Cambodia’s lost rock ’n’ roll

A new documentary catches up with the musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — On a warm night in January, frontman Touch Seang Tana was especially nervous as he walked up onto the stage and checked his mike. “My voice was gone after all the practicing,” he said later that night. “I had to drink a lot of water to try and loosen it up.” Nevertheless, he finished his mike check, “one, two three, four,” and hammered out a power chord. The band he fronted, Drakkar, had played together only once since they split up 41 years ago.

The drums kicked in, and as the other instruments synced with his guitar, he could hear that his band was with him, playing nearly as tightly as they had four decades before, and his nerves began to give way.

No wonder he was nervous. Along with the reformed Apsara Band, Drakkar was about to play at the world premiere of a film that documents the story of Cambodia’s “lost rock ’n’ roll,” as it is known here. A joint American and Cambodian production directed by American John Pirozzi, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten recalls a very distinct form of music that flourished in Cambodia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only to be eliminated by the Khmer Rouge.

That night, Touch Seang Tana didn’t look nervous as he approached the mike to sing his first verse. As he looked out over the huge crowd, he said later, “it was great to be back. It was like coming home.” 

In the 1960s, Phnom Penh was a hothouse of creativity. The rule of King Norodom Sihanouk, the country's monarch, had many limitations, including rampant poverty and political repression. But artistic expression was widely encouraged.

Sihanouk himself composed and often performed songs in Khmer, French and English, and played the clarinet, saxophone and piano, as well as making feature films. (The country even had an annual film festival, which the king invariably won.)

During the Vietnam War, young singers and musicians in Cambodia listened to American Forces Radio, and geared their own music — and their records — partly to what they heard. The Beatles, Santana, the Rolling Stones and the Doors all became touchstones, with Khmer lyrics and microtonal singing mixing with bubbly Farfisa organs, bright horns and slashing guitar solos.

“The Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Bee Gees were huge here,” says Touch Seang Tana. “We loved to listen to them.”

Until 1975, music thrived in Phnom Penh, with clubs full night after night, crowds gathering in the streets around transistor radios to hear the latest releases, and the biggest stars being feted by the king.

Enter the Khmer Rouge, communism and the war on intellectuals. Between 1975 and 1979, about 2 million Cambodians, roughly a third of the population, were rounded up and either were killed or died of starvation.

Artists were particularly disliked by the Khmer Rouge, which saw creativity as decadence: Almost all of the biggest names perished during that era.

I’d sing Santana songs for him, and they let me live.

Touch Seang Tana

Frontman, Drakkar

Touch Seang Tana, performing after the premier of the movie at the US embassy in Phnom Penh
Touch Seang Tana, performing after the premiere of the movie at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh.
Courtesy John Pirozzi

But Touch Seang Tana, now 63, managed to survive. He was placed in a work camp near Cambodia’s second largest city, Battambang, and passed himself off as a peasant.

“But one of the guards recognized me,” he says, “because I was quite famous, and he took me away, and gave me a guitar and asked me to sing to him. So I’d sing Santana songs for him, and they let me live. They even let me drive a bullock cart, which was a very good job.”

Tana is now the chairman of a government committee that is trying to conserve the critically endangered Mekong dolphin. He is more than happy to talk about the old days, however difficult, when his hair was past his shoulders and girls would swarm around him.

“I was very young — in ’67 I was 16. We got famous pretty quickly. It was good,” he says of the old days, before the killing.

His face darkens. “Many other people were not as lucky,” he says quietly. 

Pirozzi says he was drawn to making a film about Cambodia even before he became aware of the music.

“I came to Phnom Penh in January of 2001 to work on [Matt Dillon’s film] ‘City of Ghosts,’ but only knew a bit about the history of the country then. You could see in the architecture and feel it in the air that something had existed there not that long ago. The film ‘City of Ghosts’ is aptly titled.”

Back in the U.S., a friend gave him a copy of a compilation CD, “Cambodia Rocks.” “That was the CD that completely hooked me,” he says. “There were amazing surf-guitar solos and rocking Farfisa organ riffs combined with operatic female rock ’n’ roll vocals, but through the filter of an Eastern music sensibility.”

Cambodia is a broken society today. Without healing, and dealing with the past, it would be difficult for Cambodians to move forward.

