The Nearly Lost Story Of Cambodian Rock 'N' Roll

Apr 22, 2015
Originally published on April 22, 2015 9:25 pm

The tragic story of Cambodia in the '60s and '70s is well-known: It became engulfed in the Vietnam War, then more than a million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge regime. Doctors, lawyers, teachers — educated people — were targeted in the communist takeover. So were artists and singers.

A new film documents the vibrant pop music scene that existed before the Khmer Rogue. Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock And Roll, which took director John Pirozzi 10 years to make, opens this week in New York.

One of the artists included in the film, Sinn Sisamouth, still is considered the greatest Cambodian singer of all time, an artist who embraced and adapted Western styles for Cambodian audiences.

"I think he was actually both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra," Pirozzi tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

During the 20 years when pop music exploded in Cambodia, the musicians incorporated influences from around the world. They would imitate what we would call surf rock. There's also a very surprising Afro-Cuban music trend that started to blend in, and even covers of Western artists like Santana. The sounds from other countries were constantly changing Cambodian music.

One of the most fascinating things Pirozzi discovered while making the film was the very short lag time between music coming out of the West and the Cambodian musicians' ability to pick up on it.

"I think," Pirozzi says, "Western music for Cambodians was something that goes back to pre-rock 'n' roll. I mean, there were dance halls in Phnom Penh, and big band music and crooners were very popular in the '50s. People like Perry Como, Pat Boone, Frank Sinatra were getting into Cambodia through the elite, through the wealthy Cambodians who were being educated in France and coming back with records."

Initially, urban elites only had access to the '60s discotheque scenes shown in the film. But as American GIs began broadcasting close to Cambodia, Western music opened up to more and more people. By the time the '70s came around, right before the Khmer Rouge came into power, it was more accessible for Cambodians.

The rise of the Khmer Rouge spelled the end of the booming pop scene. Foreign sounds were banned and only traditional music was allowed. The capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, was emptied out.

"I think most of the famous singers — like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea — were so high profile, it was impossible for them to hide their identities," Pirozzi says. "But the backing musicians — the drummers, the guitar players, the bass players — they weren't as well known, so they could pretty much see what was happening and were able to hide their identities, some of them.

"You had to really pick up on the situation quickly, and understand you had to hide your identity or else you could potentially be a target."

Sieng Vanthy is one of the few famous musicians who managed to survive.

"I told them I was a banana seller," she says in the film. "If I told them I was a singer, I would have been killed."

"When we interviewed her," Pirozzi says, "no one had really asked her about this time in her life for a long time, and you have to remember these people had their identities stripped from them. They had to start whole new lives, even after the Khmer Rouge, coming back to a city that was completely destroyed, a country that was completely destroyed.

"So conducting the interviews and asking people to access this time was a very intense process."

When Pirozzi started the film, he was told by many people that he wouldn't find anything in terms of photographs and archival footage — but a lot of the music was still out there.

"People held onto it, people hid it, people saved it," he says. "There's so many people who came to me when they found out about the film who had little pieces to the puzzle — who had songs, who had photos, who had maybe a little bit of footage. And so the film sort of came together in a very communal way, with people who really cared about the music and cared about the country."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The tragic story of Cambodia in the 1960s and '70s is well-known. It became engulfed in the Vietnam War. Then, more than a million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, educated people were targeted in the communist takeover. So were artists and singers. A new film documents the vibrant pop music scene that existed before the Khmer Rouge came to power.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIDENTIFIED")

SINN SISAMOUTH: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: The film is called "Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock And Roll." The documentary took director John Pirozzi 10 years to make. John Pirozzi, welcome to the program.

JOHN PIROZZI: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: We're listening right now to Sinn Sisamouth - sort of the Elvis Presley - he looks to me more like the Frank Sinatra of pre-communist Cambodia. Tell us more about this man.

PIROZZI: Yeah, I think he was actually both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. He's still considered to be the greatest Cambodian singer of all time and he's still very popular in Cambodia. He had an incredible voice. Cambodians love his voice. But he was also a prolific songwriter. And his music really was about extolling the virtue - the beauty of Cambodia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIDENTIFIED")

SISAMOUTH: (Singing in foreign language).

