- Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll by John Pirozzi and LinDa Saphan
A Personal Perspective
Because Cambodia's recent history—the loss of over two million people to mindless savagery—is so fraught with grief and horror, any attempt to write an essay putting this particular collection of music into perspective demands far more knowledge of not just history but also music than any individual can claim. That includes me. Consequently, this essay will necessarily fall short in some ways, but it represents my best effort to offer perspectives on music that must evoke far more emotions in any Khmer who survived the holocaust than it ever could in me. To do this, I call on my own experience of being drafted into the US Army in 1968 and sent to Vietnam for one year in 1969 as well as of trying and failing to visit Angkor Wat in January 1970, before le déluge that plunged Cambodia into chaos and horror and kept it basically off limits to Westerners for the next 25 years. My first visit to Phnom Penh occurred in December 1988, when the intrepid citizens of this thoroughly trashed city were required to prepare to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Vietnamese invasion that had occurred in early 1979. Since then I have returned to Cambodia three times, once to Siem Reap and Angkor in 2007, again to Phnom Penh in 2013, and then to northeastern Cambodia in 2015.
Since my research focus is more on the music of Thailand and Laos than of Cambodia, I can draw on somewhat parallel experiences in the popular traditions of those countries that relate to Cambodia. Although Cambodian classical music is very similar to that of Thailand, it is mostly irrelevant in this essay. Beyond this I am compelled to imagine what life was like in Phnom Penh from the 1950s through 1988 and what this music meant to its listeners. On this I cannot claim authority, but I will nonetheless do my best to put this seemingly innocuous and otherwise inconsequential music into musical and historical perspectives. The subject is far more complex, however, and other [End Page 132] listeners and readers may see things otherwise or perceive much that I missed. With these caveats, I proceed.
Putting Cambodia and Its Culture into a Broad Perspective
Music has a unique ability to reawaken memories from one's past, making it possible to relive those otherwise forgotten moments and feelings that were closely associated with hearing a particular song. When I hear the songs commonly played during my two years in the US Army, including a year in Vietnam (1968–70), I can instantly recall the feelings I had nearly fifty years ago during that time of personal stress and discovery. For Khmer who had been living comfortable lives in Phnom Penh before 1975 and the few who survived the Khmer Rouge holocaust, the songs found on this album must evoke even stronger feelings of remembrance, regret, loss, sadness, and profound unhappiness.
I could not visit Phnom Penh until 1988, long after the city's destruction and the loss of most of its population, so it is difficult for me to imagine what the city was like during the heady days following independence in 1953. Having been the capital of a French colony and attained a thin veneer of European sophistication, Phnom Penh had many of the attributes that made Paris so attractive: sidewalk cafes, fresh baguettes and wine, the swank houses of the aristocracy and nouveau riche, a promenade along the river, a splendid palace, elegant temples, and ample musical entertainment.
The Cambodian—or properly, Khmer—people have a long history and a profound culture. The earliest kingdoms of Funan and Chenla, going back to the third through fifth centuries, left little of permanence, but after the establishment of...