Across the street from Wat Botum earlier this week, musicians Julien Poulson, Jean-Luc Jousse and Hollie Lewis were lounging by the pool at the guesthouse Villa Grange, the headquarters for the Phnom Penh portion of the inaugural Folk Art Blues Fest Cambodia. An electric guitar sat next to veteran French rock ’n’ roller Jousse, who since the early 1980s has been playing blues, psychedelia and punk-oriented rock ’n’ roll for the many incarnations of the group The Kleps. Founded as The Psychedelic Kleps, they have played under the name the Klepstones, Kleps Revisited, the Justesse Social Kleps as a folk duet and The New York Kleps.
“And now, the Phnom Penh Kleps”, Jousse jokes.
Jousse, who has worked as a tour manager, sound engineer and even driver for some legendary rock acts like Guitar Wolf, the Fleshtones and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, is in Phnom Penh for the nascent Folk Art & Blues Fest, which is really more of a travelling revue of psychedelic, garage and folk art acts over the next five days. It was organised by Poulson, one of the founders of Cambodian Space Project, as a musical spinoff of the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival.
“The [Kampot Readers and Writers] Festival has always had a very strong musical program, to the point where a crescendo of critics were saying it’s too much music in the second year,” Poulson said. “We probably need to separate these things a little bit along the way. So this time it’s a very small thing and it’s not in a fixed place – It’s rolling across Cambodia like an oldtimey revue.”
Those of you imagining acts reminiscent of BB King or Mississippi John Hurt may be disappointed. The “blues and folk” moniker is meant more in spirit, as the roots of each act’s brand of rock ’n’ roll. “Let’s be broad about our definitions, in the way that Louis Armstrong once said ‘All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song’,” Poulson said.
The festivities begin tonight at Villa Grange, where five bands will be playing. Among those are local legends Cambodian Space Project and juggernauts The Kleps.
Electro-psychedelic British band Frankie Teardrop Dead, Australian folk band the Justin Frew Trio and enigmatic Saigon-based duo OPNAIRDRGMKT will also hit the stage.
On Friday, musicians will be at the guesthouse all day, playing acoustic singer-songwriter sessions led by local troubadour Scoddy Bywater before the revue hits the road southwest to Kampot.
There, the lineups change slightly for two nights of shows, and there will also be art workshops in the day, including from Borneo-born woodcut printmaker Rico Leong and with the all-women’s Srey School of Rock and its Sou Sou Band. The tour heads up the coast for a gig in Otres near Sihanoukville before a whittled-down version of the revue will then make its way to Siem Reap for a Tuesday gig.
On top of getting to play in good company and have some fun, the festival is a chance to build the network of musicians living abroad with connections to Cambodia.
“These are people who are likeminded or want to volunteer or bring skills and talent to make something happen,” Poulson said. “We’ve all seen over the last 10 years a very big opportunity in Cambodia for creative industry. And not just a community but real opportunities – making things locally and building international distribution.”
The Folk Art & Blues Fest begins tonight at Villa Grange at 7pm. Tickets for Friday are $7 at the door for foreigners and $3 for Cambodians, plus a free drink. Singer-songwriter sessions begin at 2pm and last until 8pm Friday. For a full schedule, including in Kampot, Otres and Siem Reap, visit the Facebook page Folk Art & Blues Fest Cambodia.