In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Starting from Nowhere?Popular Music in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge
  • Stephen Mamula (bio)


To study the resilience of a people victimized by abject terrorism and genocide illuminates the power of culture. By "culture," I denote a traditional way of life, a rubric of familiar phenomena that include indigenous ritual, ideology, belief systems, and the spatial and temporal rhythms to which these systems move and integrate. Yet, also revealed in such a study is the power of cultural change—change fueled by a growing market economy, tourism, and affordable mass media and communication technology. At the crossroads of such dynamism lies present-day Cambodia, a postmodern nation utilizing centuries-old fishing and rice harvesting techniques alongside popular consumption of MTV and the Internet. Cambodia is likewise, and infamously, a nation recovering from years of war, political instability, and acute social suffering. A chief operative of such was the Red Khmer or "Khmer Rouge," a radical polity that methodically purged over two million Cambodian citizens between 1975 and 1979, including 90 percent of the country's popular singers and musicians.

This research examines processes of resurgence and re-indigenization of a people devastated by tyranny of the most brutal kind. It is a pertinent topic due the recent and not so recent state of global affairs, whereby indigenous peoples of Darfur, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, and epically, the European and Russian Jews before them, among others, have all been violent targets of political hegemonies or sectarian groups that endanger, and in some cases decimate, vital expressive traditions.1 Of these occurrences, Cambodia is one of the extreme. Under the leadership of Saloth Sar—a.k.a. "Pol Pot"—the Khmer Rouge government rigidly forbade all practices and institutions of indigenous culture. These included religious worship, marriage and family relationships, education, intellectualism and professionalism, artistic expression, fashion, cosmetics, displaying emotion, most conversation or verbalization, and any discussion of the past. In short, all forms of social and personal behavior not directly serving the strict tenets of revolutionary doctrine were judged treasonous and punishable by death.

Critical circumstances such as these trigger disruptions of expressive culture that prompt vital questions, most fundamentally: How is a nation's popular [End Page 26]

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

Photos of condemned "enemies of the revolution," taken immediately prior to execution, circa 1978.

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 2.

Toel Slang Prison ("S-21"). The central torture and execution center during the Khmer Rouge era.

[End Page 27]

music practice, decimated by warfare and genocide, (re)constructed in the early 21st century? Do such conditions produce a cultural "tabula rasa," a clean slate upon which new economic and national policy (manipulated by capitalist priorities and widespread governmental corruption) is imposed on surviving peoples and their musical expression, with little resistance? What strands of pre-genocidal,2 popular music culture do Cambodians experience today and how is it experienced? Additionally, to what extent have the contexts, demographics, and identifying values of Cambodian popular music been altered as a result of the country's past?3

I contend that electronic broadcast and consumer media, specifically that accessible to Cambodians since the mid 1990s (television, radio dissemination, compact disc, video compact disc, DVD) has been instrumental in regenerating indigenous culture; i.e., "re-indigenizing" a people to native expressive forms of music and dance. Throughout Cambodia in the past decade such technology, particularly television broadcasts and commercial video (either legitimate or pirated), has served purposes of circulating both traditional and popular musics, producing a degree of re-stabilization to the former and a syncretic conduit for the latter whereby vernacular, non-vernacular, native, and non-native styles are dynamically hybridized. Cambodia's rich, pop music culture of the 1950s and 1960s—itself largely a syncretic production of mass media—has been similarly rekindled, adding a further expressive layer to the current discourse.

These musical-technological conditions, added to the ironic complexities of the Khmer Rouge political genocide—in which both perpetrator and victim were linked through ethnicity, race, nationality, language, and even family—generate an exceptional investigative scenario with few directly applicable research precedents or theoretical models. Therefore, I choose to...