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The Leng Pleng Gig Guide comes out on a Thursday or Friday of every week

Gig Guide - Week Starting Thursday the 24th of February, 2013

From Hooker Bars to Opera Houses

The dark heart of Cambodia’s haunted music scene.

by Julien Poulson

Lately, I’ve been on the receiving end of some interesting and inquisitive emails from musicians and filmmakers around the planet who are writing to ask about Cambodia’s music scene. They want to come here - they’re ready to get on the plane – tomorrow! They say and they tell me it’s because they sense there’s ‘something in the water’ there’s something going out there… or at least that’s what they’ve heard from others and hell… it sounds like a great place... Sure it is, and if this week’s gig guide is anything to go by, it seems more and more musicians and artists are travelling all this way out here just to get a taste of the action.

So, here’s an attempt at some sort of summation of what I thinks been going on ‘out here’ and I’ll begin by borrowing the lyrics ‘from hooker bars to opera houses’ penned back in the early ‘70’s by ‘lost’ and recently ‘found’ rocker Sixto Rodriguez. The sentiment of Rodriguez’s storytelling song “A Most Disgusting Song” easily fit with describing the deep, eclectic, electric, beautiful, beguiling, often haunting, tragic and intensely vibrant story of Cambodia’s strange but virile music scene…

Let’s backtrack: At the height of the Cold War, a small Kingdom in South East Asia was dancing to a new beat – music inspired by the sounds of the British Invasion bands along with GI Radio spilling into Cambodia over from the war in Vietnam. Phnom Penh was tuning into new frequencies and rocking to the sounds of the Kinks, the Yardbirds, The Beatles, The Animals along with US counterparts, CCR, Jimi Hendrix, Ike and Tina, he Doors, perhaps even more underground influences like The Velvet Underground or The Stooges, nice to imagine but hard to tell. At the time, the small capital city of Phnom Penh would have been full of ‘characters’, getting around by riding the cyclos to the markets, the bordellos, the opulent hotels, dim lit opium dens, a litany of strange bedfellows, from Princes and Princesses to mysterious operatives, CIA to KGB, diplomats to degenerates, all rubbing shoulders in this faraway Kingdom. In many ways, not much has changed today, you’ll still find equally exotic, international cast of characters here and now.

Circa 1967, Prince Norodom Sihanouk was seemingly able to take time out to produce movies and records at a time when he was involved increasingly dangerous political dance, breaking of relations with the USA, hosting a visit from Jackie Kennedy, allowing the North Vietnamese to establish bases within Cambodia and banking on China's good will. On 11 March 1967, a revolt in Battambang Province led to the Cambodian Civil War while the Vietnam War began to spill across Cambodia’s doorstep. In Phnom Penh, singers like Ros Sereysothea “The Golden Voice of Phnom Penh“, Sin Sisamouth, Pan Ron were still busy, releasing astonishing amount of superb 60s garage sounding records and continued to do so, despite all the turmoil of the Lon Nol coup in 1970 and the devastating civil war the ensued, right up until the moment the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and ripped out the heart and soul of it’s culture. In 1975, music was outlawed and the vibrant, psychedelic sounds of the Cambodia rocknroll were switched off.

In just a few years almost two million Cambodians, including most of musicians, were killed. One of the saddest accounts of what happened to Cambodia’s music greats during the Khmer Rouge years is one that describes a macabre scene, apparently Sin Sisamouth’s killers allowed the King of Cambodian rock to sing one last song, allegedly they were moved by his emotion laden voice and beautiful song but then they murdered him anyway. Details of how Ros Sereysothea, Queen of Cambodian rock and her second to the throne, the vivacious and enigmatic Pan Ron, are vague, they vanished in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, most likely to have been brutally murdered by cold-blooded killers.

