Several weeks ago, Cambodian Space Project chanteuse Kak Chanthy, filmed by director Marc Eberle, kneeled in front of a fortune teller in a cluttered, colourful wooden house in Battambang, quivering.
Kak Chanthy, with band members behind her, will perform in Phare Ponleu Selpak’s big top on Saturday. Alexander Crook
Film maker Marc Eberle directs singer Chanthy, dressed as an Apsara dancer, in front of a green screen. She will be animated in a scene from The Cambodian Space Project - Not Easy Rock and Roll. Julien Poulson
Battambang artist Chov Theanly and Cambodian Space Project singer Kak Chanthy at a fortune teller’s home. Julien Poulson
An image of ‘Golden Voice’ Soreysothea from her sister’s collection. Photo Supplied
Ros Sereysothea. Photo Supplied
‘Space rock, surf, reggae, Khmer Surin, Cambodian rock psychedelic’ band the Cambodian Space Project. Photo Supplied
The singer has long been fearful of ghosts and ghouls, but was now directly courting the otherworld, calling on revered 1960s romantic songstress Ros Sereysothea, who, like swathes of Cambodia’s artistic community, perished under the Khmer Rouge from 1975-79.
She was there with rising Battambang painter Chov Theanly, who has a longstanding fascination with the era (he collects vintage photographs from the time) and bears an uncanny resemblance to Sereysothea’s comrade, the iconic, velvety-voiced Sinn Sisamouth. Virtually nothing is known of how, when or where either of the Golden Age stars perished, so Chanthy has sought the soothsayer for more clues.
Director Eberle stood in the shadows, camera positioned, and the reel began to roll. In the wake of the success of internationally acclaimed documentaries Aung San Suu Kyi: The Choice and The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s Covert War in Laos, Eberle is now shooting the final scenes of his current film, The Cambodian Space Project - Not Easy Rock and Roll, a three-year labour of love for the director, telling, through Chanthy’s life story, the melancholic history of Cambodia’s 60’s rock music scene.
The documentary has been picked up by BBC 4’s Storyville, receiving a full commission, and on Monday Australia’s ABC jumped aboard, offering to co-produce. The Goethe Institute and Al Jazeera will also help to fund the film.
“It will be released towards the end of this year, we’ll submit to some of the festivals and then it will be shown on Storyville - the best slot for documentaries - they only pick up 20 a year,” Eberle says.
Chanthy, who performs with the “space rock, surf, reggae, Khmer Surin, Cambodian rock psychedelic” band under the moniker Srey Thy, hails from Battambang herself, just like Sereysothea and her idol from the era, Pan Ron.
After a hectic year of playing to rapturous crowds around the country, the band are about to depart for Melbourne, where they will spend six weeks writing a new album as artists in residence at Montsalvat, a historic artists’ community, before embarking on a European tour. They’ll then record the album in Chicago with legendary producer Dennis Coffey, who featured in recent Oscar winner Searching for Sugar Man.
Over the last month, Chanthy, Eberle and the other band members continued to return to Battambang, visiting Sereysothea’s sister Ros Sabouen and her shrine to the I’m Sixteen singer, also tracing Chanthy’s own roots.
“Sophoun’s collection was just astounding,” says Chanthy’s partner and Space Project guitarist Julien Poulson. “Photos, hundreds of them. She was Sothea’s manager... she knew a lot, told us tragic stories of love affairs, abuse. She loved to talk about the fashion - the rapid transformations- showing us pictures from 1961, very traditional to then 1966: mini dresses, risqué gear, this explosion of fashion and culture, hairdo, the freedom of the time. She said the Twist came in and everything changed.”
The musicians have now congregated in Battambang once more for a series of performances – on Saturday they will perform in the illustrious Phare Ponleu Selpak circus big top with Michael Laub choreographed and on Sunday will play alongside go-go dancers, local musicians and a colonial building with 60s films projected onto it in a street party outside the town’s popular rum bar Madison Corner
Poulson declares emphatically, “All roads have led us to Battambang and now we’re winding up here before we head off.
“I feel like we’re about to set off into space, to the next level – this new record will have a different feel, a different level of commitment, time and money invested, it’s very exciting.
“This tour to Battambang, visiting Ros Sereysothea’s sister, the fact that Battambang is a creative hub…it’s strange that it’s all suddenly converging somewhere that I’ve long had a fascination with – these lovely, quiet streets reminiscent of the New Orleans French Quarter.”
Eberle and the band have also been working with artists from PPS for the film, creating kaleidoscopic, supernatural animations of Chanthy flying through star constellations on her moto, with Pan Ron leaping from an album cover to join her. Acrobatics were modelled on a young female performer from the Phare circus.
“These artists are so impressive…there are only four photos that exist of Pan Ron, there’s no video, and they have responded to her lyrics, her voice and these few images that remain of her to create this wonderful personality,” Poulson says, reclining into a booth in riverside restaurant La Croisette, a special place for the band: it was where they officially formed and played their first gig on Christmas Day in 2009.
Poulsen arrived in Cambodia in 2007 on an Asialink fellowship, researching and recording an array of eclectic Khmer sounds: Champei musicians, singing tuk tuk drivers, university musicians, hip hop artists and provincial singers.
In 2009 a woman he met from Apsara TV pointed him in the direction of Chanthy, who was singing in a bar at the time.
“So I arrived at this bar with a laptop with all of this music I had been collecting…and I saw her eyes sparkle when she heard it…all of this old rock stuff. When I met Thy, I felt it straight away. I thought it could be big, I sensed this could be something really special. Not just between the two of us, but professionally. I said to her, I’m writing stories, as you are, maybe we could work together, she would get paid well for singing, we’ll try one thing at a time…but I was very excited at the time. After working with many artists, she was the raw talent I had been searching for. I recognised that immediately and very much fell in love with it.”
