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Musings From The Flight Deck: Part One

The Cambodian Space Project Tour Tales

Part one of an exclusive article for Leng Pleng by Julien Poulson

Co-pilots: Srey Channthy and Julien Poulson
- Founders of The Cambodian Space Project

As The Cambodian Space Project spins on its undulating, inexorable, orbit Srey Channthy and I sometimes forget how extraordinary this experience has been for us as we continue on our travels around the planet.

December this year marks our 5th CSP anniversary. It’ll be five years on from when Thy and I first got together to jam out a few songs at The Alley Cat Cafe. As many of CSP’s subsequent shindigs have been, this was a fun and very funny night. Larger than life characters Mark and Dallas, a kind of odd couple Tom & Jerry-like pair of compadres, consorts in all things (foods, mostly) Tex-Mex, as well as being owners of ‘The Cat’, had somehow rounded up a semi-functioning microphone, cleared a spot of furniture for a stage, let all and sundry know that there’d be a special new event – a Khmer/Barang cross-over band playing - prepared special food and drinks and even found a couple of guitar amps for us to sing and play through – wow! The pressure!

Thy and I only knew four songs; actually, we’d only just met, and knew even less about each other. Still, we got to the gig, set-up to give-it-a-whirl and, as a small but boisterous crowd arrived squeezing in and around the recesses of this modestly sized bar, we kicked-off with a track, a real easy one, a song that we still refer to as 'Happy Marry' – just one of so many fantastic old Pan Ron songs we’ve since covered. At the time, Thy didn’t speak any English nor did I speak Khmer but by the end of the night we’d played the four songs we knew at least three or four times over. Within an hour or so our duo had grown in size as a bunch more floating musicians including Scott Bywater (who, after our first set, disappeared into the night then reappeared in a tuk-tuk packed full with all the necessary musical equipment to make everything work a whole lot better) appeared, plugged in and soon gave rise to what we now call The Cambodian Space Project – a ferris wheel of psychedelic Cambodian rock’n’roll first formed in Phnom Penh. Now with our 5th anniversary coming up, and the fact that we’re in Cambodia less and less, I’m now hoping CSP can celebrate its five heady years of space trippin’ back in Cambodia this December.

Scoddy joins Srey Channthy and Julien Poulson on the night of CSP's first gig at the Alley Cat

We’ve travelled the world with our music and this, of course, has been an incredible experience. There ain’t no travel agent nowhere that could sell you this kind of trip – discover great new places, experience new cultures, meet wonderful people and celebrate all this through a continuous flow of groovy music and arts events – yeah baby! But hey, it ain’t for everyone. Even Channthy, who grew up in the desperate post-war poverty of Prey Veng, has often found all this travel too much. In the Cambodian Chapei tradition of lyrical story-telling [The Chapei Dang Weng is a traditional Cambodian stringed instrument], Channthy’s self-penned song, the title track of CSP’s sophomore album 'Not Easy Rock & Roll', describes the trials and tribulations of touring. Often when we’re on the road and away for a stretch it’s good to think of sweet home Cambodia!

So, when Television Ted, the mystery man behind Cambodia’s LengPleng.com, emails and says “hey you guys have been busy! Would you write a piece to update us on how it’s all going?

Well, it does take more than a moment or two to flash back through our recent activities (and quite probably the fog of memory loss) and come up with a half-decent answer.

One thing I do know is that over the last few years we’ve seen the Cambodian music scene flourish. Actually, it seems the music scenes across South-East Asia are really happening. Five years ago there was already an interest in Khmer-rock outside of the Kingdom but not much interest locally, just a few people experimenting with the Khmer/Western cross-over - the pioneering Mekong Pirates being the best example. There were few, if any, venues interested in cross-culture fusion, 'World Music' or whatever you’d call it. Most of the venues I came across (with the exception of Cambodian wedding parties and beer gardens) featured expat cover bands or, worse still, dudes on holiday jamming out sloppy renditions of classics – nothing wrong with having a good time and all that but this didn’t constitute a vibrant new music scene. Anyway, it seemed like the time when new music would be produced locally and exported out of Kingdom of Cambodia was still to come. The idea of creating, packaging, promoting and marketing new music out of Cambodia wasn’t there yet. It’s a very different story today; loads of stuff going on, cool venues, fabulous acts with really original sounds, lots of local produce and enthusiasm from both local and international audiences to get on board all this hoopla. So… from the flight deck, exclusively for LengPleng (Cambodia’s weekly gig-guide no less), musings on the Cambodian Space Project’s recent explorations and inter-planetary wanderings.

