Not to take anything away from the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, but none of those inductees have anything over the Cambodian rockers in the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (playing at New York’s Film Forum through tomorrow). After all, not only did they live rock ‘n’ roll, in many cases they died it.
Indeed, 40 years ago—April 17, 1975–the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, and Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll died in the countryside’s genocidal Killing Fields along with approximately 2,000,000 fellow country folk. In fact, the star musicians of a thriving rock scene were targeted, clubs were closed, recordings were destroyed. Director John Pirozzi does the world a service in documenting the era—which began in the 1950s and ’60s under the influence of French rock legend Johnny Hallyday and Britain’s Cliff Richard and the Shadows—using rare archival footage and interviews with the few surviving musicians.
Some of those musicians were at City Winery Friday night, along with Nimol Chhom, the enchanting lead singer of the exciting L.A.-based Cambodian-American rock combo Dengue Fever, whose music includes and derives from classic Cambodian rock and who themselves have been documented by Pirozzi in 2007’s Dengue Fever: Sleepwalking Through the Mekong.
Noting that her performance with the surviving Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten musicians was a “dream come true,” Chhom said that she was almost in tears singing with Sinn Sethakol, the grandson of “King of Khmer Music” Sinn Sisamouth, on duets Sisamouth had sung with Ros Serey Sothea, once lauded by late King Norodom Sihanouk as “the golden voice of the royal capital.” It was, she said, like singing with Sisamouth himself.
Besides Chhom—who also sang several Sothea songs solo—and Sethakol, the particpating players were three original members of late ‘60s hard rock band The Drakkar (singer Tana, lead guitarist Touch Chhattaha and drummer Ouk Sam Art) and three original members of 1960 Cambodian guitar band Baksey Cham Krong (singer Mol Kamach, lead guitarist Mol Kagnol and rhythm guitarist Samley Hong). Like Chhom, Kagnol said the show was a dream come true, and said that while he had been likened to a surf guitarist a la The Ventures, he didn’t know what one was—until now, apparently, as he then performed a dynamite “Surf Rider.”
“I’m a lucky girl,” said Chhom, who was seconded in the audience by Maura Moynihan, the South Asia-influenced singer-songwriter, writer, artist and fashion designer.
“It was like being in a bar in Phnom Penh in 1969,” said Moynihan, daughter of the late U.S. Senator, ambassador to India and U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
“I was profoundly moved by the joyous grace of the musicians–their charm, wit, musicality, and mingling of the graceful tones of the Khmer language with pure Ventures style guitar power chords,” said Moynihan. “Cambodia was a sophisticated cosmopolitan society in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with a unique pop music scene that blended Khmer lyrics with classic rock.”
Moynihan, who grew up in India, visited Cambodia in 1999, “as the society was still recovering from the Khmer Rouge,” she continued. “My young guide took me to several Killing Fields where I gazed in horror upon huge glass towers filled with skulls. Everyone I met told me they had family members killed by the Khmer Rouge. Thankfully, the Cambodian people have shown that they have not been broken by the horrors inflicted upon them, and the musicians Friday night showed us their enduring resilience and humanity and capacity for joy.”
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