“When we first started we had a little jam…I thought she was pretty good. Someone, a bar owner, another Aussie, made the comment, “Oh that girl can’t sing,” and I thought at that stage…well I’m a music producer, and you’re a bar man, and she is a good singer, I’m going to stick to my gut feeling on this. And of course she is an amazing singer,” he says.
Chanthy grew up in a poor family and her early life was difficult, working in rice fields and construction sites, before being asked to join a travelling wedding band. She says she identifies with the late, high-pitched Pan Ron, who before finding fame as one of the sultry 60s star singers, was abandoned at a nunnery in Battambang – a parallel Eberle explores in his film.
“When she started she was very shy…so we couldn’t hear that voice she projects now. She was also used to these karaoke, wedding bands singing with a lot of other singers, six girls singing all at once. Cambodian people are surprised when there is one solo singer. One time, at my house, she sang her own song called Whisky Cambodia and it had a beautiful hook and a melody to it, it was really original and creative,” Poulsen says.
“This music documentary is a great way of showing humanity, it follows Chanthy’s story, her life, as she tours with this bizarrely named barang mob, and where she goes, how she sees things as the world opens up to her…it’s a great vehicle to portray the musical history with a narrative - through Chanthy’s fascination with Pan Ron…the fact so little is known about her,” he says.
Eberle has spent 150 days filming Chanthy and the Cambodian Space Project and, with the help of researchers from Bophana, has uncovered a multitude of documents and images thought to have been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Ros Sabouen’s walls are plastered with images and stills of her late sister: the now elderly woman says many were buried during the period.
“I’m also covering the people who are still known to be alive here, from that era …but we uncovered things that aren’t obvious to most people, we spoke to Voy Ho, who is still alive…he was a lyricist, wrote thousands of songs for the stars of that era,” Eberle says.
The director enthusiastically describes scenes from the film where Chanthy meets actress Dy Saveth who regales her with tales of Pan Ron’s boyfriends, secret lovers, dances and discussions they had - moments in time she had never told before.
“[Saveth] finished by saying ‘listen to this Pan Ron song now, you could never write this now, it’s so risqué and sexy, it would be censored. Chanthy is very interested in this, so the film explores being liberated as a woman.”
“It’s a positive story coming out of Cambodia - the revival of lost cultural traditions, the revival of pop music from the 60s, that is something Cambodians can and should be proud of,” he says.
“The lyrics of those times, were saucy, risqué. It’s really special, there was this explosion of music with the free swinging 60s everywhere. In Australia we had our own response to the British invasion with the Loved Ones, the Easybeats. Cambodia was a newly independent country, suddenly on the international stage - because of the Cold War, because of Norodom Sihanouk, because of events in the region…[the music] hung on to romantic style of French music, mixed with British garage style rock n roll, American GI music, Tina Turner, the Doors, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, all this kinda stuff, the Cambodians have always had a unique way of doing things and expressing things. They take something make it unique, make it their own.”
“Today, on top of all that - this is the lost rock n roll. You hear the freedom and the spirit, the energy, the passion and the sexiness of the whole thing, it takes you back to this place that was erased…all of these links are broken and there are few living people that can really describe it.”
Poulson says meeting Ros Sabouen stirred a frustration in him that the only living relative of one of the country’s biggest stars had never seen a cent in royalties.
“She’s never seen anything from [producers] Sublime Frequencies or any filmmakers that use Sereysothea’s music. The Ministry of Culture hasn’t really learnt to do licensing properly. In Cambodian there is this word called Kamsith Panha…an idea of intellectual property, from one artists or family to the next. Something should come back to the families of these icons,” he says
For over ten years, Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, has been working with his team of researchers on American film-maker John Pirozzi’s soon to be released Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.
“He has put this magnificent puzzle together…we provided the dots, archives from Cambodia, identifying musicians, finding old records from Olympic market, helping with equipment and he has created a wonderful film,” he says.
“It was important to let the musicians tell their history themselves. It hasn’t been done from a singer’s perspective really before. They were one of the target groups. They were influential. You could sing with your mind. That’s what the Khmer Rouge wanted to control. So they wanted to abolish music. But they couldn’t. The music was rebellious, it contained the consciousness of the nation. You don’t feel much soul in [modern Khmer] music today. They could destroy the singers but the music has lived on,” he says.
He said a screening of a raw cut of the film to young DC CAM employees had surprised him.
“It really resonated, particularly this scene at the end showing the youth of Cambodia today…I think it put everything into context.”
Also tremendously moving, he says, is a scene of Sereysothea soaring out of an aeroplane with a parachute – the singer had become a soldier during the Lon Nol years and was practicing dropping down, landing in a rice field with children surrounding her – the scene overlaid with her haunting vocals. “Nobody has seen this footage before, we think.”
“Her sister also told us horrible stories of Sereysothea’s husband beating her, in a club. She actually stopped singing after this, and then Sisamouth went to rescue her and brought her back to Phnom Penh to perform. Maybe if she didn’t go back she would still be alive today.”
Chanthy says Cambodia’s music ghosts have not haunted her yet, but that the singers live on through their lyrics and melodies. “When I listen to Pan Ron I can see her, hear what she would think.”
The tattooed oracle in Battambang could not revive the voices of Pan Ron, Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea for Chanthy and Theanly, but he did have a message for the band, Poulson says.
“He told us that we had to come back. He said if we came back to Battambang to perform, we had to build a space rocket with banana leaves and bamboo and offer it at the pagoda. Only then would we have good luck on our tour and overseas.”