musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

cambodia_forgotten

My Cambodian friend Chiet is working a construction job as a welder in nearby Nonthaburi and we’ll get together a couple of times each month for dinner. Last week, back at my apartment after another big meal at Thon Krueng, we were watching one of those ridiculous “professional” wrestling matches on TV (he loves that stuff, while I am merely amused by it all) when I put on a CD that I thought would grab his attention. When the Cambodian language song started, he did one of those surprised neck swivels and sat up straight. “What is that?” he exclaimed. I showed him the CD I was playing: Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.

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That also happens to be the title of a recently released film from Argot Pictures by John Pirozzi. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll is a fascinating tale of Cambodia s vibrant pop music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. The filmmaker assembled rare archival footage, punctuating it with interviews with the handful of musicians who survived the genocide of Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge. In an interview in the New York Times, Pirozzi said: “I wanted to show that this music would endure beyond everything it had been put through. The music is the one thing that has allowed the Cambodian people to access a time when their life wasn’t about war and genocide.”

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Another result of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, in which millions of Cambodians lost their lives, was that the thriving music and film industries in Cambodia were also effectively snuffed. Thanks to exhaustive research, and a few lucky breaks, Pirozzi managed to unearth some rare footage of many Cambodia singers and musicians from the pre-Khmer Rouge era. Luckily, for music fans, some of the old recordings were also salvaged.  The 20-track companion CD to the film features famous Cambodian singers such as Sinn Sisamouth, Pen Ran, Ros Serey Sothea, along with a mix of lesser known bands and singers. Listening to these songs, there is a clear nod to Western music styles of the era, but diffused through a distinct Cambodian perspective. Some of this music is, admittedly, an acquired taste, particularly the older more traditional Cambodian songs from the 1950s, before sizzling rock and roll guitars and funky organ riffs became more common in the mix. But even with the older tunes, it’s mighty hard not to be captivated by the spirit and vitality of the recordings, especially considering that most of the artists who sang or performed these songs were killed or disappeared during the Khmer Rouge period.

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Sinn Sisamouth, probably the most beloved of all Cambodia singers, began his career as a crooner in the style of a Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. But once the 1960s arrived, Sinn Sisamouth embraced the changing musical landscape and added guitar-spiced rock songs to his repertoire. He also recorded several duets with Ros Serey Sothea, songs that remain enormously popular throughout Cambodia. Ros Serey Sothea herself was also a music chameleon, singing everything from traditional wedding songs to frenzied rockers. But when it came to spunky, she was no match for the even more vivacious Pen Ran, a singer who, according to the liner notes, “broke the mold of the proper Khmer girl” with her risqué uptempo songs and sexy fashion sense.

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One of the more interesting groups on the CD is Baksey Cham Krong. Their surf-guitar song “B.C.K.” owes a clear debt to the Ventures, while “Full Moon” sounds like something that could have come from Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” soundtrack. Another band, Drakkar, sounds like they were influenced by the harder rock sounds of Cream and Deep Purple. The male singer Yol Aularong, based on the two songs of his that are included on this collection, was an even weirder and wilder singer, sounding like someone that would have embraced voodoo rockabilly. The liner notes say that “he was clearly on the verge of charting a new course in Cambodia’s musical heritage” when he disappeared — like so many of these artists — during the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. All of the songs on the CD are sung in Khmer, except for Baksey Cham Krong’s instrumental and one English language song, a cover version of “You’ve Got a Friend”, performed by female singer Pou Vannary.

In addition to that fascinating compilation, I’ve been listening to a pleasing barrage of other music each and every day. Here are the latest CDs keeping me bopping and hopping:

fatback_soulshop

Various Artists – Fatback’s Soul Shop

The Diplomats – Greatest Recordings

Funk Inc. – Funk Inc./Chicken Lickin

Ronnie Foster – Love Satellite

Jimmy Holiday – Spread Your Love: The Complete Minit Singles

 

toroYmoi_whatfor

Toro Y Moi – What For?

Bill Evans – You Must Believe In Spring

Ebony Rhythm Band – Soul Heart Transplant: Lamp Sessions

Various Artists – Listen To the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

 

davehamilton_detroitcity

Dave Hamilton – Detroit City Grooves

Ebo Taylor – Appia Kwa Bridge

Ray Charles & Milt Jackson – Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting

King Floyd – I Feel Like Dynamite: The Early Chimneyville Singles

Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block

 

cornellcampbell

Cornell Campbell – I Shall Not Remove 1975-80

Roy Ayers – Virgin Ubiquity II

The Four Mints – Gently Down the Stream

Gene Harris & the Three Sounds – Live at the It Club, Vol. 2

Graham Parker & the Rumour – Mystery Glue

 

lightspeed_life

Lightspeed Champion – Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You

Bob Frank – Bob Frank

Various Artists – Belle and Sebastian: Late Night Tales

Jesse Malin – New York Before the War

Various Artists – More Perfect Harmony: Sweet Soul Groups 1967-1975

 

songhoyblues

Songhoy Blues – Music in Exile

Tame Impala – Currents

Craig Fuller & Eric Kaz – Various Artists –

Marah – Kids in Philly

Various Artists – Super Funk: Soul Emissaries

 

robingibb

Robin Gibb – 50 St. Catherine’s Drive

Eddy Giles – Southern Soul Brother

James Taylor – Before This World

The Royals – Pick Up the Pieces

Harvey Mandel – The Best Of

 

bayou_maddogs

Various Artists – Rhythm ‘n’ Bluesin’ by the Bayou: Mad Dogs, Sweet Daddies & Pretty Babies

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

The Five Stairsteps – The Best of

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Eddie Floyd – Chronicle Greatest Hits

 

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