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Q&A: Matthias Wagner

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By day, Matthias Wagner is an advisor to the Cambodian parliament. By night, he leads the Phnom Penh Hippie Orchestra, a world folk band with a rotating crew of members that plays frequently in the capital.

Matthias talked with 7Days about wrangling band members, the local hippie scene, and why he dislikes the term ‘expat.’

You came to Cambodia four years ago. Was it with the intention to form a band?

No, absolutely not. I came to Cambodia because I got a job in the Cambodian Parliament, in the Lower House. I had always wished to come to Cambodia and do development aid here. The first time I came to Cambodia was in 1996 and everything was completely different and much poorer back then. No asphalt roads, more tuk tuks, and less big cars.

Then, in 2001, I played with the German world folk band 17 Hippies in Berlin for one year. I really enjoyed the time with them and having gigs together, the music inspired me.

And when I went back to Cambodia I thought, well, this could work. You have so many different characters here, Cambodians and all those big-noses, it is all mixed together. It reminded me of a hippie community.

I have always liked jazz and boogie and I grew up with classic music so I brought all my music sheets from home and started looking for musicians here. That’s how it started. In March/April 2010, I founded the Hippie Orchestra.

Was it easy to find musicians here and to start the band?

There were challenges. First of all, you have good and bad musicians here and the range between them is big. A problem is also that some of them leave the country after one or two years.

Moreover, some musicians take drugs and it was impossible to rely on them. If they don’t show up for rehearsal, it doesn’t work. Another problem is that we don’t make money with the band. I told everyone from the beginning that we won’t be able to make our living with the music here. We make about $30 per gig. Thus people might not have that much commitment to rehearsal. If other things came up, they preferred them over the band.

If someone asks me before a gig how many musicians will be playing, I sometimes tell them between eight and 14. I have to organise a lot, run around, take care of the technical equipment, get the musicians together and tell them to actually come to the gigs. They sometimes just sit there, drink their beer and I even have to put up their music stand. Sometimes it really seems like a bunch of crazed hippies making music together. I literally kicked the violin case three times and I said I’ll quit. But I can’t.

Do you improvise a lot during gigs?

I had several jazz gigs where we neither practiced together nor agreed what we would actually perform, and we had to improvise. But it works if there is some sort of unspoken interaction between us, when we “breathe” together on stage, so to say.

Well, with the Hippies it is different, we have our sheets and we play them. It was difficult to teach some of the band members to play differently, to just let go, to play in a more unorthodox way. Initially, many of them played uninspired and neatly and I told them to let go of the classical music. I told them to just play around and let the fingers play naturally and that was hard for them to understand. Take the Khmer violinist – he used to stand there stark and stiff, without emotions while playing. I could accidentally nudge him and he’d even say thank you. Now he laughs and moves while playing and seems to have unbent. This is something the band has contributed to and that’s great to see. It is a positive side effect of the band.

How would you describe your audience?

Mostly “Barang”, which is the Cambodian expression for big-noses. And expats, although I don’t like that expression too much as it sounds arrogant. Let’s call them non-Cambodians. There are only very few, if any, Cambodians coming to our gigs because the pace of our music is simply too fast for them. I really don’t understand that. If you look at their weddings or other parties and the way people move to their slow music, it seemed to me almost like a competition between bassist and drummer in who will fall down first or who fill fall asleep first.

On you website you say your music is a good alternative to the popular Barang music in Phnom Penh. But most of you are Barang yourself and your audience as well.

We are simply the only band that makes this kind of music here. With the exception of maybe two professional jazz bands, other bands here play music you can hear on every corner. We are also unique in terms of our composition and the way we function and play together. Other bands in Phnom Penh usually have three, four or five members.

I just can’t stand this popular music, Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or even ACDC, whatever you hear in most of the bars in Phnom Penh. But when I listen to the same jazz song 50 times, played by 50 different bands, then I will hear 50 different songs. And that’s music that is alive. Although, during events like Open Mic in Phnom Penh, you meet some interesting musicians who can play some really good music.

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