The Tragedy Of Cambodia’s Lost Pop
“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Long Lost Rock and Roll” is the most depressing documentary about popular music. And that’s because of our part in it, yes America’s, which I’ll get to in a bit. It’s also the best documentary on rock and roll this year.
In a nutshell, it’s about the evolution of pop music in Cambodia prior to Pol Pot and the genocides in the killing fields.
After independence from France, Cambodia had a small prospering middle class in Phnom Penh, the capitol of a nation that was primarily rural, it’s people rice farmers in the fields. An emerging prosperity literally amplified people who considered music part of the soul of the nation. Encouraged by the monarchy of the Sihanouk regime, it built a music scene around the National Radio, city dance halls and bars.
Influenced by Western pop, first from France, its old colonial power, then from Cuba, and then America, it was a mix of cha-cha, Fifties crooners singing sad love songs, Johnny Hallyday rock n roll and surf music, complete with dripping reverb and American guitars. Yes, American innovation was there. Fender guitars and amplifiers, as well as lots of Japanese kncok-offs. Teiscos they were called, if you didn’t quite have the money for the premium brands.
Cambodian musicians gobbled up western pop music fashion. Kicky boots, Beatle suits, snappy dressers. They loved to look cool and they did.
Ah yes, now, about the American role.
B-52s dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs, all through the Cambodian countryside and up to the very city limits of Phnom Penh. It was more explosive power than was dropped in all of World War II and it killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The bombing destabilized the country and drove the people into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a communist insurgency that before the bombings had not enjoyed much popularity. John Gunther Dean, the American ambassador to Cambodia, is shown saying the B-52 strikes made the Khmer Rouge a power. Cambodians had no idea about the geopolitics of the Vietnam war. But they deeply resented American 2000-lb. bombs destroying their loved ones and everything they knew.
Prince Sihanouk was overthrown, replaced by a general who welcomed American aid and arms. On a smaller scale, what happened in Saigon was repeated. US money flooded in and for a very short time Cambodian pop adopted the American mainstream, Wilson Pickett, soul, psychedelia and hard rock. It’s disconcerting to see Cambodians, very much influenced by Pickett performing “Everybody Needs Somebody” juxtaposed with fighter bombers being launched from an American aircraft carrier.
You know know what happened next. A human holocaust.
Cambodia went on war footing. Pop musicians at the National Radio turned to making rock n roll songs with patriotic lyrics. Cognitive dissonance jolts you; “Mustang Sally” is set to lyrics entreating young people to not be afraid to train with a rifle, to be in the military to fight at the front. Ros Serey Sothea, the country’s most successful female pop singer is made into a soldier for an airborne unit.
The general’s junta could not sustain. The front inexorably came to Phnom Penh. Dances and pop concerts became small, furtive affairs, held secretly during the day for fear of attack.
Finally, the US halted all military aid and the government collapsed. Pou Vannary, a female pop singer who survived the killing fields, is heard singing one of her hits, a Cambodian version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” as the movie tells us about the US pull out.
Besides a staggering humanitarian tragedy, the movie documents very specifically the Khmer Rouge’s process of destroying not only human beings, but an entire culture.
Artists were to be killed because they were the voices and expression of the people. And they were systematically wiped out. So thoroughly was their presence erased, it’s been exceedingly difficult to reconstruct what the generation was like. This movie is that reconstruction, the attempt to bring together and preserve what was annilhilated by pure evil.
The Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and emptied the city, turning the entire country into a giant slave farm. Musicians, artists, intellectuals, all were killed. Cambodia’s musicians were exterminated, the when and where of them so lost, there is no way to trace what happened to them except from the somtimes fragile memories of the few survivors. Vannary, was one such survivor. Her face frozen by a stroke, she tells the documentarians she escaped death by telling the Khmer Rouge she was a banana seller.
And you have to confront the brutal truth of how the US acted. The Khmer Rouge killed them all. But we overturned the country in the madness of the Vietnam war, making Cambodia the most bombed place on the planet and opening the door for the executioners. Then we said tough luck.
Finally, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” shows the universal power of pop and music to inspire, to bring out the best in the human condition, even while the maelstrom threatens. The musicians shown liked the kids in France, in Britain, and here. They were like us.
The documentary’s soundtrack is pristine. The movie-makers have put it together with translated lyrics and all the fine memories in the form of record sleeves, posters and promotional photos that could be salvaged from a four-year period in which a Stygian dark descended. It can be viewed on Hulu, also we have included a documentary from Democracy Now with many excerpts, below.
Dick Destiny aka George Smith is easy to find. He writes about a lot of stuff and makes some music, too, like here.