Romvong – the Khmer Circle dance

Rom Vong - the Khmer Circle dance

I took this photo at a wedding I attended in 2011. I’m always a bit shy in these circumstances – I didn’t know either the bride or groom, and so I kind of retreated behind my camera and took in the atmosphere which, in the large Siem Reap reception room was really noisy – with families and friends seated at round tables, shouting and laughing over the din, and competing noise-wise with a live band up on stage.

Some music was western and fairly karaoke in style, but the music that gets everyone on the dancefloor is the local Romvong style.

It is distinctly Cambodian, though the arrangements – at least to my ears – have elements of French folk music as well. Perhaps there was a fusion at least in the choice of instruments and sounds, during the French colonial period of much of the 20th Century.

In an any case the distinct rhythm gets everyone up on the dancefloor and cheerfully moving en-masse in a slow circle each person moving their hands gracefully.

“Ramvong dance has been performed in Cambodia for as long as anyone can remember,” says Wikipedia. “Both Khmers and other ethnic groups like Phnong, Krung, Tompuon and Prou people have performed this circular dance style since ancient times.”

The music has a languid beat, and is underpinned by steady bass guitar. The melody is provided by vocals and woodwind while a wooden xylophone, usually via a modern keyboards, provides much of the Khmer texture. Have a listen to a typical example.

As I stood on the sidelines total strangers waved at me, inviting me to join the circle, and eventually I did so, feeling uncomfortable at first: the only white guy in the room. But soon I felt part of the throng, no longer the individual but a part of a community.

See also: More on Khmer Music

Sinn Sisamouth and the golden age of Khmer pop

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The golden, liquid talent of Sinn Sisamouth has become a touchstone for memories of any Cambodian who lived before, and survived the horrifying Pol Pot years from 1975-1979.

When I became interested in in Cambodia, following a journey there in 2004, my search for Khmer music led me over and again to YouTube clips featuring Sinn Sisamouth. This clip (link here) is not untypical – a light pop melody that fuses western and Cambodian styles.

Every nation in the 60s had its own pop idols. Back then the recording business was highly localised and few artists – Elvis and The Beatles being rare examples – transcended the world stage. So within this context popular music in Cambodia adapted western music but combined this with its own traditions.

If you visit Cambodian nightclubs you’ll hear a dominant diet of hip hop, but the music that most fills the floor, still, is the traditional popular Romvong which is the music that drives the circle dance of the same name. These tunes, always sung in Khmer, feature a signature beat that belongs to the East, as well as keyboards and – sometimes, accordian which echos, I suspect, the French influence from the 1920s.

In the 1960s the move to guitar driven sounds led to adaptations of the US sound – including surf guitar, the Twist and the European classic romantic ballads such as Rain & Tears. (Modern version here.)  The up-tempo releases (See this clip featuring footage from a contemporary movie or this one also featuring contemporary clips) in the 60s were probably outweighed by the romantic romantic ballads.

Among the local pop stars Sinn Sisamouth was the giant. A congenial guy, he was vocally talented and also a prolific songwriter. I can’t over emphasise his status – to Cambodia he was Paul Simon, Andy Williams and Elvis all wrapped into one. His music, including dozens of duets with  female leads such as Ros Sereysothea (this clip captures the French influence) dominated the airwaves from the late 1960s through to the earl 1970s.

Then Pol Pot came to power and all promoters of anything vaguely western were rounded up, captured and tortured. Sinn Sisamouth was made to walk in circle, around and around until he collapsed and died of exhaustion.

Today thanks to YouTube and the patient curation work of American based Cambodians such as Darren Kham (Subscribe to his YouTube account) much of the music has been rescued and in many cases digitally restored so that the golden days of popular music, and the heart rending vocals of Sinn Sisamouth have been preserved.

Typical of the comments posted under his YouTube clips:

When I fell in love for the first time, it was like, everything is possible and everything is sweet and happy and awesome, and this song made my first love even deeper like an ocean and wider like the universe. But then, like everything in this world, it ends, though my memory of this song remained as wonderful as it was then.

Or simple memories of better times:

When I was little, I remember my parents listening to songs like this on car rides.

If you can, try and get hold of the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten which traces the rock and roll era of Cambodian music.

One of the people quoted in the documentary is the lead singer for the modern group Dengue Fever, Chhon Nol. Dengue Fever represents an interesting phenomenon: the group is based in the USA and founded after their lead guitarist visited Cambodia and discovered the 60s pop sound. Well worth listening to: their songs such as Tiger Phone Card capture perfectly the well crafted Cambo-Pop sound of that era.

Today, pop music in Cambodia retains some of this same nostalgia. There is still a strong taste for romantic ballads, and remakes of the music of Sinn Sisamouth and his peers are not uncommon. I find it quite powerful when I read the comments on YouTube. People with scarred pasts find healing and hope, still, in Sisamouth’s music.

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Still I Strive – A Cambodian Movie worth checking out.