Everyone has heard the songs from the pre-Khmer Rouge period when Phnom Penh rocked to new sounds that fused traditional Cambodian folk music with Western rock and pop – but the story of the scene behind the songs has remained untold, until now. Will Jackson reports.
When US documentarian John Pirozzi set out to make his film Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, about Phnom Penh’s pre-Khmer Rouge music scene, all he had to work with was a handful of singers’ names.
Pirozzi first came to Cambodia to work on the 2002 film City of Ghosts and had become fascinated by the country’s tragic history. But what really drew him in was a music compilation he was given: a mix of 60s and 70s pop and rock ‘n’ roll songs called Cambodia Rocks.
Realising there was an important story to be told about this intersection of music and history, he teamed up with the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in 2004 to find out more about the musicians behind these songs that effortlessly blended traditional Cambodian folk melodies, lyrics and themes with Western rock and pop.
“The problem was there was no primary research to go to, no one had written about it at that point,” he said. “So I was starting out with just a few names [of singers] Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron.”
In the years that followed, he conducted more than 70 interviews in three different languages across Cambodia, the US, France and Singapore. He scoured dozens of personal and public archives of footage and combed through scores of tapes and vinyls for original unremixed recordings of songs. Finally, after spending the last three years in a cold dark editing room piecing it all together, the film is finally complete.
Pirozzi said Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten – which premieres this Saturday night at an invite-only screening at Phnom Penh’s Chatomuk Theatre to be followed by a concert by some of the musicians in the documentary – is the first film to bring together a cohesive narrative of the scene before it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
“I really wanted the film to give a sense that there was this comprehensive music scene,” he said. “It wasn’t just a few random singers. It was very rich with many different types of music.”
Through the 1960s and 1970s Phnom Penh was alive with new sounds. Nightclubs and dance halls were packed with revellers wanting to hear the latest interpretations of Western songs and Khmer folk classics remixed with a rock or pop sound.
Bands were known to play impromptu gigs in the streets. People who couldn’t afford radios would gather at radio stations to listen to music played on speakers installed outside. The film and music industries were inextricably linked with a good soundtrack able to turn a mediocre flick into a blockbuster.
“I don’t think rock ‘n’ roll in Cambodia was associated with drugs or rebellion quite as much as it was in the West,” Pirozzi says. “A few people talk about how the older people told them ‘cut your hair you look like a zombie’ but from my understanding it wasn’t perceived as rebellious until you get to the ‘70s and you get to Yol Aularong who starts to write songs that are sarcastic.”
Touch Seangtana, who appears in Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten talking about his time as a guitarist with one of the biggest Cambodian rock bands, Drakkar, said people liked rock ‘n’ roll because it incorporated many different influences. Traditional Cambodian music was combined with Western sounds like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bee Gees and Santana.
“We loved rock ‘n’ roll because it was easy and you can play whatever you want,” Seangtana said. “And you can communicate between four people, sing all together and make a unique sound of music.”