March 20, 2011
When Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk gave her the official title, "Queen of Golden Voice," Ros Sereysothea was the most popular female singer in Phnom Penh's psychedelic scene; but ultimately her life was an unhappy one. Born Ros Sothea to a large family in the Battabong province, Sothea's father walked out early on, leaving her mother struggling to provide for her five children. As a way to help support the family, Sothea sold boiled snails in the village and was often heard singing as she walked from place to place. In fact, her family sang and performed to earn extra money; Sothea and her brother, Serey, became known throughout the area for their powerful voices, even winning local singing contests. Sothea would eventually pay tribute to her brother by combining their names.
Changing her name when she moved to Phnom Penh to pursue a music career, Ros Sereysothea sang in a variety of restaurants and bars before catching the attention of Sinn Sisamouth, the most popular male singer in Cambodia. She recorded her first single in 1967 and a number of duets with Sisamouth, eventually catching the ear of the once and future King Norodom Sihanouk (Sihanouk was ousted in 1970 by the Lon Nol government, reinstated by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, ousted again, and reinstated in 1993). Starting in the 60s with the invasion of Vietnam, the US Armed Forces Radio broadcast pop and rock songs throughout the region, including Phnom Penh, where many people fled during the US bombings of rural areas in Cambodia. Inspired by these new sounds, Western-inspired bands popped up around the city, infusing traditional Khmer songs with Anglo pop hooks. The most hopeful time in Sereysothea's life was in the early 70s when she fell in love with a parachutist for the Lon Nol government. She experimented freely with different musical styles, starred in a few movies, and became a consummate parachutist with the help of her lover. After the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took power in 1975, they sought to purge the country of Western influence. Sereysothea was kidnapped in 1977 and treated with great cruelty. She was forced to dig ditches, sing revolutionary songs for the new regime, and married against her will to one of Pol Pot's assistants, who savagely beat. Her whereabouts after 1978 are unclear, but there were rumors she was found shackled and starved in one of the rural work camps. Another account found her cleaning out the pens at an industrial pig farm and subjected to general humiliation. Regardless, she was never heard or seen from again and most likely died, along with her family, at the hands of Khmer Rouge.
The songs compiled on this collection are inspired by Sereysothea's haunting voice in light of her tragic life. It should be noted that these are not original recordings, but rather products of the karaoke lip-syncing phenomenon endemic to Southeast Asia. Chlangden pop is the pervasive and ribald practice of adding a drum machine track and sometimes other instruments over a classic tune to make the song "new" again. Primarily used in karaoke bars, these songs have been reviled, justifiably, both for their disrespectful treatment of cultural history and also for ruining many songs by drowning out the vocals and muddying the tracks. Just the same, it is almost impossible to have access, in Cambodia as well as in the West, to many of the original recordings. Culled from over 300 hundred Chlangden tracks, Boiled Snail Girl offers songs more or less unavailable in any other form. While far from substituting the originals, Chlangden appropriations like "saryka prot ku" and "lolok sor kut" showcase Ros Sereysothea's fearless experimentation while offering a transcendently mutant view into how classic Khmer singers continue to live on in Cambodian culture today.
[Tracklist is provided in Comments in both anglicized and Khmer form; any help with translation would be greatly appreciated.]