With a packed schedule of tour dates in Hong Kong and Macau beginning on Friday, one could be forgiven for expecting the Cambodian Space Project to use the fortnight’s grace between their last show at Mao’s and their departure to relax and rest up.
To do so would be underestimating the work ethic of singer Chanthy Kak and guitarist Julien Poulson, the founding members and driving force behind the experimental, at times psychedelic, Phnom Penh-based rock band.
A few days before their next overseas jaunt, in addition to the unrelenting grind of small labours and promotional legwork of all independent bands, the pair has planned a morning of cassette tape shopping up around Kampuchea Krom Boulevard, in anticipation of a mixtape of criminally forgotten Cambodian ’60s rock ’n’ roll that Chanthy is compiling.
The style and aesthetic of what is now referred to as Cambodian rock’s “Golden Era” is a major inspiration for CSP’s compositions, performances and even retro-inspired concert posters, and I’ve invited myself to tag along and learn a bit from the frontwoman’s pickings.
When I meet Julien and Chanthy at one of BKK1’s ubiquitous cafés early in the morning, the pair are bent over a Mac, engrossed in video clips giving demonstrations of loop pedals, a piece of equipment not currently a part of the CSP’s repertoire.
“We’re doing a few stripped down shows on this trip, ones where we can’t have the full band up on stage,” Julien explains. “So we’re trying to figure out ways of making a bigger sound when we can’t all play together.”
Chanthy’s younger brother, a tuk-tuk driver, has been conscripted into carting us around for the day. On the slow haul up to Kampuchea Krom, Chanthy casually reflects some of the places to which she’s recently travelled.
“London’s very nice, but very expensive … China I don’t like so much. Everyone talks loudly like they’re angry, even when they’re not!” she laughs.
We arrive at one open air shop a few blocks west of Monivong Boulevard, where Julien is on the hunt for a prop to include in an afternoon photo shoot. Inside, stacked up against the side of one wall, is an assortment of stereos. Some look like they’ve just rolled off the production line in Taiwan, others like they went obsolete before the Berlin Wall came down.
Finally, Chanthy fishes out a hidden cassette player, red and white in the livery of Hello Kitty. “I think that’s the one!” Julien says.
Around the corner, we’re taken to a pair of outdoor vendors, each with a shelf stacked with cassettes. A trio of military police officers eyes the three of us warily – each have taken their lunch break to have rock ’n’ roll mixtapes compiled by the vendor and slip away guiltily soon after our arrival.
This service, costing a little more than the 2000 riel tapes on offer, is performed on a while-you-wait basis by the vendors, who recline atop a stack of positively ancient recording gear.
Chanthy picks out a couple of tapes that she deems a suitable introduction to the golden age of Khmer rock ’n’ roll, as well as half a dozen new ones for her voluminous collection, and we retire for lunch.
As Julien and the driver devour their soup, Chanthy thumbs through her new purchases.
“This one is about girls with bob haircuts,” she says, pointing at the portrait of a striking woman in Apsara costume. “It’s a Twist song, you know…” and starts humming the melody. The Twist is often referred to by music historians as the first worldwide dance craze; little do they know how worldwide, and enduring, it truly was.
One of my new acquisitions is a collaborative album between Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Sinn Sisamouth, three of the leading ’60s acts in Cambodia and pioneers of rock influences in the country.
Sereysothea is perhaps best known internationally for her sultry cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary, but in this case the trio have teamed up to put words and music to some of the legends of the Angkorian Kingdom.
It’s quite an incongruous departure for three of the country’s biggest acts at the time, who had each made their name by praising the virtues and incorporating the styles of contemporary western acts.
“So it’s kind of like their Sergeant Peppers?” I venture.
“That’s a good way of looking at it,” Julien says. “They were very progressive, they would have been aware of those albums as they came out.”
These three titans of Cambodian music all met the same unfortunate fate during the Khmer Rouge, but their output went unhindered by the preceding Lon Nol regime, at a time when the country became increasingly in thrall to the psychedelia and soul music that coloured the early 1970s in the West.
Julien speaks excitedly of first discovering these Western rock influences through Chanthy’s efforts to educate him.
“Shocking Blue from Holland, Ike and Tina Turner a lot, right up until the Khmer Rouge rolled into town,” Julien says. “Then they banned music, of course, but they couldn’t keep it banned. So they produced their own music and made a group of propaganda singers. There’s actually a catalogue of Khmer Rouge-produced songs that they’ve just re-released. I can’t see it racing up the charts at the moment, to be honest!”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]