Depending on how massive a fan one is of ballad-leaning, western-influenced Cambodian pop, the story of this record's existence is likely to outshine the music. And it's a fascinating story. In the late 1970s, after Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had emptied out Phnom Penh, divvied up property, consigned folks to labor camps, imprisoned others in former school buildings, and ultimately wiped out some 1 to 3 million members of the country's population, an anti-communist rebel force, known as the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, appeared in resistance to Vietnamese forces now controlling parts of the country. They called a camp near the Thai border, known as Ampil, home base. And when they weren't fighting, they formed a band and recorded propaganda songs that circulated without label support on cassette and vinyl. It's unclear how many copies of this were even pressed, but the band, consisting of five vocalists, a keyboard, bass, guitar, drummer, and violin, played the camp as well as other official events; they even had songs pump out of Radio Liberation, which started up in 1982, a year before this record was initially released. The US, Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia all rallied to the KPNLF's needs as well.
Writing, and conducting this music was none other than Oum Dara, who was a violinist and composer who had been responsible for a number of Cambodian pop masterpieces pre-year zero, and who had survived the genocide by concealing his talents. So, just what does this stuff sound like anyway? To those of us in the west who got hip to Cambodian rock via compilations on Sublime Frequencies, Dust to Digital, Lion Productions, and the now elusive LP Cambodian Psych Out, this will likely disappoint. It tends towards mid to slower tempos played solidly. To its benefit, it's also absolutely bereft of production. The sound quality is clear, and the playing has as much conviction as western-derived slow pop of the day could possibly have.
Here and there, they spruce it up a bit, as shown on “Please Take Care of My Mother,” which features some cool percussion and a sneaky keyboard line. However, things hit a serious snag with a truly corny march, “Follow the Front,” a tune no doubt meant for a specific political purpose. This is a fascinating document, and Akuphone has done the world a real solid by bringing it back into circulation. But musically, it's not particularly indispensable.- Bruce Miller
Longing For The Past: The 78 RPM era in Southeast Asia
Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll
Khmer Rouge Survivors: They Will Kill You, If You Cry