ – featuring large Cambodian human rights index
The Documentation Center




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