Ros Serey Sothea (Khmer: រស់ សេរីសុទ្ធា) (1948 - 1977) was a famous singer during the final years of Cambodia's Sangkum Reastr Niyum and the Khmer Republic. 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 and films. Details of her life are relatively scarce and her fate during Democratic Kampuchea remains a mystery.
The late King Norodom Sihanouk called Ros Serey Sothea "the golden voice of the royal capital."
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, included her older sister, activist Ros Saboeut. She displayed vocal talent as a toddler and grew up listening to early Cambodian singers such as Mao Sareth and Chunn Malai which doubtlessly had a profound influence.
Sothea's talent would remain relatively hidden until friends persuaded her 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 alias Ros Sereysothea and became a singer for the National Radio performing duets with Im Song Seurm. Her first hit, Stung Khieu (Blue River) 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, the lead 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.
The style of her early 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 can most likely be attributed to her traumatic marriage with fellow singer, Sos Mat.
By the 1970s, American influence from neighboring South Vietnam had reached Cambodia and Sothea, along with her contemporaries, began experimenting in Western 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. Like the leader of the music scene, Sinn Sisamouth, Sothea would often take popular Western rock tunes, such as John Fogerty's "Proud Mary" and refashion them with Khmer lyrics.
Yet romantic ballads would remain her most endearing work amongst the more conservative populace. She was often sought out by film directors to perform the duet and/or solo in their movies. Sothea's collaboration with the Cambodian film industry is invaluable in identifying over 250 films lost during the communist regime.
Sothea never sang under any one record label and made a modest living as a musician. She is recognized as a national treasure and was honored by King Norodom Sihanouk with the royal title of "Preah Reich Theany Somlang Meas", the "Golden Voice of the Royal Capital".
From her brief relationship with a Khmer Republic parachutist and General Srey Ya, Sothea increasingly became involved in the military. As the Khmer Republic struggled in the civil war, Sothea and Sisamouth and their contemporaries published patriotic songs for the fledgling republic. Her career would continue until the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in April 1975.
Sothea's personality is invariably described as modest and reserved. She is known to have been involved in a few relationships throughout her life. When she arrived in Phnom Penh, she was courted by fellow singer Sos Mat and eventually married. Unfortunately Mat was already legally married to two other wives. As her career moved forward, Sos Mat became insanely jealous of her success and of the men who came to watch her perform. Traumatized by the emotional abuse from the constant envy of his other wives and the domestic violence from Sos Mat, they separated within six months of marriage. With her name ruined as a result of the divorce, her only option was to return to her family in Battambang. It would only be with intervention and help from Sinn Sisamouth that she resumed her career in Phnom Penh.
Despite the high profile divorce with Sos Mat, Sothea's popularity resurged and she met and the son of the famous Van Chan film company as part of her contracts recording film songs. Their marriage resulted in a son but for undocumented reasons they separated. She is also noted to have had a relationship with a parachutist of the Khmer Republic. General Srey Ya of Lon Nol's government, who was extremely infatuated with her, ended up holding her against her will in one incident. Sothea's unsteady relationships may have been the inspiration behind her most depressing ballads.
Fall of Phnom Penh:
It is believed that Sothea had traveled to Pailin Province for the Buddhist New Year in 1975. Some of her final recordings are those celebrating the New Year in Pailin. Many are skeptical of this claim as it had been increasing dangerous to travel outside Phnom Penh due to the encirclement of Khmer Rouge forces. When Phnom Penh fell, there were apparently attempts by military personnel to evacuate Sothea out of the country. 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 of witnesses.
Sothea was initially able to hide her identity well as she was from the Cambodian countryside and adjusted well, contrary to most of the "New People". The survivors from her camp didn't even know she was amongst them until she secretly confided with them. Eventually she was discovered and was forced by Pol Pot to marry one of his assistants in 1977. As a prolific singer, Sothea was forced to exclusively perform songs for the new regime.
Her new marriage was an unhappy one marred by physical abuses. Eventually the disputes got out of hand and the Khmer Rouge cadre of her village decided she was more trouble alive. She was told that she and her family would be moved to another village and she was last seen by survivors departing by ox cart. 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 even says that she was still alive when the Vietnamese invading forces arrived in Phnom Penh in 1979 but died of malnutrition shortly after in a hospital.
As a high profile individual and a musician, she was a prime candidate for extermination during Pol Pot's regime. Her two surviving sisters insist that Sothea, along with their mother and children, were taken to Kampong Som province and executed immediately following the Fall of Phnom Penh. Her remains have yet to be discovered.
With the cultural upheaval by the Khmer Rouge, scant evidence of Ros Serey Sothea's life remains. Her master recordings were either destroyed by the regime or deteriorated rapidly in the tropical environment due to lack of preservation. However, many vinyl recordings have survived and have gained reissues initially on tape cassettes and later on compact discs. Unfortunately many of these reissues are also remixed with extra beats usually overriding the original score. The releases from the master sources are thereby highly sought out by preservationist and collectors.
