New Doc Examines Cambodia’s Rich, Tragic Music History
Imagine the U.S. government rounding up Madonna, Kanye West, Billy Joel and Prince and murdering them based on their occupation. In Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, John Pirozzi’s captivating new documentary on the life of Cambodian musicians before and during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the hypothetical became real in the Southeast Asian country 40 years ago.
Drawing on archival footage and interviews with fans, musicologists and surviving musicians, the film exemplifies two extremes: Cambodia’s rich, varied musical heritage that drew from Southeast Asian melodies, Afro-Cuban influence and U.S. and British rock & roll; and the extermination of nearly all popular musicians and other artists once the Khmer Rouge assumed power in 1975. (The movie is currently playing at New York’s Film Forum and is set to expand nationwide later this year.)
“If you want to eliminate values from past societies, you have to eliminate the artists,” Prince Norodom Sirivudh, the half-brother of King Norodom Sihanouk who ruled the country from 1941 to 1955 and 1993 to 2005, says in the film. “Artists are close to the people.”
As the documentary shows, Cambodia in the 1950s and early Sixties was a time of peaceful prosperity despite the ongoing war in neighboring Vietnam. With many records coming in from Cuba, France and South America, the country saw an explosion of musical groups and modernization after gaining independence from the French in 1953.
“Before the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was just like any other country,” Mol Kagnol, guitarist for Cambodia’s first rock & roll band Baksey Cham Krong, says. “We had rock and roll, electric guitars and miniskirts.”
As the country entered a civil war in 1970 pitting the Khmer Rouge against the U.S.- and Republic of Vietnam-backed Khmer Republic, the country’s songs — usually filled, as Prince Norodom says in the film, with “breakups, deception and despair” — became nationalistic, with virtually all popular music from the previous decade banned from national radio. (“My friends/Don’t be afraid to kill/Chase and slaughter/Pick up a weapon now,” commands one singer.)
Pirozzi’s film deftly encapsulates this 1960s history and the importance and popularity of music to the country. But his examination into the Khmer Rouge era, in which 1.7 million people were murdered between 1975 and 1979, sheds new light on how artists who “threatened the regime,” including some of the country’s most well-known singers, vanished and were never heard from again. “It’s literally like taking everyone who was a popular music artist and finding them disappearing into the vapors,” Pirozzi says.
That the documentary exists at all is a triumph, given that officials destroyed many of the era’s recordings. “So much of the history has been wiped out,” the filmmaker says. “They didn’t even teach the Khmer Rouge history in schools until very recently. There’s a double fog of war and genocide that has settled over Cambodia. We’re not talking about that long ago and it seemed that everything had disappeared.”
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