If there's one word you hear used above practically all others in Cambodia, that word is ‘bong’. It means friend, and it peppers every conversation, and that, I think, maybe says something about the country itself.
The people of Cambodia match the climate there, and to say Cambodia is warm is of course an understatement. The lightning 12 days I just spent there, just ahead of the rainy season, all dawned already in the mid-30s and stayed that way all day every day. Those days were full of friendliness, good cheer and such a general positive state of mind that I fell slightly in love with the place. The easy-going flexibility is another case of putting mildly an anything-could-happen openness that I was forewarned would prevail; this vibe that's as much ingenuity as it is laconic or just plain zen ensured that the results gained from my reason for going in the first place – a sort of fact-finding/cultural exchange mission on the road with the Cambodian Space Project – were fruitful indeed. In other words, I’ve started to come to understand that little bit better.
Since I’m likely in the future to write in more formal detail about my adventures aboard the boogaloo bus, I will here just briefly outline the time and places in Khmer, and some of the people I met, and give thanks to all my fine fellow Space Cadets, who made it all possible and so pleasurable. You can read another report in Asia Life magazine here.
Firstly, my gratitude is to the main man over there, Julien Poulson.
Julien is a whirlwind, and you can't help but get caught up in his passions, enthusiasm and energy. When he first got in touch to ask if I wanted to come over to join the fun and games on a project called ‘From Motown to the Mekong’, it all sounded a bit vague, if irresistible. And it was kind of vague, but then it proceeded to unfold exactly the way it was meant to, it seemed to me.
Like many Westerners, or barang – one of the other first Cambodian words I learnt along with bong – the full extent of my prior knowledge of the country could be summed up in two words: Pol Pot. Or, well, maybe another two: Angkor Wat. And that’s about it, to my shame. I knew the bands, LA’s Dengue Fever and the Cambodian Space Project, of course, and the Cambodia Rocks compilation album. But that was it. So I read some books – Lawrence Osborne’s recent Hunters in the Dark was as good a novel as any I’ve read lately. That and the just-released Cambodia Noir conjured images of a bad opium dream or nightmare, a place haunted by the ghosts of a recent trauma. Recently I also read Maria Tumarkin’s fascinating book Traumascapes, and I know this was one of them. It’s chilling to think too much about it. So, mainly people just get on with things, if with this clear sense of reserve that always seems to be just out of reach, an untouchable dark recess.
Working out of a little gallery called SpaceFourZero in Phnom Penh's funky riverside quarter, Julien Poulson and his partner Tony Lefferts, an American from Austin, oversee the activities of the Cambodian Space Project and provide an outlet for the screenprint artwork Julien generates out of his Sticky Fingers studio in Kampot, as well as other printmaking collectives and artists like, for instance, the Idle Beats enterprise from Shanghai. This latter were coincidentally visiting Phnom Penh at the same time as me and showing work at Space40 and conducting workshops with Julien down at Sticky Fingers in Kampot, and I loved their stuff as well.
Doing what they do so well, Julien and Tony managed to hustle up some money from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to not only fly me there from Sydney but also fly Detroit producer Jim Diamond in from Paris. French-Tahitian videographer Samy Nine also flew in from London.
