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Dee Peyok Q&A


pic - Martin Jay
Dee Peyok is a writer from the UK. She has spent the last six months in Cambodia researching a new book about the 'Golden Age' of Cambodian rock'n'roll music of the 1960's and 1970's. Now back in London, Dee found time to answer a few questions for Leng Pleng.

How is the book coming along and do you have a working title?

The book is coming along well, thanks. The idea of writing this book was conceived eighteen months ago, following my first visit to Cambodia. I spent the first thirteen months in London researching and saving to fund the project - scrupulously penny-pinching, scouring every corner of the world-wide web, digging through the repository of the British Museum - anything I could find outside of Cambodia itself, about the music of Cambodia's golden age. Then six months ago, I headed back to The Kingdom to seek out the musicians who created this music and listen to their stories. It was an adventure and I met some incredible people along the way who graciously bestowed on me their time and their histories. I took away a jigsaw puzzle which I am slowly piecing together. There are more musicians I would like to talk to in the USA and Europe next year for those final missing pieces, which I am currently making plans for.

As for a working title - emphasis on working - 'Away from Beloved Lover, The Music of Cambodia's Golden Age'. The title comes from the first song I heard by Sinn Sisamouth, and therefore holds a particular significance for me.


How does a writer from London hear about Cambodian rock'n'roll of the 1960's and 1970's? Does this cult music have an international audience now?

Music has always been in my blood, and such an important part of my life. My palate is insatiable and I have a particular interest in how the music of western, eastern and southern continents have influenced each other and shaped our music today. I grew up learning how African music inspired the blues, how Indian folk music influenced jazz, how European immigrants created country music in the Appalachian mountains. As I grew older and my palate drew on wider sources I started to discover bands like Zambian prog-rock band, Witch, Brazilian psychedelic rock band, Os Mutantes, Indonesian garage rock girl band, Dara Puspita, to name a few. I am fascinated by the merging of multiple musical influences, that span continents and time to create music that is vehemently unique. The music created in Cambodia in the 1960s-1975 stands alone. Working in record shops people would say, "you should check out Cambodian music from the 1960s" but I didn't take the plunge until I came to Cambodia for the first time at the end of 2012. I had a friend living in Phnom Penh who told me where I could get a download, so off we trotted to Boom Boom records to get that first taste. My husband and I played the music constantly, repeatedly, for months. We were hooked, and the more I listened to this music the more I wanted to know about it; who were these singers, these musicians, where did these musical influences come from, what instruments were they playing, what were their stories? I wish that a Cambodian had written this book (with an English translation also available to answer my burning questions) rather than someone like me who has not grown up around this music, does not have it inherently in their blood, does not speak the language, however loves it all the same. I have been fortunate that my passion has been received well by the people I have interviewed. As to whether they think I'm crazy, that is for them to say!

I definitely think that Cambodian music from this era does have an international audience, from the decks of Californian psyche dens to world music aficionados to rare record enthusiasts. I believe with the upcoming release of John Pirozzi's 'Don't Think I've Forgotten' documentary, this audience will grow further.

Visiting Sinn Sisamouth's house in Stung Treng, pic - Martin Jay
Can you tell me about your magic moment on Bokor Mountain - the first time you heard the music of Sinn Sisamouth?

It was January 2013. My husband, Kevin and I had hired a clapped-out one speed moped which suffered three punctures on the way up Bokor Mountain. One of the things I love about Cambodia is that when things go bad, there are always ingenious engineers, opportunists and mavericks that come out of the woodwork - or in this case the jungle - to help fix a problem. We met an elderly man who managed to temporarily fix our punctures and we made it to the cool air and staggering views at the peak of Bokor, surrounded by its colonial remnants. As we took in the sight of the abandoned casino with its fresh white render, distant music was edging closer. Our memory synapses were having a work-out with "is it?" "No, it's on the edge of my tongue.." "what is that song? I know that song!" And then it came to us, the melody of 'Whiter Shade of Pale' by Procol Harum bursting out of the speakers, but there was something not quite right. We followed the ghettoblaster resting on this stranger's shoulder, entranced, as all three side-by-side we climbed the steps into the old Casino. The warm tones of the Farfisa organ were bouncing off the walls, the drums built and all the instruments rose together to fill the empty space with this euphoria, and then a voice like silk cut through. It was Sinn Sisamouth and his version of this song, 'Away from Beloved Lover'. We stood in columns, captivated for the entire song.

You interviewed more than thirty people for your book, travelling all around Cambodia in a short space of time. Which place was most difficult to leave?

Each place (or more accurately, the people who made each place) had its own special merits, from the wilds of Stung Treng in the north-east to Battambang in the west, to Kampong Chhnang in the middle, to the tranquil Kampot countryside in the south. The book took me on adventures all over the country, and the hospitality I received from the people I interviewed was overwhelming at times, and unforgettable. But I would have to say the capital, Phnom Penh was the hardest place to leave. Not only were most of the people I interviewed based there, but we settled there. We made friends, we worked, we played in Phnom Penh. From 1960's/70's musicians and their families, to music archivists, researchers, translators, historians, and the new generation of music-makers, the majority of people I worked with and played with lived in the city. People are what make a place and it was extremely hard to leave this one.

Sharing Pchum Ben 2014 in Battambang with Ros Sabouen
How did you get on with Cambodian food and drink? Any adventurous meals?

I love Cambodian food. I'd have to say that my favourite dish is not any of the classics: amok or loc lac, but the fried ginger. However, I'm not sure if it is primarily Cambodian or more of a South-East Asian dish, as I have seen it on the menu in Thai restaurants? Any comments welcome! In any case, I must have sampled the dish in most of the places that serve it, and no one makes it the same. The salted fish that my friend Oro adores is pretty good too. My husband and I were treated to dinner by a member of the Royal Family who was a great friend to me in my research. He insisted on choosing the dishes and opened me up to new and exquisite tastes. My husband and I often cook Cambodian food in England. What is wonderful about it is the simplicity of simply using a few key - and always fresh - ingredients that just work so well together. There are a few things I didn't try; the rice wine, the fried crickets, but there is always next time... I did try a tarantula and it tasted quite good, like KFC but without the greasy, guilty digestion that follows.


Any plans to return to Cambodia soon?

Without a doubt we will return. There are things that I need to do here to progress the book at this stage which will take time, but I am not ruling out a return to Cambodia for further research. I fell in love with Cambodia the first time I came here. The past 6 months and this book have only deepened my ties with The Kingdom of Wonder. Cambodia has our hearts and it is not a question of if we return, but when.


- DEE PEYOK

 Check out Dee's travel blog, 6 Months in Phnom Penh, which relates some of her experiences in Cambodia.

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