|Street dancers show their moves at Phnom Penh’s Sisowat Quay. JOHN CLEWLEY|
It's been eight years since I last made a trip to Cambodia and had the chance to stock upon some Khmer sounds. Last week I was in Phnom Penh for a few days, and I must say, the capital is buzzing; it's a veritable hive of activity and commerce.
I went for a walk down Sisowat Quay on the banks of the Mekong at dusk one evening, always a good time to take photographs, and I thought for a moment that I had been transported back to Harajuku in Tokyo on a Sunday, when all the wannabe bands and poseurs play and strut to groups of dancing fans. Down on Sisowat the scene was bustling with groups of dancers, some doing aerobics to dance grooves, while other more exclusive groups focused on the latest K-Pop moves. People of all ages joined in the public groups or chatted while they watched the K-poppers.
In that area there are music stores but they don't sell Khmer music, so on Saturday morning I headed for the so-called Russian market, where among the tourist stalls and DVD shops, you can find vendors who have a good selection of different kinds of Khmer music. I stocked up on some Sin Sisamouth collections (the top musical icon of popular music), along with a compilation featuring his duets with top female singers from the '60s and '70s, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron. I found a tasty phleng kar (wedding song) collection, as well as songs by Meng Pichanda, who sings a local moody style, not unlike Thai luk thung music, called ramkbach, and some interesting Khmer rap.
Later I found myself in the back of a cyclo with one of Pan Ron's biggest fans, Srey Thy, singer with the new band The Cambodian Space Project and the band's founder and leader, Australian guitarist Julien Poulson. Srey, upon finding out that my son's relatives are from Buri Ram in Thailand's lower Northeast, launched into several stirring renditions of kantrum hits, which Cambodians call "Khmer Surin" music.
We were on our way to a birthday party for the band's Breton accordionist, during which I met the revolving personnel of this unusual music collective. The band plays covers of Khmer rock'n'roll from the late '60s to early '70, when Phnom Penh was a regional entertainment centre, but with a multinational twist. Many of the great Khmer musicians of the period perished during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime but interest was revived with the Cambodian Rocks compilations of the '90s, and then by the US-based Khmer/US band, Dengue Fever. Unlike Dengue, though, The Cambodian Space Project is actually based in Phnom Penh.
Julien said that he originally went to Cambodia to make some music documentaries but was so taken with the singing ability of Srey after he saw her sing in a karaoke bar, that he decided to set up a band. Cambodian, French-Cambodian and French members make up the rest of the band. Interest was generated immediately, not only among the expat population but also among local Cambodian music fans. In the just a year, the band has played over 200 gigs in Cambodia, as well gigs in France and Hong Kong. In the new year, the band will jet off for its first major tour that will encompass Australia, Europe and the US. Total world domination can't be far way.
The band's first recording has just been released, a 7" vinyl maxi-single that features, on the A-side, a killer version of Pan Ron's hit, I'm Unsatisfied. The B-side features a catchy song written by Srey called If You Go, I Come Too. Julien says that he noticed that Srey is a natural songwriter, so the band usually plays a mix of covers and self-penned songs. He says that the single is the first vinyl to be released in Cambodia since the early '70s.
Here's how he describes the global process: "The single was recorded in Cambodian at Cambodian Living Arts - a small studio which boasts a collection of mics donated by Peter Gabriel. It was mixed by Lindsay Gravina of Birdland Studios in Australia. The mixes were sent to London, then the masters sent via Rough Trade to the Czech Republic. We picked up our 'band copies' from a little record store in Bretagne, France called Rockin' Bones. A round-about kinda production but very rewarding to launch this vinyl in Cambodia... not too many turntables here but the vinyl's thick enough to mash chilli and chop vegetables in the village kitchen."
I've just heard an advance copy of the band's debut album, the title of which, in translation from the original Khmer goes something like The Moon's Apsara Rides The Cosmic Golden Swan-Goose. Groovy.
The album's standouts are a distinctive cover of Pan Ron's I'm Sixteen, which features some great blues harp and the two Srey penned songs, Kangaroo Boy (great for pogo-ing to and I predict will go down a storm in Australia) and Have Visa, No Rice. It's a fun album that is likely to raise the band's international profile.
The Cambodian Space Project is not the first band to rediscover and play '60s/'70s Khmer rock'n'roll but it is the first one based in Cambodia. If you liked all those great Cambodian Rock compilations and Dengue Fever, you'll certainly enjoy The Cambodian Space Project, several members of whom are stretching their wings to fly into Bangkok to play on Christmas Day.
The Cambodian Space Project play at the WTF Bar on Sukhumvit Soi 51 on Dec 25 at 9pm. For more information, call 02-662-6246.