A word from Big Mike in NY welcoming Drakar Band on their first US tour.

I am back in New York City waiting for the legendary Drakkar Band, the original hard rock, psychedelic Band from Cambodia, to arrive in NYC next week. They are playing their first U.S. Tour by any Cambodian Band and will play in 2 shows at the City Winery in Soho, New York on 24 April followed by performances in New Jersey, Lowell, Massachusetts, and in Maryland, right near Washington D.C.

Drakkar is in the U.S. to support the Documentary about Khmer Rock and Roll music, produced by the American film maker John Pirozzi (City of Ghosts) and will begin its New York Screening on 22 April at the New York Film Forum. Drakkar has asked me to work with them while they are in the U.S. and it will be my pleasure to do so.

As most of you know, Drakkar Band played their last Gig prior to their U.S. Tour at Sharky Bar on 27 March to a fully packed House. It was an incredible and moving Concert.

The following is an article which will be published on 12 April in The New York Times newspaper re: Pirozzi’s film and the critique of this now Cult Film.

It will be my pleasure to host Drakkar while they are in New York City as Khmer musical history is being made.

Please wish the Band luck in the U.S. for the first Music Tour EVER by any Khmer Band. I am happy to be a part of it….

Mike Hsu
Sharky Bar Cambodia​

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Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,’ a Documentary, Revives Cambodia’s Silenced Sounds

By BEN SISARIO APRIL 9, 2015

For proof of the universality of rock ’n’ roll, look no further than Cambodia in the 1960s and ’70s. Even there, young people picked up electric guitars and studied Mick Jagger’s moves, melding Eastern melody with Western groove in ways that are still strikingly fresh.

Yet in one of the 20th century’s most extreme examples of the effects of politics on popular culture, Cambodia’s pop scene — along with virtually every other manifestation of modern society there — was brutally stamped out with the 1975 arrival of the Khmer Rouge, whose nearly four-year reign led to the deaths of 1.7 million people.

Since then, pre-Khmer Rouge pop has survived in fragments, but the history behind it has remained frustratingly incomplete. Now, after a decade of research by an American filmmaker, John Pirozzi, that history has been told thoroughly in “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll,” which opens at Film Forum in Manhattan on April 22.

Through grainy clips of bell-bottomed rockers and tearful contemporary interviews, the film traces the original music and its unlikely resilience, fitting into a niche of heart-stirring music documentaries like “Searching for Sugar Man” and “20 Feet From Stardom.”
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Albums by Cambodian pop stars before the takeover of the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

“I wanted to show that this music would endure beyond everything it had been put through,” Mr. Pirozzi said. “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.”

The development of Cambodia’s pop mirrored its postwar political situation. After almost a century under French control, the country became independent in 1953, and its music took shape with French, American and Latin influences; Sinn Sisamouth, Cambodia’s most revered star, emerged in this era as a cosmopolitan crooner in the Khmer language.

The 1960s brought a pop golden age, as performers like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea, the most famous female singer, embraced rock ’n’ roll. Later, with an increased American presence from the Vietnam War — in 1969 the United States began bombing Cambodia, then a neutral country — harder-edged rock and soul flourished. The progress ended in April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh, the capital, and essentially turned the nation into a vast prison camp.

In “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,” that troubled history is the backdrop for a rich musical cast, most of which perished in the Khmer Rouge period. It includes Yol Aularong, a charismatic proto-punk who mocked conformist society, and women like Ros Serey Sothea, the nation’s sweetheart; Pen Ran, her worldly, wisecracking foil; and Pou Vannary, who warbled a bilingual version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

The music they made remains treasured not only by Cambodians but also by rock connoisseurs around the world, for a spunky inventiveness that now, in retrospect, makes Cambodia seem a sparkling outpost of world pop.
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John Pirozzi, the director of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.” Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

One of Mr. Pirozzi’s finds is the band Baksey Cham Krong, which played an innocently romantic brand of surf-rock and is considered Cambodia’s first guitar group. Its origin, in 1959, could be that of any garage band anywhere: A group of teenagers cobbled together instruments, rehearsed in an empty apartment and copied their stage moves from a movie — in their case, “The Young Ones” from 1961, featuring Cliff Richard and the Shadows.

“We are just like everybody else,” Mol Kagnol, 69, the band’s lead guitarist, recalled in a telephone interview from his home in Arizona. “We have electric guitars. We can jump, we can dance, we can be happy. The Khmer Rouge destroyed all of that.”

Mr. Mol Kagnol, who eventually joined the American-backed military in Cambodia, was in the United States for pilot training in 1975 when the country collapsed. At least 20 members of his family died in the conflict, he said. “I feel both lucky and sorry at the same time.”