PIROZZI: His story is really an overview of the music in so many ways, because he was also very adept at musical styles and adapting to what was happening in the West very quickly and bringing it to Cambodians.

SIEGEL: Yeah, during the 20 years that you cover in the film when pop music exploded in Cambodia, the musicians incorporated influences from around the world. They would imitate what we would call surf rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURF ROCK)

PIROZZI: To me a very surprising one - Afro-Cuban music sort of blending with Cambodian pop music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIDENTIFIED")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: And even covers of Western artists like Santana.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OYE COMO VA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: So these sounds from other countries - they were constantly changing Cambodian music the way you tell it.

PIROZZI: You know, one of the things making the film that was fascinating for me to discover was there was very little lag time between the music that was coming out of the West and the Cambodian musicians' ability to pick up on it.

So yeah, there was a lot of different styles. And I think Western music for Cambodians was something that goes back to pre-rock 'n' roll. I mean, there were dancehalls in Phnom Penh and big band music and crooners were very popular in the '50s. People like Perry Como, Pat Boone and Frank Sinatra were getting into Cambodia through the elite, through the wealthy Cambodians who were being educated in France and coming back with records.

SIEGEL: Well, that's my question, really. Is the scene that you are capturing in these old black-and-white movies of people dancing at discotheques or whatever - are we looking at the urban elites of Cambodia or are we looking at something that was more pervasive and experienced by a larger share of the population?

PIROZZI: Initially, it was the urban elites who had access. But as technology changed - the transistor radio came in and American GIs were close to Cambodian broadcasting over the airwaves - it opened up to more and more people. So by the time the '70s came around and right before the Khmer Rouge came into power, I think it was much more accessible for people in Cambodia than from the beginning.

SIEGEL: The rise of the Khmer Rouge spelled the end of this booming pop scene. Foreign sounds were banned and only traditional music was allowed. The capital city of Phnom Penh, which was the heart of all this, was emptied out of people, actually. What happened to all these musicians?

PIROZZI: Initially, when the Khmer Rouge took over, no one really knew what was going to happen. They had no idea what the Khmer Rouge planned to do. Everyone left the city. Everyone was forced to leave the city. Two million people were evacuated in three days.

I think most of the famous singers like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea were so high profile, it was impossible for them to hide their identities. But the backing musicians, the drummers, the guitar players, the bass players, they weren't as well known, so they pretty much could see what was happening and were able to hide their identities - some of them. You had to really pick up on the situation quickly and understand that you had to hide your identity, or else you could potentially be a target.

SIEGEL: There's this woman - a singer who survives - who says I told them I was a banana seller. If I'd said I was a singer I would have been killed.

PIROZZI: Yeah. Yeah, I know. She's a really important part of the film. Her name is Sieng Vannthy .

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIDENTIFIED")

SIENG VANNTHY: (Singing in foreign language).

PIROZZI: When we interviewed her, no one had really asked her about this time in her life for a long time. And you have to remember, these people had their identities stripped from them. They had to start whole new lives, even after the Khmer Rouge, coming back to a city that was completely destroyed, a country that was completely destroyed. So conducting the interviews and asking people to access this time was a very intense process.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIDENTIFIED")

VANNTHY: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: Was it hard, by the way, to locate records and films of the old days given the destruction that went on in Phnom Penh of all of the artifacts of that time?

PIROZZI: When I started the film, I was told by many people you won't find anything in terms of - mainly in terms of photographs and archival footage. But a lot of the music still was out there, and it's because people held onto it. People hid it. People saved it. And there's a whole community of people that are out there - there were so many people who came to me when they found out about the film who had little pieces to the puzzle, who had songs, who had photos, who had maybe a little bit of footage. And so the film sort of came together in a very communal way with people who really cared about the music and cared about the country.

SIEGEL: Is there a song from those days that you discovered that just is to you a special gem that really got to you?

PIROZZI: Well, I would say that there's a song that was actually not from that period but right after that period. It's called "Oh Phnom Penh!" And in the film it's played under footage of people returning back to the destroyed city. And it's - the lyrics are about how important the city is to everyone and how even though it's gone through so much, it still survived.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH PHNOM PENH!")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

SIEGEL: John Pirozzi's film, "Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll," opens this week in New York. Thanks for talking with us about it.

PIROZZI: Thank you, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH PHNOM PENH!")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.