It seemed the only happy person in the Hotel Pennsylvania was a man who'd survived a genocide. The lobby of the midtown hotel was crawling with tourists, all having apparently come to New York City with too many relatives and suitcases that were much too large. But the Cambodian musician Seang Tana—looking like an aging rock star, in dark jeans, black jacket, cowboy hat, and a shirt unbuttoned to a point worth mentioning—radiated good cheer.
I was there, in April, to have lunch with Seang, another Cambodian musician named Mol Kagnol, and the filmmaker who'd introduced me to their work, John Pirozzi. Pirozzi directed Don't Think I've Forgotten, a feature-length documentary now screening across the country. Mol and Seang were two key players in the vibrant rock scene that flourished in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.
Official trailer for 'Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll' (2015)
Although we were supposed to be talking about the very cool music that flourished in Cambodia during the reign of the undemocratic but nevertheless pro-culture Prince Sihanouk from the 1950s through the 70s, I had conceived of the meeting as being with "an American director and two men who have experienced incomprehensible suffering."
Nearly 2 million people died during the four-year communist regime, by execution or starvation or forced labor, including several members of the musicians' families. Artists were especially targeted as the Khmer Rouge attempted to enact its aggressive agrarian vision of society. Several major stars of the scene—like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, and Pan Ron—likely died this way, though, as one of the film's interview subjects states, "nothing was certain."
The PR manager for Film Forum, which screened Don't Think I've Forgotten's US premiere run, offered me some background information on the musicians before our lunch. Mol had played in the early teenage guitar band Baksey Cham Krong, which formed in the late 50s. He had been living in exile in the United States since 1975, and that Friday, April 24, he would be taking the stage with his brother, whom he'd presumed dead for decades, for the first time since 1967. Seang was in the later, heavier band Drakkar, and he "actually lived in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era." Which means he actually lived in a prison camp.
The stories in Don't Think I've Forgotten are personal and detailed, interwoven with political events that run in chronological order. To someone who doesn't know much about Cambodia, the names and dates and coups and allegiances and, ultimately, tragedies, can become overwhelming. Pirozzi wanted to introduce the culture to outsiders as accessibly as possible.
His interest in the country stems from the months he spent there in 2001, working as a camera operator on Matt Dillon's high-jinks-y thriller City of Ghosts.
"I certainly knew who the Khmer Rouge were, but I didn't know the particulars of how they came to power and what exactly had happened," he told me. "You could see that the city was very different from what it had been."
Both of their parents let them play music on one condition: They couldn't become professional musicians.
At first, he wanted to make a film about, simply, that: Cambodia's modern history. "It's like a Shakespearian tragedy, with all these great characters and all these great power struggles," he said. But then he heard the music.
"I wanted to show that this music would endure beyond everything it had been put through," Pirozzi told the New York Times. "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."
For a while, he funded the project himself, traveling back and forth from Los Angeles when he could and conducting research with help from a team that seems to have been as invested in the film as Pirozzi was. Pirozzi's wife LinDa Saphan, a sociologist, acted as an associate producer, researcher, and translator for the film. Nate Hun, a 28-year-old record collector, also associate-produced, mostly because his love of mid-century Cambodian rock music borders on the fanatic—it's the only thing he listens to.
"He knows every song," Pirozzi said of Hun. "I met his father, and I asked him, 'Your son's so obsessed with this music—why do you think that is?'" Hun's father replied, "The only thing I can figure is he was a musician back in the 60s who died and was reincarnated as Nate."
It's not hard to see why someone might be obsessed with this music, or this portion of history. There are the "Shakespearian" elements of the complicated pre-Khmer Rouge political situation, yes, but the music that emerged from it is just as dynamic. It hits a spot between fun and rich, easy to bop around to as well as kind of mesmerizing. For a Western listener, unfamiliar Khmer voices rise above familiar grooviness, and the lyrics, translated in subtitles in the film, are surprisingly progressive. (In a song by Huoy Meas, she sings "Please stop asking about your father/ He's a womanizer and an embarrassment.") Plus, like much of the surviving culture from the era, it all just looks so good—the colors, the patterns, the haircuts.
While much of the Don't Think I've Forgotten soundtrack overlaps with the relatively well-known compilation album Cambodian Rocks (which Daniel Woolfson wrote about here for VICE), Pirozzi's extensive liner notes provide almost as much context as the documentary itself. They make it clear that this project was an extensive undertaking, not a casual discovery.
At times, though, the research was frustrating.
"One of the questions I asked pretty much everyone I interviewed was, 'Who was the first guitar band?'" Pirozzi said. "Consistently everyone said Baksey Cham Krong."
