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.”
Rock'n'roll in Sihanouk's "La joie de vivre"
Other interview subjects in the film include musicians from the golden age and those they have influenced, families of those who didn’t make it through the Khmer Rouge, historians, the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, former US Ambassador John Gunther Dean and more.
Chhom Nimol, singer with the US-Cambodian band Dengue Fever who also appears in the film, said it was an important record of the roots of Cambodian music.
“Young people don’t know about this story,” Nimol said. “[Cambodians] have our own style. We don’t need to copy [other countries]. Young people should watch this film and understand and know where this music comes from.”
Pirozzi said he was particularly pleased to have a big section on Cambodian guitar bands in the film that includes interviews with the members of what’s thought to be the first, Baksei Chan Krung.
“I’m really happy with that because people who know Cambodian music will have heard a lot about Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea and all the rest of them, but they don’t know this part of the story and I always knew there [was a missing link],” he said.
“Like, how did they begin to play rock ‘n’ roll? Where did it come from? Before the rock ‘n’ roll, in the ‘50s there were crooners influenced by Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone and all that stuff but where was the rock connection?
“That band is Baksei Cham Krung.”
Pirozzi said one of the biggest difficulties making the film was finding footage; little was archived in the first place and the Khmer Rouge did their best to destroy the rest when they took over in 1975. Much of the film that was safely archived was not very useful, he said.
“A lot of the time with archival material it’s around an event – the opening of a hospital, a dignitary arriving – so it doesn’t give you a sense of the real gist of what life was like,” he said.
However, Pirozzi was lucky enough to get access to Sihanouk’s personal film collection and some outtakes from footage taken in the 1970s that he found in the US NBC television network’s archives in New York.
He said some of the best footage came from “some guy” who found it in a box at his aunt’s house in the US mid-west.
“All this footage was shot in the ‘50s in Phnom Penh and it’s great,” he said. “You can really see what it was like here and it was shot really well.
“It’s really exciting to bring that out because I think a lot of Cambodians haven’t seen anything like that unless they were here then.”
DC-Cam executive director Youk Chhang, who was an executive producer on the film, said one of the most interesting discoveries they made was that the famous singer Ros Sereysothea was briefly married to Cham Muslim singer Sos Math.
“I always think to myself, what if she hadn’t been divorced? Perhaps if they stayed together and had children and been able to protect each other perhaps she would still be alive today to sing beautiful songs for us,” Chhang said.
Pirozzi said it was hard to know what happened to many of the artists and entertainers who died during the Khmer Rouge era.
“Someone in the film says it wasn’t like if we even know whether there were orders from above to kill all these singers, but it was more like there was this hatred that had built up against the city people and the singers represented that. So who knows?” he said.
“Sinn Sisamouth’s son has a great line in the film. He says: ‘30 different people have told me they were with my father when he was killed in 30 different places. How can someone die 30 times?’
“That really kind of sums it up.”
However, Pirozzi was hopeful that Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten could stir up new information that would fill in more of the gaps about what we know about the time.
“I’m sure there are some older Khmer people who were involved in [the scene] and no one’s bothered to ask [them about it] and they have all this great information and they don’t even realise anyone would be interested,” he said.
Pirozzi said he hoped Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten would receive a general release once a distributor was found.
BIOPIC SET TO TELL SINGER’S SAD TALE
One of the greatest singers of Cambodia’s pre-Khmer Rouge music scene, Ros Sereysothea, is the subject of another film in the works.
Sereysothea’s story is particularly tragic. A young girl from Battambang with incredible talent – she was dubbed “The Golden Voice” – but terrible taste in men, after moving to Phnom Penh she was involved in a series of abusive relationships.
Her ultimate fate remains a mystery with some saying she was executed in 1975 immediately after the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh. Others believe she survived a couple of years longer and was ordered to marry a Khmer Rouge general before being killed while a third theory holds that she lived until the Vietnamese liberation.
The biopic’s producer Greg Cahill – who wrote and directed a short film called The Golden Voice which depicted Sereysothea’s final days – said he had finished the script for the feature-length version of the film and was in the process of securing funding and putting together a casting wish list.
“Ros Sereysothea was a very special figure in the history of Asian pop music, and she deserves international recognition,” Cahill said.
“It’s not the typical story of the pop star who rises to fame and goes crazy with drugs and antics. Too many stories of the musician are about self destruction. This is a refreshing and unique story with an inspirational character. Ultimately it is tragic, but not in the same way as a Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain.”