Wednesday, May 27, 2015
In the search for something different and elusive, fervent music lover followings and entire fan communities have been built up around forgotten music of the past, including Northern soul, English freakbeat, African funk, jazz behind the Iron Curtain, and South American psychedelia. One of the more intriguing and ultimately tragic music scenes to be rediscovered decades after its end is the Cambodian rock scene, brought to larger attention by essential releases like the "Cambodian Rocks" series (from both Parallel Worlds and Khmer Rocks, Inc.) and Sublime Frequencies' "Khmer Folk and Pop Music" compilations in the 1990s and early 2000s. Personally, I prefer the earlier compilations to later reissues, which often include newly-recorded mixes to disguise the poor quality of the surviving materials. Give me the pops and crackles and lo-fi quality. It all symbolizes the struggle these particular records had to get to our ears! Mixing provocative originals with unique covers of American pop songs, the smooth tones of Sinn Sisamouth, the emotional pleas of Ros Sereysothea, the garage punk of Yol Aularong, and the perky pipes of Pen Ran found audiences in the west for the first time. What makes their covers of western songs so unique is that they marry the rhythm and tune of the original with newly-written lyrics, sometimes referencing Cambodian culture and tradition, other times re-imagined as painfully romantic tales of heartbreak and woe, transforming a simple cover into something refreshingly different. Through these releases I, and others like me, fell in love with this special music; I developed a special affection for Ros Sereysothea, who I rank as one of music's greatest neglected vocal gems. She simply stuns me.
Director John Pirozzi spent nearly a decade completing Don't Think I've Forgotten, a documentary that I've been hotly anticipating since first hearing the fuzzy tones heard on "Cambodian Rocks" and coming up virtually empty when searching for information about who I was hearing. I don't envy his task of compiling the history of this obscure music movement; as detailed in the film, the imposing rule of the Khmer Rouge not only wiped out many of the recordings (which, thankfully, survive in some cases through rare 45's), but specifically targeted musicians and artists because of their public ties to perceived western decadence. Almost all of the singers and groups you hear in this documentary disappeared, never to be seen again; with the vast number of "disappeared" Cambodians during this turbulent period in the nation's history, it's impossible to trace the truth of what happened to them. It is evident they were killed, but how, by whom, and where will likely never be known. We hear survivors tell conflicting stories from different people who claim to know the fates of friends and loved ones Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth, which must make the pain of not knowing even more devastating. Many of the surviving participants in the documentary are band musicians, including members of Cambodia's first rock band Baksey Cham Krong. While they could more easily deny their musical past in the interest of self-preservation, recognizable popular faces like those of Ros and Sinn could not be ignored by Pol Pot's regime. Perhaps the only female singer from the period to survive, Sieng Vanthy (who passed away in 2009) silently weeps as she tells of her lie about being a banana seller saving her life. She is also seen in insanely rare film footage performing in the 1960s with Yol Aularong and Pen Ran, neither of whom were as lucky...
But before we reach the inevitable tragic conclusion of the story, Pirozzi guides us through both a cultural and musical tour of Cambodia in the 1950s through the 1960s and early 1970s. Emerging from under French rule, Cambodia became a cultural hotbed under Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Sinahouk was such a supporter of the arts that he produced films featuring many of the nation's best musicians, and footage from these tantalizingly rare features is essential to the documentary's story. Western music influences such as the British Cliff Richard and the Shadows, French crooners Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan, and even American rockers like Santana merged into traditional Khmer music to form the Cambodian sound that is known and loved today by music aficionados. Singers like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea appealed to multiple generations of music lovers at the time, while Ventures-esque guitar band Baksey Cham Krong and pop princess Pen Ran produced largely youth-oriented tunes to be played at go-go dance clubs. All the major names are heard and discussed, but extra exciting is seeing and hearing singers previously not covered in earlier surveys of Cambodian pop music, including Pou Vannary, whose cover of "You've Got a Friend" is just lovely, and the acid rock of Drakkar, music so heavy that it's jarring in comparison to their contemporaries. The development of the rock scene into nationalist anthems is also covered, as Sinahouk was ousted by a military coup and the nation fell into civil war chaos. Ros Sereysothea is seen in newsreel footage training with a parachute troop, while Sinn Sisamouth croons a tune encouraging listeners to not fear picking up a gun and killing. The history lesson becomes much vividly darker as the Khmer Rouge invades capital city Phnom Penh and evacuates its citizens to the country and the notorious "killing fields", leaving Phnom Penh a sprawling ghost town.
One of the defining elements to the Cambodian rock sound is the echo heard in practically all of the records from this period. The film offers a rare glimpse into the studio where many of these groups and singers recorded their work, revealing the design and structure of the single room where vocalists and musicians gathered around a single microphone. These echos in Cambodian rock music feature a ghostly glow about them, unintended at the time of recording, but hard to ignore when listening to these often astonishingly talented vocalists and musicians. Their songs simultaneously rock adventurous listeners while also becoming haunting specters of their earthly accomplishments. The music is bittersweet, but as the title suggests, how wonderful it is to be able to remember and love these artists in their sorrowful absence. See the film and, without hesitation, buy the soundtrack album, which collects together 20 of the best examples of the Cambodian rock sound with a photo-packed liner notes booklet. The four "Cambodian Rocks" are out of print and expensive, but in my opinion are worth every penny. Thankfully many of these songs are also available on YouTube for your listening pleasure.