Out Of The Darkness: The Cambodian Space Project
Kevin E.G. Perry
, September 8th, 2011 10:27
Ahead of their performance at this weekend's Dancing Time, Kevin E.G. Perry speaks to The Cambodian Space Project on their difficult beginnings in the days of the Khmer Rouge
In 2009, Tasmanian musician Julien Poulson walked into a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh and heard a lone female voice singing Peggy Lee's 'Johnny Guitar'. This struck him as odd. Ordinarily the bars in Cambodia's capital only allow singers to perform in groups of around a dozen, and youth and vacant stares seem to be favoured over musical talent. "They kinda look like the zombies in Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'," he says. As he listened to her he realised why she sang alone. A voice as naturally gifted as this is a rare find.
Poulson invited the singer, Srey Thy, to start a band with him and together they formed the nucleus of what has become The Cambodian Space Project, a remarkable group who not only cover and preserve songs from the 'golden age' of 60s Cambodian pop but also write their own dazzlingly original Khmer psychedelic rock. They've now toured all over the world, from Texas to the End of the Road, but the shows they talk of with most pride are the ones they play in remote villages across Cambodia.
To understand the importance of these shows, and their context, we have to go back to April 17th 1975: the day Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia. As Poulson says, they "ripped out the heart and soul of Cambodian culture. Their very ill-conceived manifesto was a kind of fucked-up Maoist thing, to return society to agrarian utopia, which meant destroying and dismantling culture. The Khmer Rouge very successfully destroyed everything, along with almost two million Cambodian lives."
The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted anybody that they regarded as professionals or intellectuals. This included the majority of Cambodian writers, artists and musicians, many of whom were taken to the Killing Fields. Cambodia today is littered with haunting reminders of the horrors of the regime. At Choeung Ek, about 17 km south of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, there stands a stupa, a Buddhist monument, with glass sides. Inside there are more than 5,000 human skulls piled on top of one another. Many are cracked or smashed in. It was built as a memorial to the 17,000 people killed there between 1975 and 1979, and stands as an awful testament of man's inhumanity to man.
All traces of the music, including the physical records, from the 60s 'golden era' of Cambodian pop were systematically wiped out, while Cambodia's most famous singers, Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Houy Meas were all murdered. Srey Thy tells me how Houy Meas was gang-raped and her body mutilated, and Poulson recounts the infamous story that Sinn Sisamouth was led in front of a firing squad and invited to sing one last song to the troops who would kill him.
"We do a cover of 'House of the Rising Sun'," Poulson tells me. "In this country for a band it would be a very silly, overblown and obvious cover, but in the context of a female Cambodian singer, taking the lyrics from Sinn Sisamouth who did an astonishing version of it in the Sixties, it has an incredible power."
One of the few Cambodian musicians to survive the Khmer Rouge was Master Kong Nay, who was forced to sing propaganda songs in order to save his own life. For Poulson, hearing Kong Nay demonstrated the depth of Cambodian music. "I met Master Kong Nay, the old, blind musician, and also Srey Thy's teacher. I heard his voice and saw him playing in a corrugated iron hut and I was just blown away. They call it the 'Mekong Delta blues'. They call him the Ray Charles of Phnom Penh, because he looks like Ray Charles, but really it's a misnomer. He's the Leadbelly of Phnom Penh, and just totally fucking cool."
Srey Thy's parents lived under the Khmer Rouge, although her mother was forced to give up her own singing ambitions: "My mum sing very good, and she wanted to go to Phnom Penh. But when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge come they kill her parents. She stopped singing. She cut her hair, same as boy. She make up black to put on face. If very beautiful, they want to kill. My mum was very young." The make-up she describes is a reference to the ethnic element to some of the violence, where darker-skinned Cambodians targeted their lighter-skinned countrymen.
Vietnamese forces captured Phnom Penh and forced Pol Pot from power on January 7, 1979, although widespread fighting would continue for many years. There were some immediate changes in Cambodia, however, as Poulson explains: "It was the biggest baby boom in the world's history: 1979-1980. Srey Thy was born at the end of that. People weren't allowed to marry before, or celebrate. I guess we see the result of that now where they have their big Cambodian parties, everyone comes together and the music goes at full blast."
Srey Thy loved music from a young age, whether it was listening to her mother singing while she worked, or the transistor radio that her father would listen to in his tank as he patrolled the frontlines. As Poulson explained: "Her father was a tank driver. There's an amazing photo which shows her semi-naked except for a handbag and some pants on. She's about this big. There's a table here, there's a transistor radio with its aerial up, there's Pa in his military uniform, a six gun slung around his hips, and the tank. They're moving around the country in a Soviet T-53 tank and listening to the radio. They were moving around the frontlines, as the war continued. This is post-Pol Pot times. What many people don't understand about Cambodian history is that war continued for a long time. The Khmer Rouge was supported by all the Western countries because they didn't want to support the Vietnamese occupying forces."
Srey Thy adds that her mother's rediscovered love of singing was infectious: "Listen radio, listen my mum sing. I say 'Oh mum, you sing good.' We have parties, she sing. She work, she sing. She work, I work beside my mum. She make food, washing, she sing a lot. I sing beside my mum. My mum was my teacher. I didn't go to school, except for one week. When the teacher ask if anybody sing, I say 'Me! Me!' Everybody shy, me not shy!"
