Ros Serey Sothea

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Ros Sereysothea was the greatest Cambodian female singer that ever lived.  She had a powerful and electrifying voice with a haunting, bell-like quality that resonates in the ears and in the soul.  Sothea was a tiny woman, standing only five feet tall, but boy, she had a voice like an amplifier and she rarely needed a microphone.  During her extraordinary career she performed thousands of wonderful songs in almost every imaginable genre.
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Unfortunately, we know little of her life story except through the beautiful music that she left behind.  The little that we know tells us that her life was filled with heartache and that it ended in tragedy.  She was a victim, like so many others during those years, but her golden voice lives on.

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Ros Sereysothea Photo

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Sereysothea Photo ____ Ros Sereysothea’s birth name was Ros Sothea. She was born in 1948 to a country family in a small village in Battambong.  Like many poor Cambodians, Sothea had a childhood defined by hardship.  While accounts vary, it is generally agreed upon that Sothea's family could not afford to send her to school, and that she grew up not knowing how to read or write Khmer.
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In her teens, she and her family began to make a living by performing as a traditional peasant band.  Sothea and her brother Serey sang while the rest of her family played the music. They performed daily throughout the small villages of Battambong, and while they didn't earn a lot of money, and they occasionally struggled, the music did provide food for the family.
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Slowly their reputation grew.  Sothea’s talent was obvious and her brother was also quite popular, and audiences were coming to see the family band.  Apparently the band had a name, (since lost to history) but the people came to know them as “Serey-Sothea”, naming the band after its two featured singers. ____ Sereysothe_pic
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Ros Serey Sothea BW
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At the same time that "Serey-Sothea" was winning over people while touring through Battambong province, the Cambodian music industry based in Phnom Penh was experiencing rapid growth and producing Cambodia's first real music "stars".  When word got out to the villages that musicians and singers were making real money in Phnom Penh, Serey and Sothea were encouraged to go to the big city to seek their fortunes.  They had nothing to lose, so Sothea and her brother made the move south to the capital city.

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They arrived in Phnom Penh with no connections, and they started performing for free during the spotlight nights at the local clubs.  After just their first night, the two were hired by one of the clubs to be their regular singers.  The two of them continued to perform and get work at some of the other clubs around town, and Sothea quickly became a success.   ____ Golden Ros Sereysothea
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The little girl from the village not only had a marvelous voice, she was also very charming and vibrant.  Her beautiful and irresistible laugh would put a smile on your face and give you goose bumps simultaneously.
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"Golden Voice of the Royal Capital."

____ Her popularity grew across the capital and she began to work as a solo act, attracting growing crowds.  The popular female artists at that time were good, but Sothea was something different.  She captivated men and women when they heard her sing.  Her voice could not only delight audiences, but also bring heavy tears to their eyes and sorrow to their souls.  When she opened her mouth and sang her heart out, audiences were breathless.
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With Sothea's immense talent, she had eclipsed her brother in both fame and popularity.  She decided to break out on her own, but to keep making music under the name "Sereysothea" as a tribute to brother.  Around this same time, Sereysothea's popularity sparked the attention of Phnom Penh record producers.  She officially changed her name and signed her first record contract - soon her music could be heard on radios across Cambodia.   She had her first hit around 1967 with the song "Stung Khieu".
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During the following years, from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, Ros Sereysothea produced some amazing music, classics in many genres.  She even starred in a few films.  It was during these years, the hay-day of Sereysothea's professional life, that King Norodom Sihanouk gave her the title, “Preah Rheich Teany Somlang Meas", the "Golden Voice of the Royal Capital".  It was the first time the King had given any singer such an honor.

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Sothea-adelic

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Khmer Singer Photo

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During this time a new sound was emerging in the capital, led by the famed male singer Sinn Sisamouth, the Elvis of Cambodia.  He and Sereysothea developed a great professional relationship and would colaborate often, each the reigning king and queen of Cambodian pop music.  The two worked with other Cambodian musicians of the time to create what today is sometimes called Cambodian psychedelic rock or garage rock.

