The Big Issue : Edition 474
34 THE BIG ISSUE 26 DEC 2014 – 8 JAN 2015 Angkor Rock “THERE IS A SAYING in Cambodia: music is the soul of our nation,” intones one of the talking heads at the start of the documentary, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. You only need to walk the streets of Phnom Penh for proof of this. Music is everywhere: blasting from cars and store speakers; wafting from roadside cafes and the windows of apartment buildings. Often, the songs date back to before the Khmer Rouge took over the country in April 1975. The guerrilla movement emptied the cities and systematically eradicated the so-called ‘old culture’, because it was seen as corrupt and decadent. This included almost completely obliterating what was, for its time, the most unique and vibrant rock’n’roll scene in Southeast Asia. The Khmer Rouge trashed the country’s few recording studios, destroyed all the vinyl they could get their hands on and killed all the major singers they discovered. That the country’s pre-1975 music survived at all is the result not only of the Cambodian (Khmer) people’s love of music, but the efforts of people like LA- based cinematographer, John Pirozzi. He directed Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, which had its international debut at the 2014 Melbourne Film Festival. A MAJOR FACTOR in Cambodia’s remarkable pre-1975 music industry was the patronage of King Norodom Sihanouk, who led the country after independence from the French in 1953. While the rural areas groaned under rampant poverty and political repression, it was a very different story in the cities. Phnom Penh in particular became a hotbed of creativity in film, music and architecture, often led by the mercurial monarch himself. Sihanouk was a leading light in the nation’s fledgling film industry. He also encouraged royal court musicians to experiment with new styles, and he composed and performed his own songs in Khmer, French and English. Sihanouk started importing Western music into Cambodia: French cabaret singer Tino Rossi was popular, along with Edith Piaf. In the mid 1960s, local record labels sprang up and by the 1970s were supported by a well-developed network of distributors and clubs. Sihanouk’s policies influenced people like Sinn Sisamouth, known as Cambodia’s father of popular music. He started his career as a ballad singer in the royal court, but by the late 1950s had become a well-known radio singer. As the United States became more involved in the war in neighbouring Vietnam, American music was thrown into the mix. American Armed Forces Radio exposed young Cambodians to The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and, in the late 1960s, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. Sounds as diverse as doo-wop, psychedelic surf ANDREW NETTE EXPLAINS THE REBIRTH OF CAMBODIA’S ‘LOST’ MUSIC SCENE.