Srey Thy has worked constantly since around the age of four or five. At first she began by planting rice, then cutting it. By the time she was nine she had moved on to work at a rubber plantation. At this point her family was targeted by the Royalist military forces, and she recalls having to help her pregnant mother flee from gunfire. As a teenager, she moved to Phnom Penh in search of a living and worked in a variety of shops and even as a builder's labourer. When she was 18, a girl promised her a job in a beauty parlour but it turned out to be a brutal deception. She was tied to a bed with electrical wire around her wrists and would have been sold to a sex trafficking ring if another woman hadn't managed to help her escape. She says now that she was targeted "because I young, no had boyfriend". She would fetch a higher price as a virgin.
She began singing professionally at 19. Club owners told her that although she could sing, they did not think she was as pretty as the other girls so would pay her less. By 2005, Sry They was earning a good living as a singer. She had discovered that her talent could prove lucrative in terms of tips: "People say to me: 'Oh you sing good, old songs," she says. "Everybody loves old songs. Romantic."
Then in 2009 she met Julien Poulson. "Very lucky for me," she smiles. "Same for me!" he replies. Poulson had been working in East Timor producing media for the country's truth and reconciliation commission. He had received a grant to work on a music project there but before he could start it up, war broke out. Unable to return to Dili he was granted permission to take the money to Cambodia, where he was looking for musicians who could revive the country's flagging music scene.
After meeting Srey Thy, he didn't waste much time before putting together a show: "Our first gig was at a little swampy bar called the Alley Cat in Phnom Penh, and the other musicians blew in literally within ten or fifteen minutes of the first few songs. Scott Bywater, who is with us now, offered to play or bring some instruments down. He was the 'Bill Wyman' guy, which I can say because he's not around at the moment! We wanted him for his instruments at that time, but he's an incredible musician and such a big part of our creativity now."
They later also added a drummer, the enigmatic Bong Sak: "Bong Sak was a soldier for a long time. It's sadly not uncommon in Cambodia. Right now he's finding it very hard to be here in London. He'd rather stay at home, on the farm, eat food routinely and ride a motorbike down to the gig when it's on."
The momentum grew from that first gig. "From that moment on it's just been this Cambodian gypsy caravan where we all wanted to play music and go to disadvantaged communities, orphanages, schools and perform there, not necessarily with any view to doing anything beyond that but just because that was so important to do and so enriching. It was a big moment when Srey Thy said: 'Now, I think Cambodian Space Project should come to my village!' She's written a song, 'Whisky Cambodia', about that moment."
In the song she describes the feast that is being prepared for the 'barang', the foreigners, who are visiting the village. She adds: "Everyone very happy that the barang came. We saw the barang dancing, making music, drinking whiskey Cambodia. Not had barang visitors before."
Poulson explains how important rural Cambodia is to the band, but also the complicated issues that can arise: "It's remote, it really is. Srey Thy's family home is literally a thatched bamboo hut, but she's very attached to the place and it's very deep in her persona. She's steeped in the rice fields of Prey Veng. There are problems with the abject poverty, particularly for Srey Thy, because suddenly everyone there expects her to be rich or to be able to fix problems or to be different. Her grandparents love to look at her pictures from Paris or London, and they'll say, 'Now you are very different, very beautiful, you've changed!' She'll say thank you, and then they'll say, 'But never forget, you're one of us. Your bare feet are in our fields.' She will say, 'Yes, I never forget.'"
Srey Thy's development as a songwriter was initially a surprise for the band, who began by covering the old favourites of Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron. "Fairly early on we tried to record some of the stuff that we'd got down. We went to a little recording studio and did some things which weren't that great, just demos. Then Srey Thy said 'I have something I want to sing. Original.' It was great, that's what we really wanted."
Their debut album, 2011: A Space Odyssey, is "very much a party set" mainly made up of covers of 60s standards but with a couple of original Srey Thy songs thrown in. Their follow-up could be quite different: "This album was all recorded in Cambodia, which was very important. It was challenging but the results were pleasing. The next album we're hopefully going to do in Melbourne with Mick Harvey. He's interested and wants to do it. He did PJ Harvey's last album and worked with Anita Lane, so he's used to female vocalists, and that fact that ours sings in Khmer doesn't really make any difference if you're a soundscapey kind of character. Strangely, the darker Cambodian songs are kinda like the Bad Seeds: noir-ish karaoke that ends with murder in the rice paddies. They've got this kinda hypnotic groove to them."
Srey Thy now tries to turn her experiences into positive and powerful stories, whether it is as a human rights advocate and a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women's UNiTE, the campaign to end violence against women, or as a songwriter. I ask Srey Thy about her songwriting technique, and she explains that while she works hard to observe and write thoughtful songs, her best songs are stories that come from her own experience, and from her heart. "In my song I try to have three emotions: happy, sad and funny," she says, "'Not Easy, Rock & Roll', come from heart. 'Broken Flower', from heart, 'Have Visa, No Have Rice', from heart, 'You Go, I Come Too', from head, 'Whisky Cambodia', from head. From head, I see and I write, but write from heart not easy."
The Cambodian Space Project play at Soundway's Dancing Time this Saturday, September 10th. There will also be a screening of the Black Goddess film and Quietus DJs. For more information and tickets, go here.