Kick out the jams! Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll returns to Motor City

Cambodian Space Project singer Channthy.
Cambodian Space Project singer Channthy. DAVIDE GOSTOLI

Kick out the jams! Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll returns to Motor City

A recent trip to Detroit prompted the Cambodian Space Project to reinvent themselves. Ahead of this weekend’s shows, we got the low-down on Motown from a founding member of the band.

A guy comes out on stage with a star-spangled Fender Stratocaster and eggs on the rapturous crowd by breaking into a slow, call-and-response crowd chant: “Kick out the jams. Kick out the jams.”

“What’s he saying?” asks my partner, Srey Channthy, who is sitting next to me at the packed out annual music event – The Concert of Colors at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.

“He’s Wayne Kramer … a famous guitarist who really made the Detroit rock sound with a band called the MC5.”

“But what does he mean ‘kick out the jams’?”

Just as I try to explain how it was the title of MC5’s debut album, the chant has reached its climax and Wayne Kramer rips into one of Detroit’s most famous crowd chants.

“Kick out the jams, motherf-----s!”

Srey Channthy is shocked. “Oh my god, why is he saying that word?”

“Hah! It’s only rock and roll! Don’t worry, that’s how they talk here,” I say.

Channthy and I had arrived in Motor City on the eve of July fourth and the timing was just as well: someone later told us they divert flights over Detroit on nights like New Year’s Eve and July fourth. Apparently there’s too many stray gun shots going off into the skies above USA’s largest bankrupt municipality.

As we motored into the city the air outside felt thick and muggy, just like Cambodia. Damn hot. Still, we’d come to work in a recording studio and would escape the heat while working with one of Detroit’s most revered musicians, the Motown guitar legend Dennis Coffey. A great opportunity for us, although a most unlikely meeting of cultures, and at this early stage in proceedings neither Channthy nor I were sure whether it was going to work. Cambodia meets Motor City.

Srey Channthy, Cambodian Space Project’s diminutive diva, stared out of the car window as we entered Detroit and wondered aloud: “Everything’s broken! Where is everybody? Detroit – it’s a ghost town, bong.” Meanwhile, the lyrics to another of the Motor City’s most famous songs ran through my head:

“He sees the city asleep at night / He sees the stars are out tonight /And all of it is yours and mine.”

Some five weeks later, Channthy and I were again on a highway, this time leaving Motor City with a brand new album in the can. We drove through torrential rain and waited until we’d passed the city limits before cranking up the car stereo and listen to CSP’s brand new, Detroit-made, album. Behind the driver’s wheel was Jim White (producer for The White Stripes, bassist with The Dirt Bombs) who had also turned his ears to our work while in Detroit, so much so Jim had temporarily joined the band and was now driving us out of Detroit.

Rom Rom Rom

Is a re-working of one of Channthy’s most favourite Pan Ron tracks Rom Rom Rom. It’s great to open with this track: it’s really a fine example of what someone labelled our show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit – retro modern.

That’s what we’d aimed for. After all, the Cambodian rock that has informed the CSP set-list is music that was clearly influenced by the Motown sound. Rom Rom Rom kicks in like a Mustang, and swings along with a dreamy Motown back beat.

Dennis Coffey, at the spritely age of 70-something, plays guitar at his finest on this track and that’s saying something.

Coffey’s played on hundred of Motown hits, from The Temptations to Marvin Gaye, but this is his first ever session with a Cambodian band.

If You Go, I Go Too

If You Go, I Go Too is one of the first songs CSP recorded some three years ago. It’s a beautiful track, very evocative of Cambodia and it’s also one of the first songs Channthy wrote for the band. This version is slow and soulful, the most ‘spacious’ of the albums’ mixes. I’m chuffed it recorded so well with our Detroit team: it was a real amalgam of cultures and sound – just what we’d hoped for.

Mountain Dance

Written by Channthy. It’s also a song we’ve previously recorded versions of. The first edition was a twangy, country pickin’ style, almost hillbilly, almost Appalachian. It was a song inspired by our first encounter with the amazing Bunong musicians of Bou Sra, Mondulkiri.

Two years ago, Channthy and members of CSP had stumbled across a singer and songwriter referred to by his fellow villagers as ‘Blind Nyel’. This song, Mountain Dance, is a tribute to meeting and hearing Blind Nyel and in her lyrics, Channthy calls for everyone to come dancing together, to not discriminate or worry about whether you’re rich or poor, this colour or that, from the mountain or the city.

I wondered whether this folksy mountain song would work at the Dennis Coffey sessions, but as Coffey explained: “It’s all about the feel.” Now Mountain Dance sounds like a reggae track, almost Calypso. It’s a catchy number.

Rom Twist

A Pan Ron classic. A quirky and difficult rhythm that isn’t easy to play but once it kicks in, this is an unstoppable, ska-like dance tune. Funny thing was that Channthy used to sing ‘rom (meaning dance) swiss’ … she didn’t realise that the word is actually twist – the dance phenomena that once shook Cambodia like today’s Gangnam Style – nor did she realise, the Swiss don’t dance!

Black to Gold

Great overdubs by a horn section known as The Motor City Horns. Channthy called to say she’d just watched a fantastic afternoon TV show, something called Shaft. “Well perfect,” I said. “But come to the studio and hear Bog Seger’s horn section on your own funky song Black To Gold.” “Okay, bong.” Channthy walked to the studio. Along the way she worried about news from home: election results, riots in Stung Meanchey. By the time she arrived, she had lyrics: “Hard time! Something’s gotta change.”

Long for the Light Rain

A wonderful update of a song originally sung by Ros Sereysothea. It opens with this ‘Jane of the Jungle’ call, then swings into a really funky groove. I suggested to Coffey that we slip in a dance part. This part works beautifully and is very reminiscent of Coffey’s million-copy seller Scorpio – a song recorded in the early 1970s that charted first on radio stations popular with African-Americans, leaving many DJs believing that this guy Dennis Coffey – credited as the song writer – must have been black. In fact, Coffey is the only white guy that ever featured on Soul Train, the Chicago TV dance show. I can’t wait to see Phnom Penh’s riverside dancers grooving to this Motor City Cambodia vibe.

Cambodia Space Project’s final show will take place this Saturday 7 August at the FCC rooftop.

Julien Poulson

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