Ros Serey Sothea: The golden-voiced Cambodian surf rocker slain by the Khmer Rouge

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Cambodia had one of the most prominent and burgeoning rock scenes in the entire world. As the first wave of American rock and roll came to an end in the late 1950s, the country received its first import records of prominent figures like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. It wouldn’t be until the escalation of the Vietnam War that pop and rock records began to be picked up on US Armed Forces radio. It was in that explosion that Ros Serey Sothea emerged as perhaps the most unique and singular talent of the genre.

Born in the Battambang Province of Cambodia, Sothea held all the same qualities that traditional Cambodian singers had. But it was her willingness to experiment that helped make her name. Teaming up with fellow forward-thinker Sinn Sisamouth, the pair recorded a number of popular ballads that secured them popularity in wider Cambodia.

The influence of American culture in Cambodia reached a peak in the late 1960s, with music being a dominant force for change. Western instruments like electric guitars, drum kits, and Farfisa organs began to filter into the country. Musicians responded by taking a harder-edged approach to the more traditional Cambodian sound. Sothea was a rare example of an artist who had a foot in each camp – her traditional ballads and film appearances made her a famous star, but her more progressive material made her an underground hero with the upstart genre of Cambodian rock.

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