Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (2016)
Sometime in the mid-90’s a friend handed me a tape as a gift. It had no track information and simply said the words Cambodia Rocks. She explained the story. An American had been in a cab in Cambodia. The driver was blasting a mix of wild local Rock & Roll from the 60’s and 70’s. Finding himself enthralled, the tourist expressed his enthusiasm, eventually leading to the driver offering him the tape as a gift. Upon his return to the States, he copied it for friends, who in turn copied for their friends and so on, until it fell into my hands.
I had always believed the story to be true – until this morning (roughly twenty years later). As I began writing, I decided to double check my facts. I discovered that things didn’t entirely line up. I have no idea if the story behind the origin of my tape is true – if it lead directly back to the source. It turns out that an LP of the compilation had been released right around the time I was given my copy. It’s probable that this was the true origin, but there’s no way to know. I couldn’t find a reference to the story about the cab, but it turns out the mix was made by a man named Paul Wheeler (the American), drawing from tapes he purchased in the markets of Siem Reap. Maybe his interest began in cabs, maybe not. Shortly after his return to New York, he gave a copy to a friend a copy at the Parallel World label. They issue the LP in 1995.
The origin of my cassette has little consequence. The music blew my mind. Given what my record collection looks like today it feels strange to say, but Cambodia Rocks was the first “Non-Western” music that I ever owned. It began a decades long obsession with diverse musical traditions from around the world. It was the seed for so much of what I have come to love.
The story of Cambodia’s political and social reality during the 60’s and 70’s is beautiful, complex, and ended in one of the worst tragedies of the Twentieth Century – in many ways becoming an extreme mirror for consequences of conflicting political and economic agendas within the developing world during the Post-Colonial era. The country was a French colony until 1953, after which it became a constitutional monarchy retaining strong ties to the West. It was filled with optimism. Like many young countries, it embraced Western signifiers of prosperity – not the least of which were new forms of music spreading across the globe. During the second half of the Twentieth Century, the interplay of two conflicting global forces defined most social and political realities – Capitalism and Communism, each fighting against the other in unexpected ways. A central concern of many Communist movements emphasized a return to a kind of cultural purity – built from romantic ideas of the past. For many, particularly in China, this was the result of a belief that respective colonial eras and Western influence had corrupted their cultural importance or singularity, as well risking temptation beyond the objectives of the Revolution. Running concurrently was a growing fear of Communism in the West. The American government, in particular, recognized the power of its cultural exports (music, art, literature, etc) to feed aspiration and fight the spread of Communism. As a result much of the Cold War was fought (often unknowingly) by artists. I doubt their governments considered the true effect of those efforts on individual lives across the globe.
Like many other countries in South East Asia, Cambodia embraced Rock & Roll like wildfire. By combining what they heard from the West with their own musical traditions, they created one of the most dynamic and beautiful forms of music I’ve ever heard. This is what I discovered when I was first given a copy of Cambodia Rocks. I listened to the tape over and over again – nearly wearing it out. I was completely obsessed. I had never heard anything like it. Though I remember my parents talking about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge when I was a kid, and the fact that they had committed a genocide with a particular focus on eradicating intellectuals, I never thought to place the music in that context, or wonder what had happened to these musicians.
During the late 60’s and early 70’s the Vietnam War began to spill over the Cambodian border – instigating an extended American bombing campaign and political intervention within the country. Because of his country’s precarious balance between Communist countries and the West, the country’s leader King Norodom Sihanouk attempted to retain political neutrality – ultimately fueling internal political strife, and leading to his deposement. Following a coup and an extended revolution, the Khmer Rouge Communist forces took control of the country in 1975 with the assistance of the North Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge were perhaps the most extreme realization of a Communist hatred of Western influence. They were defined by a fear of intellectual and creative threats to their agendas. Almost immediately upon taking power, they set into practice social and cultural cleansing inspired by China’s Cultural Revolution – killing artists, musicians, intellectuals, and anyone who was educated or could be a threat to them (in some cases also focusing on ethnic and religious minorities), as well as a program modeled on the Great Leap Forward, which attempted to return the country to an agrarian society – forcing the entire urban population out of cities, onto forced marches, and into rural work projects. They destroyed temples, libraries, and anything considered Western, including the use of its medicine. No one knows how many people they killed – the number is estimated between one and three million. It is one of the most horrible sins of the Twentieth Century. The fact that it occurred only thirty years after the Holocaust, something that the world swore it would never allow to happen again, and yet not a single country intervened, lays bare the truths of the agendas of the global social and political reality in which we all live. It is unforgivable.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (Trailer)
When I first fell in love with the music of Cambodia Rocks, I had no idea that many of its artists had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. The discovery consumed me in sadness and made me feel the need to sing their praises far and wide. They came to represent the political power of art, the danger it poses to repressive regimes, and why we should defend it and never take it for granted. Last year the director John Pirozzi released the wonderful documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, which focused on the lives, music, and social reality of this short lived period in Cambodian music. I went to see it during the premier. I learned that some had survived, and how others died. I heard voices that had never relinquished their spirit, and others who were scarred by the sins of the past. It’s an incredible piece of work – filled with beauty, hope, and deeply important lessons. I can’t recommend it enough. To accompany its release Dust to Digital issued a soundtrack curated by the director. Though the years following the release of Cambodia Rocks has seen a number of other compilations dedicated to this music, theirs is easily the best I had heard since the original. It’s a fantastic selection, drawing across a broad range of iterations of popular music – from soulful ballads to clattering Garage Rock and Psychedelia. Many of the tracks haven’t been featured anywhere else, making it a valuable addition to the appreciation of this amazing music. What’s particularly wonderful about the curation is its ability to help us hear what is familiar, and what is not. Beyond it’s unbelievable beauty, the hybridity of this music is what makes it so special – drawing us toward the humanity of these singers – at once forcing us to disregard time, and cultural difference, while celebrating it. Dust to Digital has just announced that they are releasing a vinyl edition of the soundtrack for Record Store Day. It’s one of the few things that I would be willing to stand in line for. I can’t recommend it enough. Check it out below and get your copy fast.