Baksey Cham Krong, with three original members — including Mr. Mol Kagnol and his brother, Mol Kamach, the singer — will perform in a concert connected to the film at City Winery in Manhattan on April 24. Members of Drakkar, a hard-rock band that released its sole album in 1974, have also been booked but at press time were awaiting visas. A brief tour is also planned.

Mr. Pirozzi came to this music by chance. In 2001, he worked on Matt Dillon’s film “City of Ghosts,” which was shot in Cambodia. A friend gave the filmmaker a copy of the album “Cambodian Rocks,” a bootleg compilation from 1996 that has become a collector’s classic — and, with no identifying credits at all, established a lasting aura of mystery around the music.

Members of Drakkar rehearsing for a United States tour. Credit Hannah Reyes for The New York Times (Hannah and I attended a Rehearsal of Drakkar Band in preparation for the Sharky Bar Gig and for their upcoming U.S. Tour)

Fascinated, Mr. Pirozzi began investigating the history, at first with little luck. A breakthrough came when he gained access to films made by King Sihanouk, the country’s arts-loving leader, including a trove of vintage performances that are woven into “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten.”

“I was blown away,” Mr. Pirozzi said in his cramped editing studio on Lower Broadway, as groovy Cambodian guitars wafted from a speaker. “Everyone told me I wasn’t going to find anything, and here I was sitting in Phnom Penh watching it.”

To find musicians and other sources, Mr. Pirozzi was helped by Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, whose work as a genocide researcher gave him an extensive network of contacts.

Among those they found was Sieng Vanthy, a young singer in the 1970s who is seen in clips dressed like Cher and dancing like a wild Grace Slick. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking interviews, Ms. Sieng Vanthy — her face frozen by a stroke — says she survived an encounter with Khmer Rouge soldiers only by telling them she was a banana seller, not a singer. She died in 2009.

“The Khmer Rouge understood the value of the artists and their connection to the larger public,” Mr. Pirozzi said. “They’re the voice of the people. You can’t control them, so you eliminate them.”
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An early poster for Drakkar. Credit Hannah Reyes for The New York Times

Touch Seang Tana, of Drakkar, has another chilling survival story. In a Skype interview from Cambodia, where he is a scientist, he recalled being summoned by a soldier at a prison camp who had a guitar. “Do you know any imperialist songs?” the soldier asked him. Terrified, he played Santana’s hit “Oye Como Va” and briefly earned that man’s favor before a group of hardened new soldiers arrived.
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story

“They started to kill people,” Mr. Touch Seang Tana said. “Me, I was almost killed many times. Luckily, I escaped.”

The survival of the original music is something of a mystery in itself. Most records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period. But many songs were copied to cassette, and those tapes, and later CDs, have circulated widely in Cambodia and immigrant enclaves around the world, often in remixed and sped-up versions.

“There is a whole generation of diaspora-born Cambodians who grew up listening to their parents listening to this music,” said Khatharya Um, an associate professor of Asian-American and Asian diaspora studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Yet while pieces of the history have been collected over the years, no thorough study exists, and even basic documentation has been scarce. Mr. Pirozzi said that for years he had been told about Baksey Cham Krong but had no idea what the band looked or sounded like until he found Mr. Mol Kagnol, whose photographs of the band in action are featured in the film.
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The singer Ros Serey Sothea. Credit Ros Sabouen

Among Western listeners, the music has a different history. “Cambodian Rocks” was one of the first in what has come to be an avalanche of esoteric reissues that now includes, for example, Thai, Iranian, Turkish and Peruvian psychedelic rock. Dengue Fever, a California band whose singer, Chhom Nimol, is Cambodian, has also been paying tribute to pre-Khmer Rouge rock for more than a decade, reaching alternative and world-music fans.

Dust-to-Digital, an Atlanta record label known for its scholarly approach to gospel and folk, is releasing the soundtrack to “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten.” Lance Ledbetter, its founder, sees the explosion of this music as representative of the ever-expanding tastes of curious listeners.

“So many of the genres we are familiar with have been mined so many times,” Mr. Ledbetter said. “The mines are getting more bare. The search is extending out, and I think that’s a good thing. We’re able to learn about and hear music now that you never even knew existed.”

The soundtrack to “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” uses 20 original, unremixed recordings, many restored from extremely rare vinyl copies.

For Cambodians, of course, the music is no mere curiosity, and Mr. Pirozzi said that at early screenings of “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,” he has been confronted by numerous young people who said, tearfully, that they now finally understood their parents’ generation.

Mr. Youk Chhang, of the Documentation Center, is an executive producer of the film, and he called the project a way to understand the culture that preceded and survived the country’s genocide.

“This is a completely different way to tell the history than about prison, about killing, about tribunals,” he said. “It restores the missing part of us, the identity of who we are.”