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Influenced by western Rythm & Blues, Rock n' Roll and music from Latin America that Cambodians were hearing on US Armed Forces Radio during the Vietnam War, this new sound was a truly unique creation of the Phnom Penh music scene in the 60's and 70's. This new Cambodian rock music replaced and supplemented the instruments of traditional Khmer music with western style rock and roll bands.  This hybrid music was a perfect fit for Sothea's high, clear voice; when coupled with bands featuring prominent, distortion-laden lead guitars, pumping organ and loud, driving drums, the result made for an intense, fun, sometimes haunting sound.
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Sinn and Ros Sinn & Ros
Rous Serei Sothear Album Sereysothea Album
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A characteristic of this new Cambodian rock is the often contradictory relationship between a song's lyrics and its music.  Misery soaked lyrics of broken hearts and doomed fates are wailed out, all set to exuberant party tunes.  The translation to Ros Sereysothea's "Have You Seen My Love" reads "I drink until I get drunk, But I can't seem to get drunk, The sky is all black, Love has wings to fly."  Sothea belts out these mysterious and melancholy lyrics with a voice that is both joyous and anguished, grating and uplifting.  In the background, the band gets the people moving with a funky, fun and upbeat dance groove.

While Sothea’s career and the Cambodian music scene were thriving, Sothea was not at all happy in her personal life.  During a Cambodian media interview in the late 1990’s, her living son mentioned that when his mother was alive, she constantly reminded him not to be a singer like her because she been through so much bitterness.

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PhnomPahn.com Image

Her songs are proof enough that Sereysothea understood the misery and sourness that life can provide.  When she cries in her songs, you can actually feel the sorrow that she is holding inside, a pure and beautiful expression of the pain coming from the depths of her heart.
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Khmer Rocks Sothea Khmer Rocks Sothea 2
     
Sothea was never content with her love life.  Being a female singer, she didn’t get much respect from her lovers.  For a woman, singing was considered a sleazy profession by many.  “Selling her voice” taints a woman in a way, making a part of her a public good, and thus diminishing her purity and value.   But a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice is always appealing to men, and Sothea had several relationships, the most publicized of which with a son of the owner of the Preah Chhann Pign Vorng Theater in Phnom Pehn.

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In the late 60's Sothea was married for a time to a Cham singer, Suos Mat.  Apparently Suos was insanely jealous of her success and of the men who came to watch her perform, and is said to have beaten her savagely.  The two divorced in the early 70's.  Later, Sothea had perhaps her most fullfilling romantic relationship with a high-ranking army parachutist working for the Lon Nol government.  While invovled with him, Sothea herself joined the army and even did some parachuiting.  Unfortunately, this happy time was short lived - sometime before 1975 her boyfriend was killed in combat.  

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Up until 1975, Sothea continued to perform and record music in the still thriving Cambodian music scene.  In April of that year it all ended when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh.  Along with everyone else, Sothea was forced out of the cities and into the Khmer Rouge worksites.  There are several live witnesses who have described living and working together with Ros Sereysothea during the Pol Pot regime.  Mrs. Tiv Heng, who is a resident of Kompung Speu province and Mr. Yim Sambath, a government official in Soriya Ordei Khan in Reusei Keo, are two people among others who were at the same worksite as Sothea.  These two have told us something about Sothea's life during those horrible years.

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Sereysothea Beehive

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According to Heng, Sothea was forced to live at the Phnom Sruorch, Kompung Speu work site, where the people were forced to work on irrigation projects.  When the singer arrived as a "new person" the villagers did not recognize her, so she managed to keep her identity a secret.  But later on, as more people from Phnom Penh were moved to the site, she was recognized.  In an interview Tiv Heng said, "Earlier people did not believe that she was Sothea - I was really happy.  I think that if people don’t believe that, Sothea could avoided being killed.  But later, the news about Sothea... was heard all the way to Angkar."

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After discovering her identity, the Khmer Rouge leaders made Sothea sing songs that celebrated the new regime and reminded the people to work harder.  Often, she would perform these songs in front of fairly large groups of people.  In his interview, Mr. Sambath described such an occasion - "When Sothea was asked to sing in a meeting in the old town, I saw her sing in front of hundreds of people in front of the microphone together with a person playing Tro."

