PHNOM PENH —
In the 1960s and 1970s, Cambodian nightclubs were full of American-influenced rock ’n’ roll. Cambodian musicians were experiencing a golden age, celebrating the country’s newfound independence, with the horrors of a civil war and a brutal communist regime unseen beyond the horizon.
A new documentary, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock ’n’ Roll,” captures the essence of that pre-war period.
Rock music first came to Cambodia’s wealthy elite, who were returning from studies in France and bringing records back with them, said John Pirozzi, who produced the film. One musician, Chum Kem, who studied in Italy, heard Chubby Checker’s music and brought it back with him. “The Twist” became popular in Phnom Penh.
The music became even more popular as the American war in Vietnam escalated. American radio for US forces found its way over the Vietnamese border and into Cambodia, influencing young guitar bands like Baksei Cham Krong and Apsara.
The film captures this history in detail.
Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researches Khmer Rouge atrocities, said the film was like a “mirror,” reflecting what had once happened in Cambodian society.
Most of the rock fans were youth, he told VOA Khmer recently. “They knew that rock ’n’ roll was from America, France or Cuba,” he said. “The music influenced the way they behaved and their way of wearing clothes.”
“A big part of why there was so much great rock music back then was that there was a demand for it,” Pirozzi told VOA Khmer. “Rock ’n’ roll was associated with modernity, and young Cambodians after independence wanted to be modern.”
Added to that mix were a lot of talented Cambodian musicians, singers and songwriters, forming the “nucleus” of the music scene, he said.
“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” took a decade to make, but Pirozzi said preservation of Cambodian rock music made details in the film very important.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, they executed many of the country’s artists and intellectuals. This included musicians.
“Since so much archival material was lost because of the Khmer Rouge era, the music becomes extra important,” he said. “Eventually the generation who created and enjoyed this music will be gone. The music will remain to paint a picture of what it was like then.”
Some musicians did survive the Khmer Rouge. One of them, Svay Sor, 75, told VOA Khmer rock first came from France, but it wasn’t that popular. “It became popular when the American soldiers came,” he said. Cambodian musicians then appropriated the music and made it their own, he said.
“It was not just a copy,” Youk Chhang said. “They made that music more like Khmer, so it was not really harmful to Cambodian culture or identity.”
Cambodian rock then created a scene unto itself.
“Nearly everywhere I went, I heard rock ’n’ roll music, especially on the weekends,” said Ly Bun Yim, a film director. “Even my actors liked the music.”
Nightclubs were “full of people,” recalled Dy Saveth, a popular actress of the era, and full of rock ’n’ roll. “It seemed like people liked dancing.”