When psychedelic rock music came to Southeast Asia via American GIs during the Vietnam War, it greatly influenced the music scene in Cambodia. Cambodian Rock Band, a new play running in Chicago through May 12 celebrates this resulting music that not only abruptly went away in 1975, but for the most part hasn’t been performed since then. Playwright Lauren Yee centers her story around the interaction of fictional band called The Cyclos with the very real person who directed the terror of the Tuol Sleng torture center, a former school that was converted in a prison during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Only seven people survived Tuol Sleng.
Duch, former math-teacher-turned-prison warden, is on trial for decades-old war crimes, the only such person to be tried for what happened back then. Neary, a young Cambodian-American woman working on the trial receives an unexpected visit from Chum, her father, a Cambodian immigrant. Neary is surprised that her father has returned to Phnom Penh after escaping in the late 1970s. The story flashes back to 1975 Cambodia and Chum’s dilemma just before the Khmer Rouge takes Phnom Penh and why he might wish to keep Duch from trial.
There story turns when Chum tells Neary why he stayed an extra week in Cambodia when he had the chance to leave: music.
Although the play is important and a haunting reminder of what happened in Cambodia just forty years ago and the United States’s role in it, it’s the music in the play that makes it special. The actors perform songs by an actual Los Angeles-based band named Dengue Fever. With some lyrics in English, but mostly in Khmer, the music of Dengue Fever sounds like US- and UK-influenced songs from the late 1960s, yet they all tell stories that center on Cambodia, both now and in the 1960s.
While the songs are integral to the play, “Cambodian Rock Band” isn’t a musical. That most of the songs are performed in Khmer lends the work verisimilitude. Yee—who, like David Henry Hwang, often writes plays with all-Asian characters, played by an all-Asian cast—is not set on catering to non-Asian audiences. She often writes plays with all-Asian characters, played by an all-Asian cast.
Dengue Fever also doesn’t Americanize its music, yet has developed a following around the US. It began in the early 2000s after keyboardist Ethan Holtzman spent six months in Southeast Asia and realized his brother, Zac, had discovered the same music from working at a San Francisco record store. The brothers recruited other band members, but still needed a sultry chanteuse to evoke the aura of pre-genocide Cambodia. They found their singer, Chhom Nimol, at a Cambodian nightclub in Long Beach, California. She had recently immigrated to the US from Cambodia after having spent much of her childhood in a Thai refugee camp. Chhom Nimol was impressed by the band’s interest in Cambodian music and that they wanted her to sing in Khmer. The band has been together since 2002 and has put out half a dozen albums since then.
Cambodian Rock Band premiered in Oregon in March of this year and over the next year will be performed in several cities on both American coasts. By sharing the music of that time, the playwright and the band preserve an art from a past also reminding the audience of one of the darker periods of recent human history.