Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock
Remembering When Cambodia Rocked
Dust to Digital
If you think about Cambodia at all, you probably think of the crumbling temples of Angkor Watt or the hell on earth that was dramatized in the film, The Killing Fields. Our perceptions of distant lands are shaped by the images we see in the media. It’s hard to reconcile these images with Spaulding Grey’s assertion in Swimming to Cambodia, “What a fantastic land it was, it was Shangri-La before colonialization. Thailand was a Nordic country compared to Cambodia, and they’re right next to each other.”
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, the movie and accompanying soundtrack, go a long way toward giving Spaulding Grey’s assertion a visual and musical context. The movie focuses on Cambodian musical culture between gaining independence from France in the ’50s through the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the ’70s. The images of Phnom Pen in the ’60s are a shocking contrast to the wreckage we’ve become accustomed to. The happy couples dancing and laughing are a jarring reminder that Cambodia didn’t have to descend into misery.
Music and the arts were treasured in Cambodia. King Norodom Shianouk was a musician and composer who enthusiastically supported the arts in his country. Cambodian music caught successive waves of outside influences, beginning with French pop songs during the colonial period. The film uses archival footage, still photographs and interviews with people who lived through the era to illustrate the changing styles. Elvis came to Cambodia by way of the French singer, Johnny Hallyday. Surf, psychedelia, funk, country and soul and found their way into a mix that always gave the music a distinctively Khmer spin (almost all songs are sung in the Khmer language).
The archival footage brings home that the Cambodians knew how to have fun. There is a palpable joy to the songs and the images of young people playing and dancing. Seeing what was lost makes the tragedy that followed all the more devastating. The young men and women we saw making wonderful music were almost all killed during Pol Pot’s attempt to erase all traces of Western influence from the country. It is impossible for an outsider to comprehend what was lost, but through images and interviews in this film, we are able to share some of the joy of what existed and empathize with the pain of what was cruelly taken away. Filmmaker John Pirozzi previously worked with the California based band, Dengue Fever on Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. That film documented the American band traveling through Cambodia, sharing their take on Khmer rock and playing with students and master musicians. It is through Dengue Fever’s records that I am vaguely familiar with some of the performers featured on the Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten soundtrack. Until now, Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, and Pen Ran were just names on CDs. Now, I can finally hear the sounds that inspired the Holtzman brothers to form Dengue Fever.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten opens with a stately, unrocking tune called, “Phnom Penh” performed by the Royal University of Fine Arts. “Phnom Penh” was composed by King Norodom Shianouk, and serves as a reminder of how important music was in Cambodian culture. Sinn Sisamouth was one of the biggest stars in Cambodian music. He was a medical student in the ’50s who continually adapted his sound to a changing world. We first hear him on the compilation on a big band influenced ballad called “Under the Sound of Rain.” We later hear him exploring an Ennio Morricone, spaghetti Western feel on “Thevary My Love.” With the funky hip shaker, “Navy A Go Go, “ Sisamouth showed his willingness to keep exploring new sounds.
If Sisamouth was the Cambodian Beatles, then Yol Aukarong was the Rolling Stones. His duet with Va Sovy, “Dying Under a Woman’s Sword” is a dose of barely contained psych rock madness; complete with screams, stammers and skittery guitar licks. Aukarong’s tunes show the garage, psychedelic influences that younger musicians were making their own as the ’60s turned into the ’70s.
I am fascinated by how music mutates as it is passed around the globe. What makes these songs great is the melding of sounds and styles as Cambodian musicians make rock and roll their own. My favorite bit of cross-cultural fusion is Pou Vannary’s rendition of the James Taylor classic “You’ve Got a Friend.” Vannary sings the verses in Khmer, then switches to English for the chorus. It’s a fun bit of linguistic confusion and it makes me smile.
I’m glad that John Pirozzi put in the time and effort to collect the music that is the heart of Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten It was obviously a labor of love that shines the spotlight on performers who made great music and whose legacy was almost erased. Thanks to this film and soundtrack compilation these Khmer rockers will not be forgotten.