Sothea's older sister, Ros Saboeut, is widely credited with reuniting Cambodia's surviving musicians and bands in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge era. Surviving musicians had initially contacted Ros Saboeut to inquire about Sothea's fate. Ros Saboeut used the opportunity, and her contacts, to reunite the country's rock bands and musicians. According to Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Ros Saboeut sought to restore Cambodian music as a tribute to her sister, "I think she was bound by the legacy of her sister to help." Her efforts were widely credited with rebuilding the country's rock genre.
Nonetheless Sothea remained extremely popular posthumously in Cambodia and Cambodian communities scattered throughout the United States, France, Australia, and Canada. Western interest in Sothea would not dawn until songs by Sothea, Sinn Sisamouth and other Cambodian singers of the era such as Meas Samoun, Choun Malai and Pan Ron, were featured on the soundtrack to Matt Dillon's film City of Ghosts. Tracks by Sothea are "Have You Seen My Love", "I'm Sixteen" and "Wait Ten Months".
The Los Angeles band Dengue Fever, which features Cambodian lead singer Chhom Nimol, covers a number of songs by Sothea and other singers from the short-lived but rich Cambodian rock and roll scene. The advent of the internet, undoubtedly saved what was left of her discography while spreading and garnering interest in her music even after almost half a century later.
"Chnam Oun Dop Prum Mouy (I'm 16),
"Cry Loving Me",
"Don't Be Mad",
"Hair Cut, Hair Cut",
"Have You Seen My Love",
"I'm So Shy",
"Phey! Phey!" (Scared! Scared!),
"Since When You Knew Me",
"Wait Ten Months",
"Mdeth gall daltarm kyum?(why do you follow me?),
"Klein jurp nersa (The fragrant that lasts with me),
"Rom Woolly Bully,
"Bong Srolań Oun Ponman Der (Tell Me How Much You Love Me),
"Po Pruk Po Lngeach,
"Penh Chet Tae Bong Muoy",
"Kaduk Dol Heuy",
"Rolum Saen Kraw",
"Sarika Keo Kauch",
"Tha Cho Chok ",
"Or! Champey Euy ",
"Leour So Skol Thoun ",
"Kae Rognea Heuy Me ",
"Pkah Lmeath ",
"Chong Ban Chea Kou Veasna",
"Sra Muy Keo" (One Shot),
"Kom Plich Oun Na",
"New Year's Eve",
"Pga Reige Leu Maik",
"Pruos Reing Awej?",
"Lort sene duong chan,
"Somnerng Bopha prey phnom(songs of the jungle girl),
"Sralmall sene khyum(Shadow of my love),
"Chmreing sene khyum(Story of my love),
"Alay bong cher net(always misses you),
"Teurk hoe teu (river flow),
"Bong ban sonyah(You've promise),
"Soum ros khbere bong,
"Oun soum angvall (I beg of you),
"Oun neul tharl rong jum (I will still wait),
"Complete men ban ( Can't forget),
"Oun smak bong smoss,
"Oun sralnane bong nas( I love you so much),
"San nuk alay,
"Men gor sralane bong( I shouldn't love you),
"Chup sralane men ban (Can't stop loving you),
"Jum neu tharl jum,
"Oun jum bong cher neth,
"Phnom Kong'rei (Phnom Kong Rei),
"Pros bondoll chiet,
"Kum keng oun na bong,
"Rom cha cha cha,
"Jum loss sone,
"Bong tvere eouy oun yume (You made me cry),
"Yume samrapp thngay ness,
"Lane khume teu (let me go),
"Bondam stung keiv,
"Reastrei buth sene (missing lover of the night),
"Auh! seneha khyume,
"Verjah boross (the word of men),
"Oun soum phneu chheung,
"Chhba mon reing khyum,
"Norok lokei(The sin of man),
"Rolok songka therm svamei,
"Thgnay lett oun sralnoss(When sunset,I miss u),
"San chok chem,
"Machass sene oun,
Konsaeng Krohom(Red Scarf),
Pros Del Ka'bor Chet (Man who betrays),
Veal Srey Sronoh,
Duets with Sinn Sisamouth:
"Ae Na Promajarey",
"Bong Ban Khernh Sre",
"Chom Chait Pesaey",
"Chor Louch Jet",
"Have a Caramel",
"Jong ban pka avey?"("What flower do you want?",
"Kay Tha Kyom Jass",
"Konarb snaeha" ("Love poem"),
"Nao Tae Srolan,
"Oh! snaeha euy!" ("Oh! Love..."),
"Oun Rom Som Tae",
"Sronos Oh Jrov",
"Soniya 3 Tngai"(A Promise for 3 Days),
"Tiev Euy Srey Tiev",
"Tmor Kol Sromol Snae",
"Tok Bong Om Skat",
"Yaop Yun Thun Trojeak",
"Yerng Kom Plich Knear",
Duets with Other Artists:
Kmao Euy Kmao(Em Song Seum-1972),
Komloss Kromum Heu Ha(Em Song Seum-1972),
Komloss Kromum Srok Srae,
Hann Pnal Da Ey(Eng Nary),
Soll Tae Card,
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license