Discovering Khmer Rock ‘n’ Roll

In the two decades between independence and the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia took Western rock ‘n’ roll and refashioned it in its own image, in the process making music as haunting and beautiful as some of the best from that era.

And yet, the story of Khmer rock hasn’t been told, or at least hasn’t been told well. So thinks John Pirozzi, who has worked intermittently on a documentary on the subject for the last eight years.

“When I first heard the music I couldn’t stop listening to it,” Pirozzi said in a recent interview in Phnom Penh. “For me, I’m a big music junkie, and you know, you burn out. You listen to something that you love and after however many weeks or months go by, eventually it’s like, ‘OK, I’m moving on to something else.’ The Cambodian music-because of the way it’s so intricate and so melodic and the vocal stylings are so unique-I never get tired of it.”

Pirozzi hopes to finish editing “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll” within six months. To make the documentary, he has mined the video outtakes of news agencies working in Cambodia in the first half of the 1970s; tracked down musicians and their relatives for interviews; and created what he calls evocations of songs from the era, complete with actors in period costume. All of this has been in an effort to piece together a music scene that was smashed when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.

A cinematographer and filmmaker who lives in New York, Pirozzi’s resume includes music videos for American rock groups Queens of the Stone Age and Calexico and a 2007 documentary, “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,” about Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles group that draws on Khmer rock for inspiration.

He first came to Cambodia six years before that, as a camera operator on “City of Ghosts,” a crime thriller set here, and heard rumors of great Cambodian music from the 1960s and 70s. He didn’t get a chance to listen to any until after he returned to the US, when a friend sent him a copy of “Cambodian Rocks,” an apparently bootleg collection of singles. (“The people who put it out claim…they were just backpacking through here and they collected a bunch of music,” Pirozzi said.)
The songs on the CD range from the psychedelic-fuzz guitar solos and organ riffs-to the almost Motown-esque, but there are hints of other genres: here a Latin rhythm, there an infusion of horns that could be from the early days of Jamaican Ska. As Pirozzi explained, to a Western ear, it is familiar yet exotic. “It took Western music, and it made it, I wouldn’t say better, just different in a way that’s really intriguing,” he said. “So when you listen to it you’re like wow, I totally know this, but I don’t know this.”

Rock ‘n’ roll first made its way to Cambodia from France rather than Vietnam, where US troops were blasting the music from radios, Pirozzi discovered. Wealthier Cambodians traveling to Paris in the 1950s and early 1960s listened to French singers, who were in turn listening to the sounds of the UK and the US, he said. “The early Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll musicians were getting their Western rock ‘n’ roll through a French filter,” Pirozzi said.

Much like in the West, the music changed as the 60s slipped into the 70s. By the time civil war began to envelope the Cambodian countryside, Pirozzi said a second wave of musicians was taking shape, less bound to tradition and more influenced by the US. “The music definitely gets more freaky and more hard acid rock in the 70s.”

But many of the Cambodian musicians moved fluidly between traditional and Western-influenced music, Pirozzi said. He called the Cambodian adaptation of rock “seamless.”

“I think music has always been a really important part of Cambodian culture, and I think their foray into rock ‘n’ roll was very natural for them,” he explained. “They didn’t just take Western music and copy it. There’s certain melodies that they liked, that they would use, but so much of their music is based in their own original structures in terms of chords and melodies.”

Today, Cambodian rock songs from the 60s and early 70s are popular among Cambodians along with traditional songs by the same artists, Pirozzi said.

“I was just driving from Battambang back to Phnom Penh yesterday,” Pirozzi said, “and we bought a couple of CDs in Battambang, and one was wedding music, and it was Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereisothea just singing traditional wedding songs. There were four Cambodians with me in the car, aging in range from 45 to 20, and they knew all the songs and they knew every word of every song.”
Frequent collaborators Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereisothea were the biggest stars from the 60s and early 70s, part of what Pirozzi described as a close-knit group whose members haled mostly from Battambang, a province famous for its singers. (Sinn Sisamouth, who was part-Laotian and came from Stung Treng, was a notable exception).

And Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereisothea, at least, weren’t the drug-taking, hotel room-smashing type. Pirozzi described Ros Sereisothea as “more of a traditional Khmer woman” who was reserved and dressed conservatively (her fellow lady of Khmer rock, Pan Ron, was decidedly more sassy), while Sinn Sisamouth, also reserved, was known for his professionalism. “He’d always be on time, he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he wasn’t a womanizer.”

Sinn Sisamouth has a voice like satin but Ros Sereisothea, dubbed the Golden Voice of Phnom Penh by the-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, has a bewitching power. Whether she is singing about burying herself in drink because of love or of how life at 16 is like a flower, her voice-high, piercing-cuts through everything else.

“Her voice as an instrument, it’s just so captivating when you hear it, even if you don’t understand,” Pirozzi said.

Like other stars, Ros Sereisothea and Sinn Sisamouth died during the Khmer Rouge years. “All the best and well-known singers became targets,” Pirozzi said. The whole idea of Khmer rock-of expressing oneself, of adopting Western music-was antithetical to Pol Pot and his followers, he explained.

Stories about the singers’ fates under the Khmer Rouge proliferated. In one, Ros Sereisothea tried to hide her identity but was discovered and made to sing revolutionary songs. According to that story, she was eventually forced to marry one of Pol Pot’s assistants, and, after the unhappy relationship turned violent, she and her husband disappeared.

Pirozzi interviewed two of Ros Sereisothea’s sisters for “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,” along with other relatives of stars and some musicians who were able to hide their identities, but he was hesitant to preview his findings.

He did say there is no certainty about how Ros Sereisothea or Sinn Sisamouth died. Sinn Sisamouth’s son told Pirozzi that 12 different people have told him about his father dying in 12 different places.

“What was happening here was so horrific and so completely undocumented that no one knows with any certainty,” Pirozzi said.

After Vietnam invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge abandoned Phnom Penh in 1979, Pirozzi said people returned and tried to “cobble together a music scene.”

“It’s pretty interesting to me how when they came back to a city that was completely destroyed, and most of the people they had been with were gone, and they still attempted to make music.”

Were they successful?

“I think success is a relative term. Given what their odds were, yeah. But in reality, no…. There was no way. Considering how utterly destroyed everything was, there was no way.”

Today, Pirozzi believes Cambodian music still hasn’t bounced back. “I think the music unfortunately hasn’t caught up to everything else, but then again, the music then was so special. I mean the 60s were a special time in a lot of places, not just here.”

At least the music, secreted away during the Khmer Rouge years, survived. And, as Pirozzi pointed out, Cambodians still listen. Even the occasional unknowing foreigner is smitten.

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