Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll

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Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll
Dust to Digital

Pop music and genocide make uneasy bedfellows, to say the least. And it's hardly fair to ask such a breezy medium to bear witness of one of the darker corners of 20th century history. But that's exactly what this superb collection of '60s and early '70s Cambodian pop and rock-and-roll does, admirably documenting a vibrant music scene and a moment in time before the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge, and their brutal attempt to reshape the young nation in their own image.

The album itself accompanies the 2014 documentary Don't Think That I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock And Roll, which documents the rise and fall of Cambodia's surprisingly robust pop music scene from Cambodia's independence from French “protection” in 1953 to the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.

The soundtrack features 20 songs selected by director John Pirozzi and Cambodian anthropologist Dr. LinDa Saphan, as well as an impressive 36-page booklet to put it all in context.

For those too young to remember, the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, after toppling the U.S. backed military government of Cambodia. Led by the charismatic Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge quickly distinguished themselves from their Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese comrades by their sheer brutality and fanatical obsession with creating a revolutionary Maoist utopia.

They reset the calendar to “year zero”, changed the country's name to Kampuchea, closed it to the outside world, emptied the cities, created gulag-like “re-education” camps and began an orgy of murder in their infamous “Killing Fields” that would take the lives of an estimated 1.7 million of their countrymen by the time the Vietnamese military finally intervened in 1978.

One of the goals of the Khmer Rouge was to “purify” the Khmer people by purging anyone who had come into contact with decadent foreign influences and ideas, including not only merchants,  intellectuals, professionals, educators, but - you guessed it - entertainers and musicians. And for the Khmer Rouge, it didn't get more decadent than rock and roll.

The soundtrack traces a broader musical arc than the subtitle suggests. Thanks to the patronage of the music and culture-loving monarch Norodom Sihanouk — himself an able clarinetist and saxman, who enjoyed sitting in with and composing for the Royal Jazz Band — Phnom Penh was a hotbed of nightclubs and live music in the '50s and '60s, with everything from imported American jazz and Cuban mambo to traditional Khmer music and sentimental ballads already vying for attention before the advent of rock and roll. 

The career of Sinn Sisamouth — the tuxedoed king of Cambodian crooners— is a perfect illustration of this, and the soundtrack puts his jazzy, early-'60s torch song “Under The Sound of Rain” right up front.


There's more than a few slow-burning sentimental songs and ballads here,  including Sisamouth's smash hit “Thevary My Love” a cinematic collaboration with the other undisputed giant of Cambodian love songs, Ros Serey Sothea. 

Listen "Thevary My Love" (excerpt)

Florid sentimentality and a penchant for dramatic, love-and-loss lyrics seem to be the default mode for Cambodian pop, but always with an unexpected Khmer twist, as in the final verse of Houy Meas' “Unique Child”: 

Please stop asking about your father
He's a womanizer and an embarrassment
This is our karma from our past lives
It's just something you'll have to accept

"Unique Child" (excerpt)

"The Story of My Love" (excerpt)

The early rock songs on here aren't immune from this sentimentality either, such as Chhoun Malay's stratospheric vocal performance on the irresistibly overwrought “The Story of My Love” — which sounds like the early Beatles playing Swan Lake in an echo chamber. But mostly what comes through is a sheer innocence and joy of making a big noise — as on guitar band Baksey Cham Krong's “Telstar”-esque instrumental “BCK”. For the most part, this is rock and roll shorn of rebellion, but with all the fun left intact.


Maybe that's because for most of the '50s and '60s Cambodian rockers were more apt to take their cues from the likes of Johnny Hallyday and Cliff Richards than American groups, but that began to change in the second half of the '60s as the war in neighboring Vietnam heated up, and the music had gained a noticeably harder edge by the time that the Sihanouk government was toppled by pro-American military hardliners in 1970.

A younger generation of rockers like singers Pou Vannary and Pen Rann and the group Drakkar had come of age and were beginning to explore everything from acid rock and psychedelia to the more naturalistic, singer-songwriter sounds of the early '70s. Of particular mention is wildman Yol Aularong, who was the one true rock and roll rebel of the Cambodian music scene, with his sneering songs about good boys in school and unashamed lyrics about joyriding cyclos and checking out pretty girls.


But the old guard didn't fade away: they simply adapted. Ros Seray Sothea came out swinging with the psychedelic scorcher “Old Pot Still Cooks Good Rice” — maybe not her finest vocal performance but the message was loud and clear. Even the great Sinn Sisamouth was forced to keep up: check out the groovy proto-psych guitar-work on “Dance A Go Go”.

"Old Pot Still Cooks Good Rice" (excerpt)

"Dance A Go Go" (excerpt)

Tragically, many of these greats of Cambodian pop — including Ros Seray Sothea, Sinn Sisimouth and Yol Aularong — didn't survive the Khmer Rouge, and one of the world's great parties came to an abrupt end. It's a pity, too. Just imagine how this fertile music scene would have adapted the new sounds of the '70s: funk, reggae, disco, etc., to their unique Khmer aesthetic. 

The lost history of Cambodian pop music still fascinates, and is sadly timely thanks to the Taliban and the Islamic State. Yet the territory is still largely unknown. There have been a few previous efforts, ranging from collections like the excellent (if relatively obscure) Cambodian Rocks (Parallel Worlds, 2000) and The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cambodia (World Music Network, 2014) to bands inspired by Cambodian psych-rock like L.A.'s Dengue Fever and the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Space Project. 

While both of those bands have produced excellent documentaries of their own, neither offered as comprehensive an overview of the pre-Khmer Rouge music scene as Don't Think I've Forgotten. Both the soundtrack and the film are invaluable historical documents, as well as a monument to these music-makers and their singular moment in time. This is historical memory as an act of love. - Tom Pryor

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