Songs of Solidarity at the Norodom Sihanouk Archival Collection

Scholars consistently take creative approaches to finding relevant materials for their research. In search of historical documents related to North Korean foreign relations, I came across the Norodom Sihanouk Archival Collection, part of the Asian Collections housed in the Sir Louis Matheson Library at Clayton campus.

Norodom Sihanouk (1922-2012) rose to prominence as a member of the royal family of Cambodia. Sihanouk shifted between asserting his influence as Prince and then King of Cambodia (1941-1955, 1993-2004) and taking on government positions such as Prime Minister (1955-1970)—all the while displaying a willingness to engage with the political questions of his time on a global stage. Sihanouk was deposed in a coup in 1970, after which he split time between China and North Korea.

Before, during, and after Sihanouk’s exile in the 1970s he produced songs and films on various topics. This blog post highlights several examples of one particular thematic strand of his works: solidarity. One songbook, Gloire à nos Frères Arabes et Africains, features sheet music with Khmer lyrics, along with English and French translations of those lyrics interspersed with colorful images. The songs themselves were composed for and recorded by full orchestras. Several songs were recorded by the Mansudae Orchestra of North Korea. The songs exemplify the cultural products that came out of interactions among nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and prompt us to think about what ‘solidarity’ entailed for these postcolonial nations.

The remaining music-related documents in the collection include songs in French, Spanish, English, Indonesian and Thai which were transcribed during various trips taken by Sihanouk. Some of the songs were meant to be performed during diplomatic visits, while others informed subsequent musical arrangements. In addition, recently digitized copies of the songbooks discussed above can be found through the library catalogue. Digitization efforts by dedicated staff at Monash University have contributed to a steadily-growing online catalogue, increasing accessibility to local students, community members, and foreign researchers alike. Aspiring researchers can  take full advantage of these resources when searching for the seed of a project. For example, researchers might take cues from these digitized documents to help formulate their research questions, then visit Monash’s Special Collections in person to listen to the music on the vinyl records. The approach outlined above is just one example highlighting pieces of music and documents outlining their processes of production as important historical sources worth examining more closely.

Following a collaborative effort, the physical materials—songbooks and vinyl records—are now on display in the Asian Collections section of the Sir Louis Matheson Library, Monash University Clayton Campus.

Special thanks to the librarians and archivists at the Sir Louis Matheson Library for facilitating a smooth research experience, and for creating a welcoming environment.

Written by E. Rafael Perez - a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago.  His dissertation focuses on the cultural production that came out of diplomatic relations between  North Korea and the decolonizing world. With the support of a fellowship administered by the Council on Library and Information Resources, in 2019 he was facilitated in framing his approach to research by visiting and exploring different repositories and libraries globally, including that of Monash University.