"To Destroy You is No Loss"

The endurance of Cambodian pop culture


Over 30 years ago, a murderous army of communist fanatics in Cambodia known as the Khmer Rouge took command of a nation, and tried to destroy a world. In the attempt, they murdered around 1.5 million people—maybe a million more, or maybe a few hundred thousand less.

The value of any one human life may be incalculable. But in the chaos of the state-sponsored killing fields, it's hard to get an accurate count of just how many died. People were marked for starvation or elimination for being educated or wealthy, for being religious, working in a skilled profession, or representing anything other than the bare equality in agricultural sufficiency that the Cambodian communists thought should exemplify the "new people" they wanted to create.

The Khmer Rouge did bloodily carve their name, and that of their leader Pol Pot, into a lead position in the 20th century's roll call of ideologically motivated villainy. Still, they ultimately failed in their attempt to destroy utterly the culture of pre-"Year Zero" bourgeois Cambodia.

Two movies shown together last week at a "Cambodian Rock Night"—across the Pacific Ocean from Cambodia in Los Angeles—each herald the Khmer Rouge's failures. Everyone gathered at the Hollywood Blvd. nightclub the Knitting Factory—about a third of them of Cambodian ancestry, now living in Southern California—would assuredly have ended their days in sickness and starvation in a Khmer Rouge work camp had they gotten their hands on us, for general bourgeois decadence, if nothing else.

The first was a documentary, Sleepwalking through the Mekong. It chronicled a recent trip through Cambodia by the Los Angeles rock band archly named Dengue Fever, after a tropical disease once endemic in Southeast Asia.

The band plays their own versions of old Cambodian pop rock songs. Only one, their female lead singer Chhom Nimol, is ethnically Cambodian. She was already something of a singing sensation in Cambodia—the band found her in the hotbed of Cambodian refugees and their descendants in Long Beach, California. Cambodian rock of the '60s and '70s was a frantic and vivid music that arose to some degree from native reaction to the surf and pop music they began to hear on radio broadcast from U.S. military bases in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

This Cambodian rock has manic, frantic drive with alternating flashes of light and darkness, reminiscent of mutant exoticized surf music and/or a fantasized '60s spy movie soundtrack about Cambodian spies adventuring in the West—an instant concentrate of the sort of sexy grooviness that the Austin Powers movies tried to capture, but not half as well as these songs. (When Dengue Fever plays them, at least in the movie, a layer of archival dust occasionally settles over this crazily bright music.) The sound, whether on vinyl or in person in nightclubs, exemplified individualism, cultural pluralism, markets, urbanity, the quest for fun, romance—trappings of educated bourgeois life that the Khmer Rouge despised and wanted to see eradicated from the earth.

Sleepwalking was shot by John Pirozzi, who is wrapping up a fuller documentary history of the Cambodian rock n' roll that Dengue Fever pay tribute to, to be called Don't Think I've Forgotten. You see and hear Dengue Fever playing dark nightclubs and bright temples, traveling through cities with wide boulevards and cheery colors filled with small motorbikes, often weighed down with produce. They visit schools dedicated to keeping alive the art of playing certain exotic Cambodian instruments for which only handfuls of masters survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields; they write new songs with Cambodian lyrics, helped by a tuktuk driver.

Being American intellectuals, the band members themselves wonder about their right to play this music, to appropriate Khmer culture as rank outsiders. They ultimately seem to decide—rightly—that those distinctions are meaningless when it comes to music and culture.

Pirozzi captures a young Cambodian who, after seeing these emissaries from across the ocean bring his nation's culture, marked for death, back to life in front of him, says that it was "psychologically healing." And a teacher from a music school notes that though she knew they were foreigners in front of her playing Khmer songs, she detected no class difference—they were all equal.

Not in the Pol Pot sense of forcing everyone into a mold of grim enforced equality of misery and deprivation, with all who might rise above in education or wealth whittled down violently, but rather, equality in a spiritual and intellectual community of affection for humans' loving creations, across nations and time.

A short biopic of the queen of Cambodian pop-rock, Ros Sereysothea, was also shown. Originally a singer of traditional Khmer music, she later adopted the tough garage-psych sound that characterizes the best-remembered Cambodian rock of the time. Her popularity reached from peasants to the royal family, whose King Norodom Sihanouk dubbed her "The Golden Voice of the Royal Capital"—thus the film's title, The Golden Voice.

The movie, written and directed by American Greg Cahill, is artless in some respects. The almost fable-like stark simplicity of its scene-setting and storytelling do have their own peculiar strengths. Its visual and verbal shorthand are more redolent of the graphic novel than what's typically expected from film drama. The film tries to summon a life and a cultural tragedy in miniature; Cahill hopes he will eventually tell Sereysothea's story in a full-length biopic.

It begins with Sereysothea, played by Sophea Pel, entertaining in a lavish nightclub when she is carted off by soldiers; the ballroom elegance is instantly contrasted with the desiccated grimness of a dirty, sparse field in which people creep listlessly through agricultural drudgery; voices hector them through loudspeakers.

The film's version of Khmer Rouge evil is almost Randian; shown as arising from a stunted, petty, bitter resentment of anyone who has achieved anything grander than picking at vegetation or threatening people with a gun; anyone who ever ate a meal better than they had eaten, enjoyed a moment more elegant and lovely than they had enjoyed. The narrative ends with Sereysothea bullied by the Communists into singing colorless cadre songs for the delectation of slaves in a field; whether she'll give in is left unresolved.

"To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss" was adopted as an official slogan of sorts by the Cambodian communists to refer to the urbanites and moderns they wanted annihilated. Both these films show that ghoulish phrase for the hideous lie it is. Both films ended with title cards about how, though the Khmer Rouge managed to kill many specific people, the victims' spirit and accomplishments live on.

That can seem like the sort of banality people mutter to quiet inner voices of outrage and pain. But the truth in it is the basis of all human civilization: we can send signals from our brains and hearts across generations and across nations. Whether murdered by fanatical advocates of evil ideologies or not, we will all end up dead. But not all of us will have people singing our songs, and our praises, decades after we're gone. That Ros Sereysothea, who disappeared mysteriously under Khmer Rouge control, achieved that is proof enough that the Khmer Rouge failed.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.