Sometimes a music documentary reaches a state of transcendence. John Pirozzi’s new film Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll is that kind of movie. Examining the thriving pop scene of Cambodia's capitol city Phnom Penh in the ‘50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when crooners, rock bands, songstresses, surf combos, and other musical polymaths blended the sounds of Western rock and Cuban cha-cha-cha rhythms to Khmer melodies, it's a powerful, affecting picture.
When the Khmer Rouge overran Phnom Penh in 1975, the new government quickly outlawed the swinging youth scene, and went on to kill approximately two million Cambodians. This pop culture history could have been lost, but lucky survivors lived to tell their stories, and record collectors saved rare vinyl documents, often risking their lives to do so.
Pirozzi first visited Cambodia in 2001, while working as a camera director on Matt Dillon's City of Ghosts. Being "somewhat of a history buff," he began purchasing books at the market, rewatched The Killing Fields, and gained a deeper understanding of the country's history. But he had a hard time getting a sense of what Cambodia and its capital city were like before the Khmer Rouge genocide, when Prince Norodom Sihanouk encouraged and bolstered the country's arts scene.
“Everyone had been talking about how great the place was before the war, that it was the ‘Pearl of Southeast Asia,’ and Matt was always talking about how great the musical scene had been there,” Pirozzi says.
Pirozzi scoured the markets for music, but what he found from the country's musical glory days was often marred with distracting new touches: synths, digital drums, and other overdubs. Back in New York, Pirozzi dived into the Cambodia Rocks compilation, issued by the Parallel World label in 1996.
“When I heard that, I heard how diverse it was, and how it wasn’t just a couple bands. It was a whole thing going on,” Pirozzi says.
The tremendous sounds of Don't Think I've Forgotten were sourced from original recordings, preserved by dedicated collectors in Cambodia and around the world. On the film's soundtrack album, issued by venerable Georgia label Dust-to-Digital, the songs are presented as they were originally recorded, often around a single microphone, bathed in reverb. They span a wide swath of sounds, from the smooth crooning of Sinn Sisamouth to the psychedelic rock of Drakkar to gorgeous pop of Pou Vannary.
“I’m sure Khmer Rouge tried to destroy as much as they could, but they couldn’t destroy every little thing," Pirozzi says.
As he pieced the story and soundtrack together, Pirozzi collaborated closely with Cambodian music historian Sovannet "Nate" Hun in Lowell, Massachusetts.
"He's a young guy, under 30, and he’s really obsessed with this music," Pirozzi says. "His parents were both Khmer Rouge survivors and he has an incredible, encyclopedic knowledge of where all the different versions of all these songs are around the globe. I got to meet [Hun’s] father and I asked him, ‘Where do you think your son’s obsession for this comes from?’ He said, ‘I can’t figure it out. The only thing I can think of is that Nate had been a singer or musician who died during [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot’s time and was reincarnated as Nate.’”
As Pirozzi worked, word traveled about the film, and a community of people interested in helping and sharing their stories, artifacts, and photos began to develop. He was about halfway finished with the documentary when he was put in contact with Mol Kagnol and Mol Kamach. The brothers founded Baksey Cham Krong, Cambodia's first guitar-driven combo, as teenagers in 1959. Though their family was killed, the brothers had survived and flourished. After spending time in Virginia and Texas, Kagnol had settled in Phoenix; Kamach was in Paris. They proved essential to the film, providing pictures and interviews.
“From my research and what everyone I’ve talked to said, [Baksey Cham Krong] were the first guitar band and they were only teenagers," Pirozzi says. "And Kagnol didn’t even know it. He didn’t understand his place in the grand scheme of it all."
Inspired by the sounds of the Paul Anka, Pat Boone, and Chuck Berry, a teenage Kagnol convinced his father to make a deal: If he could pass an upcoming exam, he could purchase a guitar. His family’s wealth afforded him a great rig: a Hofner six string and a Gibson amplifier. Baksey Cham Krong's sound was unmistakably Western in origin, owing to the surfy tones of bands like the Ventures, which Kagnol heard over shortwave radio. The group went without a bassist, Kagnol explains. “We just had no idea," he laughs. "We just slapped the string and mimicked the bass. That’s how we got started."
The group's popularity inspired a wave of guitar bands, but eventually the Mol brothers disbanded the group to attend college. Kamach studied finance and Kagnol studied architecture. Kagnol would continue to learn and travel; he was taking flying classes at Fort Eustis in Virginia in 1975 when Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Unable to go home, he found himself turning to his musical abilities to support himself.
“I couldn’t return," Kagnol says. "I had to do something to earn a living here. My architect skill was not recognizable in this country, and my pilots’ license was not [valid], and all my education was from a completely different system. The only thing that was recognized was my guitar playing skill." After passing an audition for a local band, he was given $250 dollars, which he used to purchase a used Telecaster. "I played country rock for five years to pay while I got a new education," Kagnol says.
The completed film was difficult for Kagnol to watch. “It took me a few times before I could make sense of it," Kagnol says. "It was a long time ago."
Stories like the those of the Mol Brothers and the other tales Pirozzi presents are often tragic, but they also speak to love and freedom that the people of Phnom Penh celebrated with their music. The heavy subject matter is balanced out with these celebratory sounds, romantic ballads, and haunting melodies, sounds these bands and singers played even as American bombs dropped and a brutal force approached.
“[The music] is one of the only things left from that culture that can be accessed," Pirozzi says. With the release of Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll, it can be celebrated, too.
FilmBar screens Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll Thursday, May 28, Friday, May 29 and Saturday, May 30.