Rock, Roll, and Rebellion

Sep 14, 2015 by Pedro Lopez DeVictoria on The Nickelodeon Blog

The rock show is the most absurd and illogical ritual in our society. From a purely Vulcan standpoint, people gain nothing from standing in a big mass, uncomfortably close to each other, as their vulnerable ears are irreversibly damaged by the unkempt objects of their worship. Furthermore, this garish display compels the enraptured crowds to gyrate and twist in grotesque patterns to these jaunty wavelengths, victims of “the groove”. And yet, it remains a true cornerstone of human culture ever since its inception in the American south of the 40’s. People have defied conservative norms, challenged racial barriers, and even risked their lives, all in the name of this “Rock and Roll”.

“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia‘s Lost Rock and Roll” is a documentary where the sacred right to rock is under attack. The players, here as ever, are a constant: oppressive powers bent on cultural erasure v. the artists who fight to protect these fundamental bastions of that which makes us so weird and so human.
Local journalist Porter Baron remembers well what the aftermath of that sort of warfare can look like from his days working for a notorious Phnom Penh publication, The Cambodia Daily—“a small rag, but a pit bull,” as he describes it. With the catchphrase “All News Without Fear or Favor”, it’s no question why the authoritarian government is not the biggest fan of their work. As he delved into this world, he found a damaged cultural landscape holding only distant memories of a “Golden Era”—before the generationally-scarring genocide orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-70’s. “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” takes us right into that era, where rock and roll invaded Cambodia and revolutionized their youth culture. As Baron discovered, and the documentary argues, the strongest and most beautiful memories came from these jaunty wavelengths.

Cambodian band Baksei Cham Krong.

Cambodian band Baksei Cham Krong.

“The survivors of the older generation would smile and sing along whenever these old rock and roll songs would come on . . . . It proved to me that these are the rituals we need to heal, to rejoice, to be thankful. Resilience. That’s it.”
This cautionary tale is full of martyrs, manifestations of resistance, facing a government who wished to steal a generation’s freedom, art, and spirit, in order to control the future. Targeting the musicians is not a rare aim in the playbook of the oppressors. In fact, it’s still happening today. For example, in Mali, two-thirds of the country is controlled by Islamic extremists who have placed a ban on all Western or non-religious music (though some could argue mind-blowing guitar solos are the purest portals to true divine experience). However, there are musicians who refuse to let another Golden Era slip away, and are pushing forward, leading with their brave resilient bliss and a four-count.

Perhaps this demonstrates that there is truly nothing that can ever completely eradicate the music. Maybe it’s some inevitable step in cultural evolution—the discovery of fire and drop-D tuning, the revelations of heliocentrism and crowd-surfing.

Baron ends on a positive note as he recalls visiting a lonesome rural beer garden close to the Thai border. After only hearing mostly K Pop on the radio, and seeing nothing but karaoke machines as bar entertainment during his long stay, something caught him by surprise. A few older gentlemen took the stage with guitars, drums, and amps. After a quick count-off, they hit it—performing the spirited Cambodian rock and roll of days past, lighting up the atmosphere with that absurd and illogical ritual. And despite the current corruption, oppression, and bleakness that afflicts modern-day Cambodia, I have no doubt that, for just a moment, that Pai Lin pub was unmistakably and brilliantly Golden.

—Pedro Lopez De Victoria, Programming Coordinator