Rocking that lobster since 2009: CSP gypsy caravan lands in Kep

Sometime back in March this year, we played our last show in Cambodia. This was CSP with The Spacettes, our three Khmer dancers, augmenting the show. This wonderful addition came about a year or so ago when the Cambodian Film Festival asked if we’d create a performance piece for Georges Méliès' 1902 silent movie 'Trip To The Moon'. I asked around our contacts to see if we could find a local dancer who’d be able to interpret this brief and give the performance, a big ask at short notice! Very luckily we soon had Vannthy to join us. A day or so later, Vannthy performed a stunning solo dance piece along with our improvised sound track to a full house at the Legend Cinema.

Channthy as space-Apsara with the golden laser

Not your usual holiday in Cambodia! Julien and Thy photo by Peter McMahon
Not long after this we met with Michael Laub, a renowned theatre director famous for his avant-garde works in Europe and elsewhere. This time Laub’s sights were set on Cambodia. Somewhere along the way Michael and his team had encountered a few chaotic CSP shows (for some reason, perhaps the reason we like it so much, CSP shows are often chaotic and shambolic in Phnom Penh). Soon Laub chimed in with the idea that we should work together - work on bringing additional dancers and visuals to the show and, as Michael suggested, somehow get the atmosphere of CSP’s song 'Whisky Cambodia' expanding out of the rock band form and into a theatrical setting. So this is what we did. We borrowed the name 'Galaxy Khmer' from a gay massage parlour then created a theatrical take on the idea of Channthy being ‘a Khmer diva channelling the echoes of Cambodia’s Golden Era singers of the 1960’s'. First we rehearsed and presented a premiere of the show at the Phare Circus in Battambang – sweltering hot at the time – then, six months later, took the whole show off to Europe.

We landed in Berlin late on a bitterly cold winter’s night, kitted out in brand new snow boots and ski jackets. We soon premiered ‘Galaxy’ to a full house at the stunning 1920’s Hebbel Theatre. In Berlin, Galaxy Khmer was the performance part of a Cambodian themed exhibition 'Staging Cambodia' curated by Michael Laub and presented by HAU [Hebbel Am Ufer] – a bold and ambitious mix of art film, photographic exhibition, moderated forums and, not least, CSP’s Galaxy Khmer show. Bringing these elements together was not an easy task so it’s with great credit to Michael and all involved that this so-called 'Staging' of Cambodia happened. It’s a rare thing to see anything beyond the horrors of the Khmer Rouge staged to audiences outside of Cambodia so this ‘antipasto’ of the ‘here and now’ offered a window into Cambodia’s vibrant new art scene. Staging Cambodia garnered a lot of press – It was mind-blowing to see animator Tim Huy’s image of Channthy as the ‘Space Apsara With The Golden Gun’ covering five columns of the Der Tagesspiegel culture pages along with lengthy critiques and write-ups by cultural scientists. Targeting the concept of ‘Staging Cambodia’, reviews across the media ranged from glowing to damning – really a whole lotta hullabaloo about a far away place that some knew little about while others seemed to know too much about Cambodia’s broken history, the Khmer Rouge, the apocalyptic years of humanity at its lowest ebb, the vanquished cult of the Khmer God-Kings and the lost civilization of Angkor – one of the greatest disappearing acts of all time.

Srey Channthy ‘channeling the Khmer divas’ live at the Hebbel, Berlin.

