Friday, April 13, 2007

Cambodian rock revival

I've brought you all the detail in this Associated Press article over the last few months, but its worth including here, just to capture it again.

LA band, filmmakers revive nearly forgotten Cambodian rock by The Associated Press

The jubilant sound of Cambodian rock, nearly destroyed in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge, is making a comeback. Several American musicians and filmmakers who were captivated by the music have formed a band, gone on tour and made movies to preserve the once vibrant genre that was formed during the Vietnam War era when Cambodian artists blended the sounds of American pop heard on U.S. military radios with their traditional music. "It's pretty incredible that somehow Cambodian musicians got rock 'n' roll right during the late 1960s and '70s," said documentary maker John Pirozzi, whose film Don't Think I've Forgotten, is about the emergence of Cambodian rock and the fate of some of its iconic stars.
The music is a mix of surf and psychedelic rock combined with the distinctive melodies and soaring vocal styles of Cambodian folk music. "Outside of the United States and England, there was no good rock 'n' roll elsewhere in the world, but they managed to make it their own and make it into something unique," Pirozzi said.
When the Khmer Rouge ruled from 1975-79, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from starvation, overwork, medical neglect and execution in the notorious killing fields. Artists and intellectuals were deemed enemies of the classless society the brutal regime was trying to create. Cultural and performing arts institutions were closed, instruments and records burned. Singers who could not flee were killed or forced to sing propaganda songs. Some surviving musicians said they went to great lengths to hide their identities in labor camps.
The country's most popular female singer Ros Sereysothea died mysteriously during those years, and even today no one knows for sure what happened to her. Her life is the subject of the short film The Golden Voice. "I got enthralled by the music, it was like nothing I've ever heard before," said the film's director Greg Cahill. "It sounds like '60s American rock but with a totally different spin on it." Cahill said he learned about Sereysothea by interviewing many killing fields survivors who resettled in Long Beach, home to the country's largest Cambodian community. He wrote his script in English, had it translated to Khmer, hired a Cambodian cast and shot the movie in the Los Angeles area. The movie premiered in Long Beach, California in October and was warmly received by a mostly Cambodian audience. "A lot of people said they were happy we made the film because it's telling this very important story that's been buried," he said.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever is introducing Cambodian rock to an eclectic audience as it tours college campuses and hipster venues, and performs in Cambodian communities across the country and abroad. The band was formed in 2001 by Ethan Holtzman, who discovered the music while traveling across Cambodia. He returned home and recruited his brother Zac, three other Americans and a Cambodian-born singer to help him cover some of the infectious pop and rock tunes he heard on his trip. "I traveled all over Southeast Asia, but Cambodia really stood out from the other countries because of its history and what its people had been through," Holtzman said. "I came back wanting to pay respect to the fallen musicians and their body of work." The band's most memorable show took place in late 2005 in a shantytown outside Phnom Penh where the musicians collaborated with a group of students. The trip is the subject of another documentary by Pirozzi, called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. "It was an emotional day," recalled bassist Senon Williams. "These kids knew all the old songs, and we were able to jam together even when we didn't speak the same language."
Back home, they're attracting a new generation of Cambodians raised in the United States. At a recent show in Santa Monica, a large group of Cambodian college students crowded near the stage, shouting for the band to play some of its favorite tunes. They cheered when guitarist Zac Holtzman sang in Khmer, then spontaneously formed a traditional Cambodian dance circle and curled their hands in fanlike motion. Thary Duong, a 21-year-old UCLA student, said she grew up in California listening to alternative rock and recently discovered Dengue Fever." I see this as being something completely American because it's so hip," she said, "but it's taking from the roots of Cambodia."

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