Long before hitting the tarmac of Pochentong Airport, Phnom Penh resident producer and DJ Rob Bianchetti had already enjoyed the fruits of a prolific output: a string of releases on his own record label, touring as part of a live act, winning various music awards, hitting number 1 in the dance charts with his remix of The Fugees “Ready or not” and co-scoring the Australian thriller ‘Wolf Creek’.
Since his arrival in the Kingdom, the distinctive Italian/Australian DJ has carefully struck the fine balance between entertaining and educating his audiences, and has contributed his considerable talents to expanding the burgeoning electronic dance scene in the capital.
Rob first arrived in Cambodia at the end of 2007 for a holiday on the tail end of a European tour. He had about 50,000 tracks from the 20 years spent acquiring his music collection tucked into his pocket.
“At the time there was virtually no scene here. Almost everyone went to the Heart of Darkness. There was really nowhere else to go. Their setlist was a mix of Oldies, Top 40 and R’n’B. There was absolutely nowhere where you could hear new House music,” Rob says.
He soon discovered that Phnom Penh wasn’t the kind of place where you could walk into a record shop and listen to what had come out that week, and the lack of decent internet connections meant that download sites took an eternity.
It was while he was on holiday that he approached the Heart and asked if he could play a set.
“I worked for free and did half hour sets each night. I found it intriguing that House music, Disco, New Wave and Punk had never been experienced here. The audience didn’t understand House music, it was alien. They wanted to hear exactly what they were hearing everywhere else: a musical monoculture.”
Returning to Australia with his curiosity piqued, he set about preparing a return visit with the intention of making Cambodia his home and trying his hand at bringing about a change in the nightlife scene. Upon returning the following July, Bianchetti took up a residency at Heart.
“I had my own strong musical identity, but in the beginning, in Cambodia, I still got a feeling that people were not yet ready for real House music. I had to tone it down a bit, mixing it up with some commercial stuff initially to win the support of the Khmers.”
“I spoke to Julian, the [former] manager of Riverhouse Lounge, and was told: ‘House music will never happen in Cambodia mate. Good Luck. Go and speak to Eddie about a new club about to re-open called Pontoon’.”
At the time, Pontoon was housed on a boat and opened its doors again eight weeks after Rob got in touch. The opening itself has since become legendary, after the boat dramatically sank and a full contingent of spirited partiers casually waded through knee high water to get back to shore.
Within a matter of weeks the boat was resurrected and restored.
“It was in this interim that plans for Housexy on Fridays were forming,” Rob says. “I also met Marcus, who was planning to start a gay night called [now known as ‘Shameless!’] … It’s still the only one of its kind and is the longest running night in Cambodia. I knew things were going right when people on the dance floor would actually start screaming! I thought the boat may be sinking again, but they were screaming with excitement and adrenaline. That’s when I knew I had the support of the Khmers and they were ‘getting’ the music.”
Nowadays there are a lot more expat DJs living in Phnom Penh, and House play lists and visiting International guest DJs are regular occurrences.
“It’s become much easier for them to play more experimental music as the momentum was definitely building and growing and people’s listening habits are changing,” Rob says. “This has actually made it easier for me because the audience here pretty much expect that they’re going to hear something different. Not just requesting the same old stuff again and again. The scene now is healthy and robust and has expanded, with more events, parties and new clubs opening all the time.”
Rob keeps up with his own mash-ups, writing and remixing music at home, and is returning his focus to production, including a number of collaborations with other Phnom Penh resident DJs and Khmer singers and artists.
Rob Bianchetti is resident DJ at Pontoon Thursdays and Fridays, Heart of Darkness Fridays and Saturdays.