Youk Chhang

Documentary Center of Cambodia

Album cover Cambodia rock'n'roll
Album cover of Khmer rock chanteuse Ros Sereysothea.

The major figures in the Cambodian rock ’n’ roll scene included Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron and the truly spectacular singer Ros Sereysothea, who was given the title “The Golden Voice of the Royal Capital" by King Sihanouk himself. Their music varied from romantic ballads to psychedelic surf-pop, but was always energetic, electric and passionate. None survived the Khmer Rouge.

One of the producers of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,” Youk Chhang, also runs the Documentary Center of Cambodia, an independent organization dedicated to promoting “memory and justice” and documenting the genocide of the Khmer Rouge years. He says that the film is a valuable part of the country’s healing process.

“Music is a way of healing and caring for Khmer society. Cambodia is a broken society today. Without healing, and dealing with the past, it would be difficult for Cambodians to move forward. I want to move on with my life along with all other genocide survivors. Music is magical, and can bring both heritage and contemporary feelings to all — to heal. Music can also help restore what we have lost.”

A scene from
Shooting a scene from "Don't Think I've Forgotten" in a Phnom Penh café.
Courtesy John Pirozzi

Sreyneath Poole is a young Cambodian woman, born after the Khmer Rouge era, who watched the documentary at the screening. She says the film will resonate for the entire country, both young and old. “You don’t survive the KR without having lost someone close to you,” she says. “My grandfather lost all of his siblings but one. My grandmother lost many of her relatives and her parents. There were a lot of deaths, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who are gone are no longer with us. But despite the horror, my family doesn’t like to talk about or dwell on the past.”

Poole says the film had a profound effect on her: “I cried when the haunting song ‘Oh Phnom Penh’ accompanied images of the empty streets of Phnom Penh. I’ve seen many images and footage of empty streets of Phnom Penh, but no matter how many times I’ve seen those images I still feel heartbroken and always think about the pain and suffering that my family and the entire nation went through.”

But by the end, Poole says, the film was a positive experience: “I didn’t feel sad. I felt good, actually. The film celebrated a fun moment in time.” She grins. “Finally the world knows that we were pretty rock ’n’ roll!”

Law student Solyda Say says that, like everyone else in the country, her family suffered terribly. “Because of the forced labor and starvation, my mother’s husband and in-laws became ill and eventually died. My mother was devastated, which made her mental and physical health even worse than they already were. She told me that she almost gave up on life when liberation day came. More than 30 years later, my mother still misses them, and I don't think she will ever forget them.”

“After the film,” Say says, “I stayed for the concert and I danced until my legs felt like they were jelly.”

Twenty-nine-year-old choreographer Belle Sodachivy Chumvan says it’s important to remember the past. “The film is really helpful for our younger generation to understand more deeply about our history and culture. It’s a brilliant film.”

Chumvan, who lost her grandparents and 11 brothers and sisters to the Khmer Rouge, is upbeat about the future. “I think it is important to remember the Golden Age. Cambodia is not all black and darkness. The golden age showed us that we were proud and courageous, and Khmers are talented at the creative arts.”

You can’t help but marvel at the power of [music] to sustain itself through the people who made it, and those who love it.

John Pirozzi

Filmmaker

A '70s Cambodian rock album cover featuring Pan Ron and Meas Saman
A Cambodian rock album cover featuring Pan Ron and Meas Saman.

As Touch Seang Tana and Drakkar took to the outdoor stage on that balmy January evening, it was as if they had never been away. The pulsing keyboards and driving guitar floated up into the night sky and the crowd roared their approval, dancing in lockstep, in the Khmer fashion, shimmying and twisting joyfully, without a care in the world.

Cambodia-born Chhom Nimol, singer with the genre-defying Los Angeles–based band Dengue Fever, was also onstage with Drakkar for a couple of numbers. She says it was a profound moment: “I never dreamed I would play with those musicians. They are like my teachers, my masters. They played the music I was listening to when I was growing up, and to be on the stage with them, I felt like I was back in the 1960s with them.”

Pirozzi watched from the sidelines.

“I think it might be something we can easily take for granted, but after learning about how this music came to be, [how it] was close to being destroyed and then resurrected, you can’t help but marvel at the power of it to sustain itself through the people who made it, and those who love it.”

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is touring film festivals, and should be in general release later in the year.

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