Under the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979, musicians were subjected to the most extreme form of censorship—death.
Like so much else in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, records were gathered up and destroyed, and the musicians that produced them killed.
By 1979 and the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, memories of the homegrown rock ‘n’ roll music of the freewheeling 1960s and early 1970s were mostly buried alongside the many who lost their lives.
Now, a new documentary film, which will have its world premiere Saturday night in Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk Theater, has helped unearth the lost music of pre-revolutionary Cambodia.
Directed by John Pirozzi and with Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the country’s largest repository of material on the regime, as executive producer, the film “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock ‘n’ Roll,” explores the unique fusion of sounds coming out of Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, and its near-disappearance.
In stark contrast to what was to come, Mr. Pirozzi said, in the years leading up to 1975, a unique genre of music had flourished in Cambodia.
“What was happening here was totally unique,” Mr. Pirozzi said. “They figured out a way of bringing in the modern world without losing traditional elements…to create something so unique.”
“There was a really big scene, it wasn’t just a few singers. In such a small country, all coming out of a city of half a million, the diversity of the music is staggering,” he said.
When he started working on the film in 2004, Mr. Pirozzi said he discovered records clearly influenced by bands and singers popular in the West in the 1950s, but he hadn’t anticipated that 1960s rock ‘n’ roll had crossed the pacific to a country such as Cambodia.
“The rock connection was something we didn’t really discover until halfway through making the film,” he said, explaining that his introduction to Khmer guitarist Mol Kagnol’s surf rock-inspired riffs opened his eyes to the extent of Western influence on Cambodian musicians.
In the early 1960s, music in Cambodia was still heavily influenced by French culture, but by the time radio stations began broadcasting to U.S. troops in Vietnam in 1965, this had begun to change.
“The 1960s was a special time, not just in Cambodia but in the world. There was some cosmic vibe going on surrounding the planet—you had all this great music from all these countries,” Mr. Pirozzi said.
Having previously relied on members of the Cambodian intelligentsia to bring back recordings from France and radio stations broadcasting through speakers set up on street corners, the new radio broadcasts brought music —rock ‘n’ roll particularly—into people’s homes.
“[Cambodia’s] national radio station used to put a speaker out and cyclo drivers would pull over and listen. The transistor radio revolutionized that,” Mr. Pirozzi said.
As local musicians embraced Western rock, including Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Santana, the type of music produced in Cambodia evolved rapidly.
Incorporating their own history and traditions, Cambodian musicians and their interpretation of rock’n’roll music became something at once “foreign and familiar,” Mr. Pirozzi said.
“The music really did reflect the times. The ’60s is known as this idyllic time here and the music is just so beautiful.”
But 1970 marked the dawn of a new era in Cambodia—both politically and culturally.
“In the ’70s, the civil war was happening and the coup happened; there were tensions over here, the music got edgier,” Mr. Pirozzi said, adding that musicians began injecting more sarcasm and innuendos into their lyrics.
Rock music continued to grow in popularity until it was virtually silenced on April 17, 1975—the day Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Under the Khmer Rouge, the country’s favorite stars—such as Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth—were targeted and killed.
“The musical legacy that should have been there for young Cambodians today was eradicated,” Mr. Pirozzi said.
However, far from achieving its goal of eradicating the music of Cambodia’s past, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” reveals that thousands of records survived the Khmer Rouge and live on to this day.
“Every day we’re finding new material,” said Mr. Chhang, the film’s executive producer, explaining that records can be found outside the country and recordings can still be found in Cambodia’s markets.
“Maybe it’s because there was so much music and it was so powerful that they just couldn’t eradicate it all,” Mr. Pirozzi said.
“How resilient Cambodian people are and how they’ve gone through so much, I think the film’s kind of a testament to the human spirit that no matter what happens, people still keep going,” he said.
For Mr. Chhang, the preservation of the music is also a means to deeper understanding of the country.
“Music is the best answer to helping people understand the complexity of Cambodia’s history,” he said.
“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Every Record Tells a Story” has its world premiere at Chaktomuk Theater on Saturday January 11 at 6:30 p.m.