‘Cambodian Rock Band’ is going to rock Houston

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In the 1960s and 1970s, a new kind of music emerged in Cambodia—a psychedelic garage sound that combined the country’s traditional music with elements borrowed from rock and pop records imported from the West. But just as the genre was really taking off, it was cut short, as artists like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea were killed by the Khmer Rouge during the genocide of the late ’70s. Just like that, a vibrant new chapter in rock history was brought to an abrupt end.

Yet Cambodian rock has experienced a revival in the 21st century. One band helping resurrect the sound is Dengue Fever, who formed in the early 2000s when keyboardist Ethan Holtzman traveled to Cambodia and learned about the country’s lost but not entirely forgotten mid-century rock scene. Returning to Los Angeles, Holtzman recruited his brother, Zac, and a Cambodian vocalist, Chhom Nimol, to perform some of those old songs. The band released their self-titled first album in 2003 to great acclaim.  

A few years later, upon hearing the music of Dengue Fever, playwright Lauren Yee set out to write a show exploring the history of Cambodian rock music and the events that lead up to the genre’s disappearance. The resulting musical, Cambodian Rock Band, uses original songs by Dengue Fever, Cambodian folk music, and 1960s and ’70s Cambodian rock to tell the story of the Khmer Rouge and its aftermath. Having premiered in California, the show eventually went Off Broadway. This Friday, January 20, it comes to Houston for a three-week run at the Alley Theatre. 

Joe Ngo in the Signature Theatre production of Cambodian Rock Band

Joe Ngo in the Signature Theatre production of Cambodian Rock Band

Joan Marcus

In part, the show is about restoring the legacy of the artists behind the movement. Though modern compilations like Cambodian Rocks and Singapore A Go Go introduced them to a new audience in the 1990s, many of these artists fell into obscurity before then, their music and name suppressed by Pol Pot’s communist government. “It was a period in Cambodia’s history that was authoritarian and brutal,” says Francis Jue, who plays Duch in this production (and won a Lortel for his performance in the role during its run at the Signature Theatre in 2020). “It was an attempt by the Khmer Rouge to start over, start fresh, with a pure society.”

Cambodian Rock Band tells the story of a Khmer Rouge survivor, Chum, returning to Cambodia for the first time in 30 years, as his daughter, Neary, prepares to prosecute a Cambodian war criminal. Told alternatively through modern-day events and flashbacks to the 1970s, the play features a live band on stage and uses the father-daughter relationship to address larger questions about who gets to tell the story of history.

“The play is both macro and micro in that way,” Jue says. “How do you trust the stories that your parents tell you? How do you know what really happened? Because history is only told by the victors, so when do we get to hear from the victims of history and their perspective on the story?”

Jue describes his role as Duch as an MC of sorts, and likens the character to Salieri in Amadeus or Joel Grey’s Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret. Like those characters, he says, Duch is a somewhat unreliable storyteller. “The more you peel layers of the story, the more you learn about who I am and how I’m related to the father and daughter as well.”

One of the issues the play addresses is why authoritarian governments often target artists and musicians first. The Cambodian musicians from the 1960s and ’70s were sharing music and their message through black market cassette tapes in order to evade government crackdowns, Jue says. “Part of what Lauren is exploring is the art of storytelling and the role of artists in a society,” he says. “They’re the truth tellers.”

“Every culture in the world has music—it’s like the most direct connection to our soul, to our actual definition of ourselves, and how we express ourselves. And I love that, in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Cambodians were showing us how much we all have in common, how much the human spirit has in common with one another, from people all over the world, because they related to that music the way that we do.”

The full band in the Signature Theatre production of Cambodian Rock Band

The full band in the Signature Theatre production of Cambodian Rock Band

Joan Marcus

It’s a theme that persists today as Nationalism sees a global resurgence, Jue says. “(Audiences) may recognize some of the things that we’re talking about. There are those tendencies and impulses, that kind of nationalism that exists today around the world, where people are feeling like things are changing and things are not going the way that they want.”

Performing the play at the Alley is also significant, Jue believes, because of regional theater’s role in holding local politicians and other people of power to account. The Alley, one of the oldest resident theaters in the United States, is the first stop on a year-and-a-half-long tour for Cambodian Rock Band. “It’s difficult to imagine a time when every major city didn’t have tentpole theater companies that were part of a city’s pride, part of a state’s pride,” he says.

Though both Jue and Yee are Chinese, the play’s lead, Joe Ngo, is Cambodian, and helped workshop the story with Yee, who incorporated some of his family’s history into the storyline. Still, Jue thinks the themes of the play are universal, especially for children of immigrants. “It’s a very personal show for so many of us because we are very aware of our family’s immigrant backgrounds,” he says. “It’s just a show that feels like I’m talking with family a lot of the time. The play, while it deals with a lot of really serious things in history, is also incredibly funny, as families are.”

“It’s all wrapped up in a bow with the music,” Jue says. “There’s this radical idea that even during the worst examples of human history, joy can be a really revolutionary act. Music and love can be the most progressive things you can do.”

Cambodian Rock Band runs from Friday, January 20 until Sunday, February 12 at The Alley Theatre.



 



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