It’s Friday night and Pub Street is hopping. But it’s not Katy Perry booming out of the Angkor What? bar. It’s a musical act that, while not quite home grown, was born out of Cambodia. It’s the Hardest Working Band in Siem Reap: Cambojam.
Most Reapers are well versed in the good-time tunes and party vibes of one of Temple Town’s best-loved bands. The five-some consists of a rather musical melting pot. Frontman KC is from the Philippines, Fabien and Bertrand on guitar and bass are from France, Philippe on drums is Belgian while the band’s only lady, Aya from Japan, works the keys. Plus there’s the honorary sixth member, Naky, the sound engineer and only Cambodian in the group.
“We’re an eclectic band playing acoustic and electronic international tunes, with international members. We always joke that Cambojam is made up of different ingredients,” says Fabien.
“We play songs that everybody knows,” says Philippe, “Pop, rock, funk, reggae, disco from the 60s and 70s until now. If you come for an evening, you know we’re going to be playing for three hours and it’s going to be a party.”
It’s this party element that makes Cambojam the hottest ticket in town. They’ve played at everything from the Facebook 1000 member party and the Handicraft Fair, to their own Pub St Open Mic Nights and private functions at five star hotels. But their in-demand status hasn’t always been easy for the members who, along with an array of other musical endeavours (members of Cambojam add to the line ups in Banned, Milo and the Siem Reap Jazz Orchestra among others,) have full time day-jobs.
“A year ago we were playing three or four nights a week and we lost our motivation. Everyone started to get bored. So for six months we didn’t play a single gig, until October,” says Fabien. “We finished that gig and we looked at each other and thought, okay, when is the next one?”
The original Cambojam line-up was put together in 2006. Fabien, lamenting the absence of a live scene in Siem Reap, advertised for musicians in the then Singing Tree Café. He joined forces with KC and other acoustic musicians, and
Cambojam was born. Since then members have come and gone, the sound has been amped up and electrified, and the present line-up has been going for a couple of years. “There is something special about these five people, that’s for sure,” says Fabien. “This is why we continue. When we play with Cambojam there is a certain ambience, an alchemy that we don’t have with other bands.”
Aya explains that the group is making plans for theme nights, where the band and the audience can dress up to match the vibe, whether it’s funk or disco, while Fabien describes their most fun gig as one that finished up in a hotel pool.
Even the more professional assignments lend themselves to a good time, “Two weeks ago we had a gig at Sofitel for a conference of 300 American radiologists,” explains Philippe, “During dinner we played easy listening. Then little by little we raised the tempo and the energy and they just started to dance. They were requesting songs, and it was good fun.”
But it’s the public gigs for which Cambojam are best known around town. “As long as we have fun, the audience has fun,” says Fabien.
These gigs have made them something of local celebrities, with Fabien describing how tuk tuk drivers shout “Mr Guitar” as he passes.
As I meet the group in the laid-back yet lavish surroundings of Heritage Suites Hotel, they are about to go on stage as collaborators at the regular Thursday jazz night. They’re fresh from an XBar gig which began as an impromptu jam but evolved to a mammoth musical get together.
This urge to collaborate is something close to the heart of the band. “There are so many musicians, so many collaborations and so many possibilities of improvisation that the night goes from one song to another to another. It’s great that way,” says Fabien.
For Bertrand in particular, it’s been his project to get the musicians of Siem Reap together, and extend that network throughout Cambodia. Already a Facebook group has been set up where musicians can easily make connections and arrange gigs. “We want to establish a proper base for musicians, both western and Cambodians, ” he explains.
Bertrand says that the Siem Reap music scene is getting more interesting and widening all the time. But the band’s next step it to broaden its reach, and Phnom Penh will do for starters. Bertrand says, “We’ve played FCC in Phnom Penh a few times and we’d like to extend out, so that for us will be the next step.”
And will all this success spur on original material? The group says while members have penned some tunes of their own, covers are the real bread and butter.
For now, Cambojam is happy just to be adapting classics to its own quirky style. The band’s signature tune, Expat in Siem Reap – a unique take on Englishman in New York that they ironically forgot to play at the expat party – is a big favourite around town.