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Moving To The Music


Or How the Cambodian Space Project Changed My Life 

-  by Susan Fletcher Haythorpe


A cold, wet wintry night in England, the kind that makes you question why, in a big world, you live in such a miserable climate, and the first time I heard Cambodian music. We'd invited a bunch of friends round for one of our occasional Singles Nights. Not the lonely hearts kind, but the sort that involves 45 rpm vinyl records; you buy what you can find for a tenner and play them for everyone else, while consuming a significant amount of alcoholic refreshment.  Someone brought along a Cambodian Space Project record. It was House Of The Rising Sun - and yet it wasn't, it was something else again. None of us were quite prepared for this out-there cover with its wonderful, wailing alto vocals. It went down a storm


Life-changing trip: 
Cambodian Space Project at the FCC in 2012
Skip ahead to 2012, common sense had prevailed and we'd waved goodbye to a dreary Blighty for a year or so of travelling round Hot Places. Arriving in Phnom Penh from Saigon, a thought occurred - that band that time, were they really Cambodian? Do they actually play gigs here then?  Of course they were and they did - and to our good fortune, in two weeks time. So we re-jigged our itinerary, changed a flight and found ourselves on the top floor of the FCC watching a disparate and unwieldy bunch of musicians playing revved up, psychedelic rock n roll, while a diminutive Khmer diva in a spangled frock belted out amazing pop tunes like a supercharged Tina Turner on helium.

Cracking stuff. But what was it all about?. The research would have to wait; I tucked a few newspaper cuttings in my bag for later and, with the names Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron ricocheting around my brain, reluctantly left The Kingdom of Wonder behind.

To cut a potentially even more drawn out story a touch shorter, less than a year later we were back in the Charming City, this time to stay. And we have CSP to thank, sort of. It's not just about the music, of course, there's a lot to love about Cambodia and its attractive, resilient people, but the music scene in Phnom Penh was a major part of the draw; the diversity of venues, the wealth of talented musicians both Khmer and expats, the open mic nights where almost anything can happen. The sheer ubiquity of the music as it emanates from bars and cafés, Wats and wedding parties.  How I love the dancing too, from the traditional to The Twist, and the way dance floors regularly sprout at least one spontaneous Madison. And, oh, the music of the Golden Age, that gloriously infectious, 60's-borne sonic merger of East and West that grabs you where it matters and defies you not to dance. A giddying whirl of searing, distorted guitars and impassioned vocals; refreshingly raw, a little rough around the edges and all the more appealing for it.

There's a lot to drink in, a lot to learn about, but I'm imbibing thirstily. From Master musician, Kong Nay (a privilege to see him perform) to the Karaoke TV channels - the deeply sublime to the decidedly more prosaic - it's all part of the journey.

Not even genocide could completely rob Cambodia of its music, it's heart.  Organisations and individuals alike are committing time, money, expertise and - crucially - enthusiasm to remembering, reviving and reimagining its unique sounds, from traditional wedding music to Khmer rock. A new generation of Khmer people who don't so much carry a torch for Golden Age music as thrust it, blazing, into the air, have taken on the mantle tragically torn from the artists of the 60s and 70s by the Khmer Rouge.  Among them, sweet songstress Miss Sarawan, whose pure, clear vocals evoke those of her lost predecessors; increasingly-assured young Khmer six-piece, The Underdogs; and Sao Sopheak, whose DJ sets regularly showcase classic recordings.


In the shadow of the golden greats: The writer with Battambang mural of Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth 

Devotees are putting the music - and its compelling backstory - out there. If LA-based Dengue Fever were the first western/Khmer 'fusion' band to achieve success in the Western world (LA, home to the largest Cambodian population outside the country itself, is set to host the second Cambodian World Music Festival in 2015), then the Cambodian Space Project are surely the ambassadors-in-chief of the music, its history and possibilities.  Frequently touring abroad, increasingly embroiled in adventurous collaborations and cross cultural projects like current work in progress, Hanuman Spaceman, the band has been shadowed by Phnom Penh-based filmmaker, Marc Eberle, and the fruits of the venture, which still in production, have already been bought by a UK TV company.  Meanwhile, John Pirozzi's excellent documentary, Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll, which premiered in Phnom Penh in 2014 and is currently showing at film festivals around the world, is a masterly tribute and a vehicle with the power to steer its subject towards the wider recognition and appreciation it deserves.

While I love music, I'm cursed with having no ability whatsoever to make it.  Those who can, do and those who can't, well, we just have to spread the word in a more literal way. This is my homage to the doers: the music makers; the groovy movers and hippy-hippy-shakers; those who forged their own, iconic musical style and those doing their damnedest to make sure it won't ever be forgotten.

Susan Fletcher Haythorpe

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