And that's where things stalled. Pirozzi couldn't find a Baksey Cham Krong record anywhere, yet it increasingly seemed like the film would be missing a hugely important and influential sound without them.
"I think with the war and the Khmer Rouge and everyone's lives being completely upended, there's been a fog that's enveloped the whole culture," Pirozzi said. "Trying to look behind it has been really difficult."
'I saw the cover of my album for the first time in almost 40 years,' Mol said. 'I thought it had been forgotten forever.'
The turning point came when Pirozzi got a call from a Khmer-American friend in Washington, DC. He'd just met a man named Mol Kagnol, who played guitar for a band called Baksey Cham Krong. Not only did Mol have original vinyl copies of his band's records, but he also had photographs.
A more subdued presence across our lunch table—though he perked up when the conversation turned to guitars—Mol had come upon the vinyl and photographs in a twist of fate not unlike the one that had graced Pirozzi. At a Cambodian embassy event in DC, Mol ran into a guy who mentioned he had three Baksey Cham Krong vinyls. He offered to give them to Mol on one condition: After they were remastered, he wanted some copies.
"I saw the cover of my album for the first time in almost 40 years," Mol said. "It was kind of… I was almost in tears."
He continued: "It's just amazing that John brings the story up. I'm kind of surprised. I thought it had been forgotten forever."
Seang, his voice growing scratchy, seemed to prove Pirozzi right. The music had endured, there was a time before war and genocide. Throughout our lunch, Seang was often laughing or exclaiming as he remembered details from his glory days: In high school, he used to see Mol driving around Phnom Penh, "very fancy in his Mustang car."
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Mol, it turns out, had been a sort of inspiration/mentor to Seang in their youth. Both men came from wealthy, fairly outward-looking families, which allowed them to play music, granting them both access and permission.
"The music scene [in Phnom Penh]—everybody knew everybody," Pirozzi said.
Mol told me about the time Sinn Sisamouth, who features prominently throughout Don't Think I've Forgotten as a forefather to Cambodian pop, came over to borrow a microphone from his father. After seeing how reverentially interview subjects talk about Sisamouth in the film, I was impressed—it would be like having Frank Sinatra over because he needed to use your washing machine.
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Seang was similarly well off. After he scored well on his end-of-year exams, Seang's parents bought him his first guitar—a Yamaha—for a whopping 10,000 riel. "That's almost one motorcycle!" Seang said, his voice cracking in excitement. "I keep the guitar because [in] the whole city, no one [had] a good guitar like me."
Both of their parents let them play music on one condition: They couldn't become professional musicians. And the arrangement was, for the most part, fine with Seang and Mol—music was for play, not work.
Many of the musicians featured in the documentary, including Mol and Seang, were influenced by records and films brought in by Western diplomats and the American military occupying Vietnam and, later, Cambodia itself. They taught themselves to play by listening to bands that ranged from the poppy British instrumental group the Shadows to the Beatles, to Carlos Santana.
It had been more than 40 years since Mol and Seang had seen each other, but stories came back to them easily, the details clear. After Baksey Cham Krong disbanded for college, Mol kept up his involvement in the music scene by offering guidance. He also produced the record for Seang's band, Drakkar, in a makeshift studio inside Mol's family's home. For soundproofing, Pirozzi explained, "They put carpet on the wall."
"I didn't expect to sing myself because my voice is unique. It's not like other singers," Seang said, gesturing to the old friend sitting across from him. "He was the one who said, 'No, your voice is unique. Keep it!'"
"I miss him," Seang said, energetic but sad, looking back at me. He turned to Mol. "Why don't you want to come back to Cambodia?" he asked, and Mol shrugged.
An epilogue to the documentary might include what Mol did after he left Cambodia, just a few months before Pol Pot led an army of communist guerrilla fighters into the capitol and drove its citizens out. Having given up the rock-star life, per his parents' wishes, to pursue structural engineering at university and then become a helicopter pilot for the (soon-to-fall) American-backed Cambodian government during the civil war, Mol arrived in San Antonio, Texas, in 1975.
He was in Fort Eustis, Virginia, for a test-pilot course, when the Khmer Rouge seized power. After completing the course, Mol was stuck in America with no way to contact his family, most of whom, he later found out, were "left behind and killed." With about $300 in his pocket, he turned to the thing he had promised to never do professionally in order to make a living.
"When I got out of the army base, nothing was valid anymore," Mol said. "I couldn't find any work. My skills, my diploma, my credentials weren't valid any more. The only thing valid was a guitar."
Don't Think I've Forgotten is playing in theaters now.
Lauren Oyler is an editor at Broadly. Follow her on Twitter.