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Where the players go to play

On Phnom Penh’s diverse open mic scene, music, improvisation and community take centre stage. How about a round of applause?

At Riverside’s Paddy Rice bar, an Australian man in a white singlet plugged his Taylor acoustic guitar into the PA system and fingered a snappy blues line.

“Good evening everybody. It’s rock ’n’ roll from down under,” quipped Rocking Rob, as he is known, before launching into an original tune.

Meanwhile, a small audience of beer-sipping Cambodians and expats mostly stopped their chat to give the guy half an ear.

The scene was one that’s been repeated week in, week out at Paddy Rice’s Thursday night open mic, the longest-running of the many open mic events in Phnom Penh.

Sharky’s, Show Box, Alley Cat Cafe, and Sundance Inn all have their own.

“Each open mic has its own feel,” explained Anthony Mrugacz, the former general manager of the recently shuttered Equinox. Some, he said, are jammy, featuring a drum set and maybe a bass player.

Others are just singers with guitars. During his years at the Street 278 bar and live music venue, Mrugacz ran a popular monthly open mic.

“I was going for the Greenwich Village vibe. An intimate environment, with lights focused on the performer,” he said, referring to the 1960s New York folk scene.

The Greenwich Village vibe is also strong at the cozy Alley Cat Cafe, where one wall is covered in vintage Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin concert posters.

The Sunday night open mic there consists of a barstool and a mic stand set up so close to the bar a performer’s $1 beer is always at hand.

It is mostly singer-songwriters who perform there, like Joshua Chiang, 40, a freelance illustrator from Singapore.

Chiang, like many musicians, got his start performing at such open mics and now regularly gigs around town solo and also with his band Sonic Detergent.

Maria Lobato plays her Argentinian charango at Show Box.
Maria Lobato plays her Argentinian charango at Show Box. Kimberley McCosker

“As a musician, you just want to play regularly. The first thing that I did when I got here was find out whether there were any music venues.

I came across some of the venues that had all these open mic nights and I thought that was great, so I joined them.”

Joe Wrigley, 35, a songwriter and performer from England and host of the Paddy Rice open mic, also got his foothold in the music scene through open mics.

Today, his two projects, the rockabilly band Joe Wrigley and the Jumping Jacks and the Khmer acoustic pop duo Miss Sarawan, are common features on the Phnom Penh live music scene.

“A lot of people will come to the open mics who have no contacts, who don’t know anybody.

They can just walk into an open mic and meet musicians, you know? That’s the value of them for me.

The entry point for the music scene is always going to be open mics,” he said.

But those new musicians don’t always take the stage, said Scott Bywater, a longtime songwriter on the Phnom Penh scene who has run the Alley Cat Cafe open mic since 2013.

Newbies sometimes require some friendly encouragement. With his too-small Indiana Jones hat, five o’clock shadow and a glass of red wine, the native Tasmanian explained the nuances of open mic hosting.

“It’s about figuring out how to recognise the people who are here to play first, to figure out who looks like they’re itching to play, and to encourage people there who have not played since they were 16,” he said.

“I like to see it as a chance to develop people; to get them to push themselves; to learn new songs and to write; to get out the trumpet that they brought with them.”

While Bywater praised the variety of open mics in Phnom Penh, he wished that there was more diversity within the scene.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of middle-aged white guys. There’s just too many, proportionally.

"It’d be nice if there were more women or Cambodians on the stage, more people doing something unusual and different rather then just playing covers that they played the week before and the week before that,” he said.

One open mic in Phnom Penh where you’re likely to see a bit more diversity is the monthly event at Show Box, run by multi-instrumentalist Maria Lobato, 30, which is known for its experimental, freeform format.

With a tall American wearing a krama and playing a cover of Three Little Birds on his ukulele behind her, the jovial Argentinean said that, beyond entertainment, open mics act as a means of sharpening musicians’ skills.

“Open mics are these unique spaces where performers from different backgrounds come together and meld their sounds.

Improvisation is part of the training of a musician, and being able to do so on stage while experimenting with new music styles is paramount.”

Just then two men joined the tall American on stage. One came in with a drumbeat and the other started up a bass line. The crowd cheered.

“You end up creating new melodies with people perhaps you had never even seen before,” said Lobato. “It is a very powerful experience.”

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