Today, Cambodia is in the midst of an important cultural revival and the reverberations of Cambodia’s pre-war sounds are being felt more strongly and are now more influential than ever. These echoes from Cambodia’s haunted music past bring the colour and the character to today’s scene. Musicians, record labels, filmmakers, circus producers, old punks, young punks, fashionistas, visual artists, promoters, record labels, culture addicts, Cambodia addicts, can’t get enough of it all. A new and vital culture has emerged, proving how the futile the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime’s attempts to destroy culture were, they would never completely extinguish the sounds and songs of Cambodia’s rock & roll spirit, the heart and soul of it’s culture.

Along the way, Cambodia’s music story has included a myriad of outsiders; punks like the Dead Kennedys released their most graphic hit “Holiday In Cambodia” an odd homage to the debauchery, depravity and the debased state of the Khmer Rouge. 80’s pop icon Kim Wylde had a worldwide hit with “Cambodia”. In the 90’s US retro label Sublime Frequencies’ compiled the superb Cambodian Rock albums and these re-releases of 60’s songs pricked up ears everywhere. In LA revivalists Dengue Fever came up with the concept of appropriating the South East Asian kitsch and put new a face to the old Cambodian songs and soon found widespread fame with this exciting new take on the lost rocknroll of Cambodia. Meanwhile, over in Phnom Penh rappers, hip hoppers, dj’s and mc’s such as B-Boy Peanut, KK and the Tiny Toones crew, Prach Ly, Pou Klaing, Visal and the Klapyahanz crew, Jan Muller aka Professor Kinski and his sidekick MC Curly, led the way - many rappers from this loose community are ‘returnees’ Cambodian Americans who have learnt their skills in jails of the USA and, on deportation to Cambodia, have become success stories through their work to create youth programs where music and dance is positive and popular influence on Cambodian youth.

Cambodia’s music is still influenced by the splendour of it’s ancient forms, the beauty and grace of the Apsaras, the gentle, soothing sounds of the Khmer ensembles playing centuries old motifs on bamboo instruments but despite this rich musical heritage the soul of Cambodia’s music emanates from some of the darkest corners - it’s little wonder that one of Phnom Penh’s seedier establishments, a disco called The Heart of Darkness, takes its name from Joseph Conrad’s starkest exploration of the darkness inherent in all human hearts. The themes Conrad explores in Heart of Darkness of colonialism, racism, and savagery versus civilization are all themes that run through the Cambodian soundtrack – it’s a trip man. If you really want to get to a handle on the Cambodian music story, you can’t ignore the outrageously high number of Khmer divas who have, all too frequently, had their careers and indeed their lives end in abrupt and tragic circumstances. Jealousies and rivalries leading to acid attacks, murders, hired assassins, dance floors being suddenly be hit by random gunfire, dangerous liaisons, sex trafficking, violence and abuse, this is all part of netherworld that shapes Cambodia’s music story and, like the sentiment expressed in Srey Channthy’s highly original opening track on The Cambodian Space Project’s latest album, it’s “Not Easy Rock & Roll” and never has been.

After fire comes regrowth: Old punks are turning up here in droves, fluttering in like moths attracted by the low lights, the cheap cost of living, the edginess of an almost anarchic social order and soon find themselves in bands, perhaps rekindling old rocknroll dreams or simply kicking out the jams in the dingy, dank hooker bars of Phnom Penh. At venues such as Sharky's, a place that claims to be South East Asia’s longest running rocknroll bar, boasts a swag of bands that are often fuelled by the same kind of irreverent punk attitude that drove The Dead Kennedys to come up with songs like Holiday in Cambodia. At Sharkys, you can also drink cocktails in mortar shells, survive three rounds and you win a t-shirt. Good wholesome fun! And don’t miss their upcoming show Didier Wampa from awesome French band The Wampas – it’s gonna be huge.

