Endeavoring to gather firm knowledge on the complexities of a foreign culture elevates familiarity of its popular art, be it good, bad or somewhere in between, to a simple necessity. This is merely part of what makes John Pirozzi’s Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll so welcome from the midst of a perpetually crowded music documentary field, though in fact the film’s subject matter hasn’t exactly emerged out of the aether.
The pop music of Cambodia, recorded predominantly in the ’60s during the reign of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, possesses an interesting background of cultural exchange. While clearly indigenous in nature, the phenomenon detailed in Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten was just as plainly influenced by Western pop and rock; in our existing state of global hyper-connectivity it can perhaps seem the majority of the 20th century was comparatively isolated, but that’s actually off-target.
A huge factor in this musical absorption was conflict and violence, specifically wars in Korea and Vietnam. These circumstances add a degree of troubling reality to the subsequent surge of Western interest in Asian pop, a reaction delayed yet wholly appropriate; if Asian musicians (to say nothing of filmmakers) were impacted by the sounds of the US, UK and elsewhere it totally stands to reason the attention would be reciprocated, particularly as Westerners bored with ‘90s pop and rock began exploring the music of India, Africa, Turkey, France, Brazil, Argentina and numerous locales in Asia.
A solid if quite broad introductory survey to the region’s songic activity is provided through the 2001 compilation Asian Takeaways, its selections derived from Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, with influences ranging from Country music possibly heard via USO tours of Korea to brass-band arrangements suggesting a Las Vegas lounge to flashes of rock, rhumba and even polka.
Asian Takeaways puts names to its 20 tracks; it’s a gesture lacking on Cambodian Rocks, the 1996 collection that served many listeners as a gateway to this style. Indeed, due to the presence of the words Unknown Artist the experience was undeniably a bit discomfiting, the phrase lingering as a constant reminder that the pleasures it contained and the human beings responsible were largely destroyed by a faction recognizing it all as characteristic of capitalist decadence.
Research has since uncovered the input of such legit Cambodian pop stars as Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and Pan Ron. Cambodian Rocks is still worth checking out today, but its usefulness has been considerably improved upon by additional volumes like Cambodian Psych-Out and Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia.
As the latter’s title explicates, its entries were curated by Dengue Fever, a US group featuring native-born vocalist Chhom Nimol who’re dedicated to replicating and expanding the richness of Cambodian pop. Highly productive, the outfit links past to present very nicely; this writer’s review of their most recent LP The Deepest Lake can be found here.
Dengue Fever’s ties to Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten are tightened by Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, a 2007 film directed by John Pirozzi documenting the band’s trip to Cambodia to perform, collaborate and deepen connections with history. Fittingly, Pirozzi’s latest effort, a ten year labor of love accompanied by an outstanding soundtrack currently available digitally and on CD (vinyl is imminent) through the Dust-to-Digital label, is the most illuminating depiction of Cambodia’s rocking ‘n’ rolling past yet undertaken.
But if the above isn’t sufficient to arouse one’s curiosity in Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, please lend an ear to this…
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll screens at the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, Virginia on Wednesday, July 8th, 2015 at 7pm. Tickets can be found by clicking HERE.