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"The song had the rhythm of "Anija Khmayng Komprea" (Sympathizing with an Orphan Child)." Sambath tells us that Sothea's singing "made the whole audience including myself fill with sadness, including the pain that Pol Pot had put on us."  When she wasn't singing, Sothea was required to work at digging irrigation ditches like everyone else in the camp.  Tiv Heng said that during the time she was in the lady group with Sothea, Tiv used to listen to her songs very often. ____ Ros Sereysothea Old Photo

She noticed that Sothea had a lyric book full of revolutionary songs.  Tiv Heng goes on to tell us "I know that Sothea wanted to sing the old... songs, but she would not dare since Angkar had forbidden that."
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Even though she could sing, she wasn’t allowed to sing the songs that she loved, and she was only permitted to sing during celebrations and meetings organized by Angkar.  While the songs that Sothea was forced to perform during those years were simply propoganda, the listeners declared that her voice was superbly attractive.  For a short time, Sothea's incredible voice made them forget about the pain that was created by the revolution.
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Sothea and Sisamouth Record Sothea and Sisamouth Record Back
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In 1977, Sothea was forced by Pol Pot to marry one of his assistants.  Sothea was unhappy with the marriage, and the couple quarreled often.  Mrs. Tiv Heng has described this new husband as a very jealous person. She says that "Sothea told me directly that her husband abused her because he was jealous that she went to sing to other people.  As she arrived home, he hit her."

Sothea and her new husband's violent relationship was causing disturbances at the work site, and eventually the problem came to the attention of the subdistrict leader, who investigated the situation.  It was decided that Angkar didn't need Sothea or her family.  Tiv Heng says that she and the others thought "it was because of Sothea’s husband that Sothea and her family were killed."
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Classic Khmer Music Classic Cambodian Music
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It is unclear whether the couple's relationship was to blame, or if Sothea's husband had some other dispute with Angkar.  Either way, it was known locally that Sothea had gone missing from the irrigation building site in 1978.  Like countless others, Sothea had simply disapeared.  Mr. Yim Sambath describes, "When the town people had not heard Sothea sing any more, they suspected that she could be dead."
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Tiv Heng explains that "Some people said that they had seen Sothea riding on a cow cart with her family through Jeum Sangkae road to a new town.  People were happy that she moved to a new town, but I never saw people who moved out to the new town return.  In fact, I believed that those who were taken by Angkar to the new town were killed.  Later, I heard from town people that Sothea was taken to be killed in the south forest in Trorphaung Phlong."

We have a varying account of Ros Sereysothea's death that comes from one of her surviving sisters.  She claims to have knowledge that Sothea was seen in a Phnom Penh hospital, where she was severely malnourished.  According to her account, Ros Sereysothea died in that Phnom Penh hospital just weeks before the Vietnamese invasion.

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Cambodia Rocks BW

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In the wake of Pol Pot's genocidal rule, Sothea's music survived only on rare bootlegged cassette tapes and vintage vinyl kept hidden during the Communist years.  The fact that many Cambodians held onto their copies of these classic songs, despite the risk to their own lives, is a powerul tribute to the love that the Khmer people have for Sothea and the other great musicians of the era.  Today, these recordings are gaining exposure through reissues and compilations in Cambodia and abroad, and now over the internet in the form of MP3s.  

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Classic Cambodian rock music, including songs by Sothea, Sinn Sisamouth and others, has been featured on the soundtrack to Matt Dillon's film "City of Ghosts".  Currently in production, the film "Don't Think I've Forgotten" documents the Cambodian rock scene during the 60's and 70's.  "The Golden Voice", a short film about the end of Ros Sereysothea's life, has been accepted to the Beverly Hills Film Festival, and is now available on DVD.  The Los Angeles based band Dengue Fever plays in the style of the classic Cambodian rock bands and covers some Ros Sereysothea songs.  Check out the links section below for more information.
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People who understand the Khmer language will want to visit our videos section to see an interview with Ros Sereysothea's two sisters.

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(Thanks to g0ldenchild and Jatikhmer for most of this biography)
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