The Cambodian Space Project heralded its return to Phnom Penh with two concerts over the weekend, following on from a hectic three-month Australian tour.
Performing for a largely Western audience at Mao’s on Friday and a benefit concert for French children’s charity PSE on Saturday, the Space Project show no signs of slowing after two years of tours in 13 countries under their belts.
Part psychedelia and part rockabilly, with a healthy deference to the pop artists of Cambodia’s post-independence artistic golden age, the Space Project’s beginnings lie with guitarist Julien Poulson’s fortuitous introduction to the man affectionately referred to as the Angkor Kingdom’s Ray Charles.
“Master Kong Nay, he’s a really special musician,” Poulson says fondly. “He’s a blind man who plays the chapei, an instrument that predates the Buddhist enlightenment and goes back a long way. It’s really bluesy, primal stuff. Turned out he lived round the corner from where I was staying, so we went and paid him a visit.
“He just started singing, and it was amazing. At that point I decided it was really good for me to be here, because this music is right out on the edge of the frontier, and it’s much more exciting than being at home or any other Western city. So I came back again and again.”
At the time, Poulson was recording and performing with The Green Mist, a pet project with Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes after the latter’s relocation to Poulson’s native Tasmania.
Buoyed by the guitarist’s growing love of traditional Khmer musical arrangements, the group travelled to Phnom Penh to record with a Cambodian ensemble.
It was here that Poulson made the acquaintance of Srey Thy, the Space Project’s frontwoman and other mainstay of the group.
Growing up in poverty on a rubber plantation in the western provinces, Srey Thy left her family to join a travelling wedding band, supplementing her income with performances at karaoke clubs.
“She’s got these amazing stories and an amazing imagination, and I reckon that it’s largely grown out of this particular Cambodian childhood,” Poulson says. “I realised when I met her that she was a natural performer.”
After a five-year relationship with Cambodia, Poulson is heartened by the emergence of a local music scene that borrows from Eastern and Western influences, and proud of his group’s role in bringing a slice of the country’s culture to the wider world.
For Poulson, these kinds of collaborations are the sign of a broader rapprochement between the country’s people and the foreigners who live within its borders.
“Even when I first came here in 2007, it seemed that expats and Cambodians wouldn’t really have a deep interaction,” says Poulson. “Now it seems there’s foreigners coming here who are deeply interested in the local culture and then incorporating it into their stuff. Instead of just hammering out bad sets of Bob Dylan that they wouldn’t get away with back home, they’re doing cool sets of music influenced by the place.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]