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The cast of of Hanuman Spaceman (including Cambodian Space Project frontwoman Kak Chanthy in the blonde wig) gather during dress rehearsals
The cast of of Hanuman Spaceman (including Cambodian Space Project frontwoman Kak Chanthy in the blonde wig) gather during dress rehearsals. PHOTO SUPPLIED

A rumble in the jungle

The Cambodian Space Project’s ‘psychedelic jungle cabaret’ Hanuman Spaceman is set to be totally out of this world

A cross-cultural collection of musicians united by a love of 1960s psychedelic rock and fronted by a swaggering Cambodian diva, The Cambodian Space Project are a band well accustomed to being depicted as something of an oddity.

With that as a starting point, those looking to describe the group’s latest endeavour will be grasping at superlatives. Hanuman Spaceman, which will be performed on Friday and Saturday at the Kampot Traditional Arts School, is being billed as a “psychedelic jungle cabaret”.

In it, the cunning monkey god Hanuman embarks on a quest to become the first monkey on the moon. Journeying through post-apocalyptic landscapes, rural idyll and Cambodian rubber plantations, he meets a cast of strange characters – a mystical golden goose-swan, a host of unfriendly space monsters and the band itself, around whose music the narrative is crafted.

“It’s really a very linear piece of storytelling,” insisted guitarist Julien Poulson, speaking during a break from rehearsals earlier this week. “It’s a quest to understand oneself and one’s community – where [humanity] comes from as a group and where we might be going.”

Poulson, who assembled the Cambodian Space Project in 2009, was keen to point out that the journey is not just Hanuman’s. Weaved into his moon mission is the true story of lead singer Kak Chanthy’s rising star, from child labourer in rubber fields and exploited singer in karaoke bars to her current role as star of “her own space project” with the band. “She’s kind of a wily, shape-shifting monkey in her own right,” he said.

Poulson explained that conceptualising Chanthy’s life story as a mission into space wasn’t purely fantasy. “She’s become one of Cambodia’s most widely travelled individuals, possibly better travelled than the King himself,” he said.

For this project, Poulson and Chanthy, who is also known as Srey Thy, flew to Australia, where they spent a week brainstorming the concept of a “psychedelic jungle cabaret” with producer Harley Strumm and the project’s Brazilian director, Carlos Gomes. At that point, Gomes had never visited Cambodia, which Poulson saw as a plus. “Often you have people here – myself included – who have already immersed themselves into this impossible story of contemporary Cambodian history,” he said. “It’s fantastic to have somebody on board who is fairly neutral.”

The director arrived in Cambodia for the first time on October 13, having finished a show in Australia the day before. Speaking after he landed, he said he was looking forward to the intensity of the rehearsal period.

“Normally my projects can take up to three years to make, but here we have two weeks,” he said. “It’s like I’m in a rocket and I can’t go back. I have to land somewhere”

To ensure that the show makes it to the stage next weekend, Gomes and the team have enlisted a huge team of creative volunteers – some making costumes, props and puppets, others puzzling over how best to turn cyclos into giant birds.

The technical team is working on animations and deciding how best to stage a duet between Chanthy and a video projection of traditional singer Kong Nai – Kong, the “Cambodian Ray Charles”, has written a melody about space travel for the show.

Pupils at the Kampot Traditional Music School are learning musical accompaniments and dances, and practising their roles as a motley assortment of space monsters.

“We had to get the ball rolling using a translator to share the story and act it out,” Poulson said. “But I think space monkeys are kind of a universal phenomenon for kids.”

Hanuman Spaceman hopes to premiere officially at the Sydney Festival in January 2015, but Poulson said the fact that these early showings are a work in progress doesn’t make the run-up any less hectic. “Right now we’re at about a 6.5 on the mad scale, and of course that’s just a minor tremor – we’re expecting far bigger tremors along the way.”

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