In every scene comes with its flipside, and this dichotomy in Cambodia’s scene is alive and kicking, there’s that same old chasm between "serious" and "popular" the debate over the value of lowbrow and highbrow art forms playing out but fuelling both debate and creativity. Cultural NGO’s like Cambodian Living Arts, have done wonders for the international profile of Cambodian music and arts, these NGO’s attract many musicians and arts workers who might tell you they’re ‘here to help’ (not everyone is), to join or initiate new cultural projects, to teach or learn from traditional art forms and while this side of town is somewhat elitist, its also a scene full of fascinating characters, not least CLA’s founder Arn Chorn Pond whose work in bringing together the surviving master musicians of Cambodia’s traditional arts has been invaluable in passing on traditional knowledge to the today’s generation. Arn was born into a family of performers and musicians who were involved in producing Opera in Cambodia.

After the Khmer Rouge came to power, Arn was sent to a children’s work camp. He escaped death by execution and starvation by playing the flute to entertain the camp’s guards.  When Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in 1979, Arn fled his captors and many years later managed to start a new life in the USA.  The success of his work in founding Cambodian Living Arts has led to the staging of CLA’s most ambitious international showcase “Seasons of Cambodia” and this is to be held in New York City April to May. Season of Cambodia intends to bring more than 125 artists from Cambodia to New York City for a major celebration of Cambodian arts, culture, and humanities. Musically, CLA will role out its usual suspect, Dengue Fever, Master Kong Nay and Arn Chorn Pond own group the Watterek Ensemble.

So here we have a scene where former Khmer Rouge soldiers can work alongside victims to stage operas and arts festivals. Runaways, punks, lost causes and other degenerates can form bands that mix and mash together an exciting culture clash, new works are bubbling out of this scene and regardless of who the players are or where they’ve come from they all part of a bigger picture, it’s an exotic and heady soundtrack that mixes up styles - from reggae to Khmer surin, ‘old timey’ bluegrass to Chapei Dong Veng, or to Isan or Molam, Parisian gipsy Swing to Punk Rock and Death Metal, the cross over happening, conceived or not, is the things that makes everything click together, it’s the new sounds of Cambodia happening right here and now.

Check out this latest video from Dub Addiction:

Here and now: the newest arrival the scene, the band du jour, Tango & Snatch has issued a somewhat provocative and attention grabbing press release. T&S describe themselves as playing

... knee slapping punk-rockabilly to the prostitutes and sexpats of Phnom Penh (and occasionally the odd music fan).

Seems they’re proud of this idea and why not? Sell yourselves but not too cheap! Tango & Snatch play gig-of-the-week supporting Tazmaniacs The Mincers – a garage band from Hobart, Tasmania fronted by the inimitable Zoe Zac. The Mincers and Tango & Snatch will be a great double bill, on tomorrow night at Phnom Penh’s most loved venue, Equinox - where I’m told they’ve set up a great system for filming the show and streaming live so no excuse not to check it out from wherever you may be (http://www.ustream.tv/channel/live-music-at-equinox-cambodia).

Yeah, They're all here, the Tiny Tims and the Uncle Toms, red heads brunettes, brownettes and the dyed haired blondes, Who talk to dogs, chase broads and have hopes of being mobbed, who mislay their dreams and lay their claim that they were robbed

I’m not entirely sure how Rodriguez and his brilliant songs fit in to this Cambodian picture but this has always been a place where disparate ideas have colluded, collided and exploded into something completely out there and unique. Just on three years ago I was inspired to form a band, the moment of this big idea occurred to me as I watched a diminutive Cambodian farm girl sing a haunting version of Peggy Lee’s Johnny Guitar in a dreary beer garden, karaoke bar. Since then I’ve had the thrill of touring the world with Srey Channthy & the Cambodian Space Project and this has opened all sorts of doors, doors that I never thought a knock-together band playing a setlist typical of the countless Cambodian wedding bands, could walk through. Again we’ll be touring in 2013, USA, Australia, Europe and are even more excited about the idea of stopping in Detroit where we’ll record TCSP’s next album, a kind of Khmer Soul Revue. Our big news is having Motown legend Dennis Coffey, the man who discovered and produced Sixto Rodriguez’s first recordings, put his hand up to work with our wedding band from faraway Cambodia. We’re thrilled about this project and will keep you posted via Leng Pleng on how this soup of hard bit Detroit and psychedelic Cambodia cooks up.

