For the past ten years, Director John Pirozzi has been traveling back and forth to Cambodia plumbing the archives in Phnom Penh, Paris, and elsewhere for his new documentary film, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, which screens this Friday and Saturday at the Laemmle Theater in North Hollywood. It’s a powerful musical journey through Cambodia’s Golden Age, the Vietnam War, and the eventual Khmer Rouge genocide. It tells the story of the artists who survived and the many who did not.
But Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is far more complex than just that. Pirozzi set himself to the herculean task of piecing together the rich music history that once flourished in Cambodia during its independence from France prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover, which is so often overshadowed by the atrocities of the country’s tragic civic war. When, in fact, from 1955–1965, Phnom Penh was once referred to as the “Pearl of Asia” for its magnificent historical architecture, thriving culture, and modern industry.
King Norodom Sihanouk peacefully achieved Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953. A major patron of the arts, the King was himself a filmmaker and singer who performed and recorded numerous albums with his wife, the director of a ballet company. It was King Sihanouk who modernized the country and truly elevated the stature of artists and musicians.
Director John Pirozzi will be our guide this week on Rhythm Planet, leading us through the music history of Cambodia by way of the artists and tracks that he’s curated for the Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll soundtrack, which was just released this Tuesday.
We’ll begin with the prolific Sinn Sisamouth, who—to this day—is considered to be the ‘King of Cambodian popular music and the greatest singer of all time. Known for his smooth, crooner-like vocals and eloquent lyrics, he adapted Khmer traditions, French and American styles with great skill, translating them into his own touching ballads, rock and roll hits, and everything in between.
Next, we have music from Ros Serey Sothea. Known for her high vocal register and songs of heartbreak, she was favored by King Sihanouk as “the golden voice of the royal capital.” Together with Sinn Sisamouth, the two quickly established themselves as the biggest pop stars, collaborating frequently. Unfortunately, as happened to many of Cambodia’s artists, she was forced to serve in the army as a parachutist and eventually killed by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror in the late 1970s.
During this period, there was an influx of popular western music streaming into Phnom Penh: Cliff Richard and the Shadows‘ “The Young Ones” and Carlos Santana’s “Oye Como Va.” In the film, one of the speakers recalls Santana as having been so popular that people mistook ‘Santana’ to be a form of rock music. The French pop of Johnny Hallyday,Tino Rossi, and Charles Trenet was also popular in those early years, along with Afro-Cuban music that made its way over from Cuba, Africa, and France.
We’ll also listen to the music of Drakkar, the first hard rock band; Pou Vannary’s Khmer version of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend”; Yol Aularong’s “Cyclo,” a funny song about everyday street life by a colorful character who was later murdered by the Khmer Rouge; and many more.
Despite King Sihanouk’s desperate attempts to remain neutral, Cambodia was eventually caught in the conflict between the neighboring Viet Cong and the United States, ultimately a proxy war with China and the U.S.S.R. From 1968–1970, American B-52s began carpet bombing the country. In one instance, the massive aerial bombardment continued unabated for 200 days, killing untold civilians—all of which helped to set the stage for the Khmer Rouge.
With pressure mounting from all sides, King Sihanouk was deposed by the communist Khmer Rouge government with U.S. support in March of 1970. In the documentary he says, “When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that takes the hit.” The Khmer Rouge began their holocaust, as they transformed the country into an agrarian society, where “religion, freedom of movement, money, personal possessions—any ties to the Western world—were strictly forbidden.”
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten is both tragic and moving. Many of these artists, who were once the pride of Cambodia, eventually disappeared without a trace during the catastrophe that unfolded from 1975–1979. The Khmer Rouge believed that artists had to be eliminated because they had the power to influence the public consciousness. Consequently, the Khmer Rouge systematically wiped out an entire generation of artists and intellectuals—and with that, Cambodia’s culture.
Like a cultural anthropologist, Pirozzi has spent a decade uncovering photographs, footage, print materials, and even old records that were once banned under Khmer rule, weaving these back together with a series of fascinating interviews with musicians, their surviving family members, historians, etc. We learn that Cambodian pop music was inextricably connected to the country’s historical events.
John Pirozzi has produced a miraculous film. I thank him, Argot Pictures, Matt Dillon, Aimée Morris, Jim Brown, and all those who labored to make it. I urge you to see it. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll screens today, May 15, and tomorrow, May 16, at Laemmle’s North Hollywood theater. A Q&A with John will take place following the 7:10 PM screenings on both days.
For more information about the LA screenings and Q&A, please click here.