At one point during the HAU public forum on ‘Staging Cambodia’ an audience member stood up to speak and respond to documentary filmmaker Marc Eberle’s presentation by raising the topic of the Cambodian genocide and then swaying this towards the Nazi holocaust; drawing parallels between the six million Jews killed by the German military under the command of Adolf Hitler and events in Cambodia. In the heart of Berlin, in the middle of an exhibition on Cambodia, in the heat of a cultural debate perhaps this turn of conversation is to be expected. However… as a guitarist in a rock band with a former karaoke singer where we perform night after night simply to enjoy a set of Cambodian rock covers – this moment of cultural dissemination was surreal, strange but not so surprising. After all, here we were with a set-list full of pre-war Cambodian songs, music that reflects Cambodia’s so-called Golden Era – a time before the artists and culture of the period became targets of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Performing this music in a theatrical situation played out in the Hebbel – one of only two theatres that survived the bombing of the Second World War - it’s not so surprising when the post-show patter moves on to the big themes of war, the dark nature of the human condition and the resilience of cultures able to re-build, refresh and reinvigorate in the aftermath of our self-destructive tendencies.

A view from the stage, Hebbel Theatre, Berlin

Following on from Berlin, we flew our hullabaloo north to the even-frostier Bergen, Norway. Picture this: a dozen Khmer and their tropically acclimatized Barang counterparts traipsing through the thick snow of a European winter, in Norway of all places! Some of the troupe had never before travelled out of Cambodia and had certainly never experienced such freezing cold. Our dancers, aka 'The Spacettes' had more than prepared; they’d even brought a rice cooker and smuggled Cambodian food into Norway - dried fish, embryonic eggs, chillies and spices - and had quickly adjusted the heating in each hotel room to feel like Cambodia. Meanwhile CSP’s Cambodian rhythm section Bong Sak and Phea Bass looked very much like two fish out of water huddling together as we ventured outside and stood against the white-out weather conditions. Soon they both started counting down the days until returning to their homeland.

Flash forward to the Knai Bang Chatt Sailing Club. This lush and luxurious tropical setting just happened to be the last show in Cambodia for Channthy and I as we prepared to take off for three months mostly spent in Australia, then a side-trip to Reunion Island and on to France for a couple of festivals and a week of recording. The Sailing Club proved to be a perfect launch pad for yet another tour taking us away from Cambodia and also a chance to bring together the ‘Galaxy Khmer’ team and have a fun weekend outside of the city - some time to travel together and to talk about future ideas and events where we might again work together. Of course, we’re all keen to keep the show flying, to travel and perform together and it’s fun coming up with new ways of presenting all this. Even drummer Bong Sak, who has seen a lot of hardship in his time and finds the experience of overseas travel difficult, is happily talking, in the warmth and comfort of a gentle night on the Cambodian coast, of the next trip. Bong Sak often assures us he’s never travelling again! Never going to work more than 50km from his village... and may even rip-up his (pesky) passport to add emphasis to all this.

Hard as a rock, Bong Sak contemplates (more) Space travel.

Despite the elitist bourgeois vibe of the venue - where locals, to our dismay, are shooed away for watching the show from a fence separating the resort from a vacant lot – it’s a great night and we play a full two hours of music with The Spacettes coming on and off to dance as the mood takes them. The next day we all stop for a seaside feast of prawns, crabs, rice and spicy sauces all procured fresh from the local market. Later that Sunday night, we edge through the traffic jams of Phnom Penh and finally pack away the vanload of equipment. Thy and I spend the week ahead getting ready for our next exciting rendezvous – landing in Melbourne where we’ll be joined, after a few months hiatus, by our Aussie Space Project rhythm section to play True North Festival in Reservoir then, right in the heart of Melbourne City, Multi-Culture Victoria’s Viva Festival at Federation Square. 

Girl’s talk: The Spacettes confer at the end of the Knai Bang Chat pier. Photo by Eng Makara.

Coming Soon in Part Two: Melbourne and making a Cambodian Rock Opera 'Hanuman Spaceman'... CSP goes to War... The Byron Bay Blues Festival... Blown away from a beach on Reunion Island... Landing in Marseille – where’s my luggage? ...Enter the man from Detroit: Jim Diamond (The White Stripes producer, Dirt Bombs bassist) arrives to record 'Electric Blue Boogaloo' in the French countryside... Back to Bali... Winter Solstice: CSP performs final night of touring at Lights in Winter Federation Square.

Srey Channthy and Glenn Lewis on bass, CSP lands in the heart of Melbourne at Federation Square.


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