New doc unearths Cambodia's rock & roll spirit
These days, Phnom Penh echoes with the cries of the restless civil dead. They mingle with the sputter-and-honk of the three-wheeled tuk-tuks, cyclo drivers, and the clamor of engine repair stalls and shouty tour guides. At night it grows quiet, for the most part. Acoustically, it's the eerie obverse of relatively nearby Bangkok, the megalopolis that never sleeps, but has a beat you can dance to around the clock, if only you have the bhat for the bar girls and a tip for the driver.
Things weren't always so stricken in the Cambodian capital, though, as meticulously documented in John Pirozzi's revelatory new documentary Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll, the city was once home to some of the hippest R&R music in southeast Asia.
From the day it achieved independence from colonial France in 1953 until April 17, 1975 – the date the Khmer Rouge swept in and overran the American and French embassies, setting in motion the black-clad madness of Pol Pot's five-year genocidal rule – Phnom Penh boasted an insistent, grooving, 4/4 backbeat and pop songs you could definitely dance to, whenever, wherever, and however you felt. It was, essentially, the live music capital of Cambodia.
Sinn Sisamouth, an early crooner raised on traditional Khmer music and now the revered "father of modern Cambodian music," was popular enough to be invited to the palace to play for the Royal Ballet. Sisamouth and countless other pop and traditional musicians are gone now and unable to be interviewed. No one knows how many members of Cambodia's pop and rock revolution were lost to Pol Pot's killing fields and Phnom Penh's former high school-turned-torture garden S-21 (now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum). It's estimated somewhere between 1 and 3 million civilians were systematically obliterated between 1975 and 1979, which ultimately renders Pirozzi's dogged determination in documenting this vanished scene all the more historically essential, not to mention sonically elegiac.
There's simply not that much left to dig through, and avid world music collectors have been seeking out what little remains of the country's maximum rock & roll, and pop, and chansons for decades. New York-based Pirozzi, who previously helmed the equally fascinating music tour doc Dengue Fever: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, employs what feels like a wealth of miraculously re-discovered footage shot during the capital's pre-Khmer Rouge heyday. Survivors of the Pol Pot era bear witness to the fact that the cultural and artistic cost was immeasurable. "There is a saying in Cambodia," intones one Phnom Penh musician early on in the film. "Music is the soul of a nation. Music is deeply rooted in our tradition and our life."
More than a few of the bands captured on tape in Don't Think I've Forgotten – especially those from Cambodia's defiantly swinging Sixties – wouldn't sound out of place on a Quentin Tarantino's Greatest Hits soundtrack anthology or lending backup sounds to an early, non-ironic Shaw Brothers chopsocky masterpiece. It's tempting to note that the U.S.'s own "British Invasion" directly influenced Phnom Penh's swinging, uptempo garage and surf rock – and it did, to a degree – but the stark reality of President Nixon and then-National Security Advisor/Secretary of State/Time magazine "Man of the Year, 1972" Henry Kissinger's secret bombing campaign against Cambodia simply makes the word "invasion" stick in the throat.
The arrival of American and UK psychedelia and hard rock circa 1969 was a major influence on Cambodian groups like the Drakkar Band, who appropriated and repurposed Jimi Hendrix's hot licks and eventually fashioned their own fabulous, furry, freak flag (not to mention the song that gives Pirozzi's doc its title).
"They said I was a fierce guitar player," the Drakkar Band's six-string samurai Touch Chhatha recalls. "When we played, our drummer, Ouk Sam Ath, ripped off his shirt."
"American culture was everywhere in Phnom Penh," adds radio deejay Kong Douem. "What a great time. The girls wore sexy clothes!"