In the 1960s, Phnom Penh was a hothouse of creativity. The rule of King Norodom Sihanouk, the country's monarch, had many limitations, including rampant poverty and political repression. But artistic expression was widely encouraged.
Sihanouk himself composed and often performed songs in Khmer, French and English, and played the clarinet, saxophone and piano, as well as making feature films. (The country even had an annual film festival, which the king invariably won.)
During the Vietnam War, young singers and musicians in Cambodia listened to American Forces Radio, and geared their own music — and their records — partly to what they heard. The Beatles, Santana, the Rolling Stones and the Doors all became touchstones, with Khmer lyrics and microtonal singing mixing with bubbly Farfisa organs, bright horns and slashing guitar solos.
“The Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Bee Gees were huge here,” says Touch Seang Tana. “We loved to listen to them.”
Until 1975, music thrived in Phnom Penh, with clubs full night after night, crowds gathering in the streets around transistor radios to hear the latest releases, and the biggest stars being feted by the king.
Enter the Khmer Rouge, communism and the war on intellectuals. Between 1975 and 1979, about 2 million Cambodians, roughly a third of the population, were rounded up and either were killed or died of starvation.
Artists were particularly disliked by the Khmer Rouge, which saw creativity as decadence: Almost all of the biggest names perished during that era.