Monday, December 6, 2010

Ros Serey Sothea

Ros Serey Sothea was a famous Cambodian singer during the nation's thriving cultural renaissance of the 1960s. She sang from a variety of genres but romantic ballads emerged as her most popular works. Despite a rather short career she is credited with producing hundreds of songs and even starring in a few movies. Details of her life and fate during the Khmer Rouge is relatively unknown but it is generally accepted she did not survive.

Ros Sothea was born in 1948 to Ros Sabun and Nath Samean in Battambang Province. Growing up relatively poor, Ros Sothea was the second youngest of five children and displayed vocal talent around the age of three or four. Her talent would remain relatively hidden until she was persuaded by friends to join a regional singing contest in 1963. After winning the contest she gained the attention and praise of the province and was invited to join Lomhea Yothea (a musical troupe) which regularly performed at Stung Khiev Restaurant in Battambang. It is believed that Im Song Seurm, a singer from the National Radio heard of Sothea's talents and invited her to the capital, Phnom Penh in 1967.

In Phnom Penh, she adopted the stage name Ros Serey Sothea and became a singer for National Radio performing duets with Im Song Seurm. Her first hit, Stung Khieu debuted the same year and she quickly attracted fans with her clear and high pitch voice. Eventually she became a regular partner with Sinn Sisamouth another famous singer of the era and they were a smashing success. She also performed with other prominent singers of the era such as Pan Ron, Houy Meas, and Sos Mat.

Recognized as a national treasure she was honored by King Norodom Sihanouk with the royal title of "Preah Reich Theany Somlang Meas", the "Golden Voice of the Royal Capital".

The style of music early in her career is characterized by traditional Cambodian ballads and duets. She would eventually shift to a more contemporary style by combining romantic ballads drenched in loss, betrayal, and death with Western instruments. This change of style is most likely be attributed to her traumatic marriage with fellow singer, Sos Mat.

By the 1970s, Sothea began experimenting in other genres. Her high, clear voice, coupled with the rock backing bands featuring prominent, distortion-laden lead guitars, pumping organ and loud, driving drums, made for an intense, sometimes haunting sound that is best described today as psychedelic or garage rock. And like the leader of the music scene, Sinn Sisamouth, Sothear would often take popular Western rock tunes, such as John Fogerty's "Proud Mary" and refashion them with Khmer lyrics.

Her career would continue until the Khmer Rouge captured the beleaguered capital, Phnom Penh in April 1975.

Like everyone else when the Khmer Rouge took over, she was forced to leave Phnom Penh. There are many speculations regarding her fate from a variety witnesses.

Some say Sothea was forced by Pol Pot to marry one of his assistants in 1977 who was said to have argued with her and beaten her often. She then disappeared under typically mysterious circumstances and is almost certainly dead. Other accounts believe that she died from being overworked in a Khmer Rouge agricultural camp. Another account said that she was still alive when the Vietnamese invading forces arrived in Phnom Penh and died of malnutrition shortly after in a hospital.

Finally, her sisters insist that Sothea along their mother and children were taken to Kampong Som province and executed immediately following the Fall of Phnom Penh.

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