Films, videos & documentaries: Got a call this week from a Chris Parkhurst who informs me that he and his team are presently in Cambodia to make a documentary on Sin Sisamouth, they’re looking for anyone who might be able to provide an interview or other details on the Sin Sisamouth story. I’ve also heard that Jon Pirozi, the man responsible for the great cinematography in City of Ghosts will be back in town to wrap up shooting for his long-awaited history of Cambodian Rock documentary - Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten. Meanwhile, Marc Eberle’s documentary on Srey Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project has been bought by BBC4 and will go into post-production sometime later this year. Marc’s creating animated sequences for this project in collaboration with the artists and animators at Phare Ponleu Selpak. Over in NYC, renowned Cambodian film director Rithy Panh will curate and present Season of Cambodia’s film program during April – May in NYC. And finally, the best music film I’ve seen in years, Searching for Sugarman, just got nominated for an Academy Award so get out there and grab a copy if you haven’t already done so.

Latest Gigs

Thursday 24-Jan-2013
  • 6:00 PM ~ Diego "El Gipsy" Dimarqués at Le Jardin
  • 8:00 PM ~ Expresso Thmei at The RiverHouse Bar & Bistro
  • 9:00 PM ~ DJ Flo Trallala, DJ Wez-T and Greg Lavander at MetaHouse
Friday 25-Jan-2013
  • 6:00 PM ~ GTS Jazz and Sylvie Izzo at The Village
  • 8:00 PM ~ DJ Bassbender and DJ Kev Fresh at The Eighty8
  • 9:00 PM ~ DJ Chase, DJ Island and the ID Project at The X-Bar in Siem Reap
  • 9:00 PM ~ Station to Station at Paddy Rice
  • 9:00 PM ~ Tango & Snatch and the Mincers * at Equinox
  • 9:00 PM ~ Jaworski 7 at Sharkys
  • 10:00 PM ~ DJ Gang and DJ Rob at Pontoon
Saturday 26-Jan-2013
  • 11:30 AM ~ The Cambodian Space Project at The Naval Base
  • 8:00 PM ~ Blues Rock Band from Oz at The Local II
  • 8:30 PM ~ Billy Page at The FCC Phnom Penh
  • 9:00 PM ~ Dr. Wah Wah, Chris Bradbury, Warren Daly and DJ Shine On at MetaHouse
  • 9:00 PM ~ Kok Thlok at Equinox
  • 9:00 PM ~ Stryker Lefty, DJ Star, Furor Djino and DJ Tam at The RiverHouse Lounge
  • 9:00 PM ~ Oscar's Band at Sharkys
  • 10:00 PM ~ DJ Illest and Hydrophonics at Pontoon
  • 10:00 PM ~ The Cambodian Space Project at The Boddhi Villa in Kampot
  • 10:00 PM ~ DJ BBoy Peanut, DJ Koflow * and DJ Kev Fresh at The Doors
Sunday 27-Jan-2013
  • 4:00 PM ~ Scoddy, Chris de Nogales and Chhun Charm at Rubies Wine Bar
Monday 28-Jan-2013
  • 9:00 PM ~ New Monday Open Mic at The Village
Tuesday 29-Jan-2013
  • 9:00 PM ~ Open Mic at The Sundance Inn & Saloon
Wednesday 30-Jan-2013
  • 9:00 PM ~ Lee Coombs * at Pontoon
Coming Up
  • Scoddy and The Quality Drops at Equinox 
  • The Cambodian Space Project at Equinox , La Croisette 
  • The Phnom Penh Hippie Orchestra at Equinox 
  • Up2U Mango at The Led Zephyr in Sihanoukville 
  • Dr. Krach & the Nurses * , Thom Thom and Didier Wampas * at Sharkys 
  • DJ Wez-T and DJ Funk Elastiks at MetaHouse 
  • Julie Holestar * at Pontoon 

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