Gabi Faja, 33, is an Italian musician who lived in London for 12 years, studying at the Royal College of Music and running a music promotion business. He has always been musical; his father was a conductor and his mother a cellist. He stumbled across Cambodia when travelling the world and never left, establishing The Piano Shop on Phnom Penh’s Street 13, which he now co-runs with his partner, professional opera singer Ai Iwasaki. He spoke to Emily Wight about how he founded The Piano Shop, who his customers are and the blossoming role of the piano in Cambodian music.
Many people might well view the piano as a traditionally European instrument. Where do you see the role of the piano in Cambodian music?
The appeal of traditional Cambodian music is slowly being replaced by a fusion, so something along the lines of early K-Pop: Korean styles being put together with Western beats. I know for a fact that many songwriters are now writing in Western styles, using themes from Cambodian music. The electric keyboard or the piano can be used for composition for all songwriting, and is a lot more flexible than the guitar.
What does this mean for the future of Cambodian music?
It’ll play a big part in Cambodian fusion music. You can see it now, what with the 1960s rock revival with Cambodian Space Project, The Underdogs and all sorts of other bands using keyboards. You can see that they’re using a particular organ sound that they used in the 1960s and that’s already coming back, so I think it’s just a matter of time before it spreads.
What’s the story behind The Piano Shop?
I was teaching piano in Phnom Penh and I wanted a piano for myself, but I didn’t see anything I liked here. I thought of importing one from Japan, so I called people over there and asked and they said yes, but that I needed to order at least 10. A few friends wanted to buy pianos, so I bought them, and having some left at the end, I opened the store. That was one year ago.
What does The Piano Shop offer today?
The shop started initially with us selling pianos, but we also offer teaching now as well as practice rooms, and examinations by (UK exam board) ABRSM. We also tune and repair pianos from scratch, so we can get something that’s completely wrecked and put it back to pristine condition again. We sell lots of music books too. We still import most of our pianos from Japan, but also from China, Malaysia and Europe.
You’ve obviously expanded your services in the past year. Is there a growing demand for people buying pianos and having piano lessons here? What’s the demographic?
The lesson market here is growing very fast. We tend to attract expat kids who played piano wherever they lived before and whose parents want them to continue. We’ve only got three Cambodian students, I think it’s because it’s $25 per hour, which is less than most cities in the world but too expensive for an average Cambodian to pay.
Do you see more Cambodian customers and students as the economy improves and the middle class grows?
Yes, we’re waiting to expand to Cambodian households. We foresee an increase in demand within the next two to three years.
Do you believe that everyone should have the opportunity to play the piano, regardless of how much money they have?
Yes, and we try the best we can to make this happen. We offer free practice rooms for all students who come to lessons, so they can practise for 10 hours per week in our rooms at no charge and then they don’t have to buy a piano. It’s not about sales – it’s about building something for music, especially for music in Cambodia.