I arrived on Friday morning (April 29) and in the evening, the Space Project launched its tour at the Exchange, with a set in the beautiful outdoor courtyard. It was a slightly tentative performance, with a few new songs in it, during which I started to drift off into a semi-dream state, so tired was I. It reminded me of the time I saw Sun Ra on hashish many years ago in Amsterdam and couldn’t quite tell the difference between our temporal earth and some sort of hallucinogenic spaceways…
Samy, Tony Lefferts and I were privileged one day when Channthy, Julien Poulson’s co-pilot in the Space Project, its totally captivating front-woman, took us to her home village a couple of hours south of PP, in the province of Prey Veng. It was an amazing experience that most barangs would never get the opportunity to enjoy. Fortunately for me, having been to a few remote Aboriginal settlements in Australia, it wasn't so unfamiliar, in a way. What did surprise me is how dry the countryside was, especially when you normally picture it and it usually is lush and green. But Cambodia has been enduring a great drought, and the parched grey-brownness of the land only seems to exacerbate the general Third World conditions. The poverty is obvious but then again the resilient spirt of the people is foremost. Naturally we were treated like visiting royalty – Channthy IS royalty (she's a Star, in case you didn't know) – but she's also still just a sister and a cousin and a niece and a neighbor, and for all she's a star and knows it, she’s not above anybody. The local village burgher even dropped in, and I wasn’t sure of the protocols. I demurred on eating dog as politely as I could, but enthusiastically supped a few shots of Whisky Cambodia, which is like Khmer's white lightning, or moonshine, and was much smoother than I expected. It is one of the Space Project’s great tracks, "Whisky Cambodia," as you can hear here; see below too another great track, "Have Visa, No Have Rice:"
Samy and I shot a couple of other interviews during the week, notably with Oum Rotana Oudom or rather Oro, or DJ Oro, a compelling young man who heads up the Cambodia Vintage Music Archive, which is hoping to soon get some government support on its mission to preserve the great lost Cambodian music of the post-war/pre-Pol Pot era. I said to Oro, 'Man, you’re like a Cambodian version of me! it’s great, keeping alive this music,' and we enjoyed a lot of exchange. You can additionally see Oro's CMVA FB page here
The band did a couple of days’ rehearsal at Sharky’s, a bar in PP. The group itself is a mixed extravaganza. In addition to Jules and Chantthy its line-up includes two Khmer, the rhythm section of bassist Yun Sophia and drummer Bong Sak, plus another barang, Scottish guitarist Jason Shaw. The group ran through new material designated to cut at 60 Road studios in Siem Reap after Jim Diamond arrived later in the week. There were a few great songs I’d noticed on the Friday night: one Channthy had written, as yet untitled, that harked back to a Khmer mountain sound. It’s funny, the more I heard lost Pol Pop, the more I could hear in it. At times it could sound Middle Eastern; at other times it had definite Latin tinges, and at other times, especially when the indigenous instrument the tro came into play, it could sound for all the world like a hillbilly fiddle solo from the Appalachians. Channthy’s new mountain song had a bit of all of that in it, plus plenty of rock, and topped, of course, by her throaty, powerful voice whose operatic tenor seems typical of Khmer girl singers. Channthy is developing at an amazing rate as an artist, having been thrust into a big wide world full of especially black American soul divas. On the bus home from her village, I listened to her sing along to Nina Simone tunes all the way. There’s another great new song Julien has written, called "Sugar Coated Mango," which as its title suggests is a sticky bubblegum singalong. The band was also honing a few new covers, which they imbue with an almost shocking freshness, among them a version of "Paint it Black" that owes more to Eric Burdon’s version than the Stones’ original, and which is retitled "Paint it Blackbird" after childhood experiences of Channthy’s.
The rehearsal room was a clean, cool space connected to Sharky’s bar, a joint run by Big Mike Hsu, a Chinese-American with an extraordinary story himself. Meeting and talking to Big Mike was an unexpected pleasure, and all the more amazing because only a few days later, after we’d left Phnom Penh, he died, much to the shock and sadness of everybody on the Boogaloo Bus. Mike was one of those unknown soldiers of rock, who can be seen in a photo that headed his Facebook page standing side of stage watching Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, exalting, when he was still just a teenager. He went on, as he would tell me over a few drinks, to work as a doorman at Max's Kansas City and CBGBs in the 1970s, before taking a few other divergent turns before opening Sharky’s in 1992, making it, as he always claimed, ASEAN’s longest-standing rock’n’roll joint. All the eulogies – you can read the Phnom Penh Post obit here – said he was one of the good guys and that was easy to believe because I was completely charmed by him, not least because he seemed just as interested I hearing some of my not-so tall stories as I was in his, which were all very tall. Vale Big Mike.
On my second Friday in Phnom Penh, Jim Diamond arrived in town. Jim is from Detroit, originally, where until recently he ran his own Ghetto Recorders studio. His credits grace some top albums, including the White Stripes, and he was the co-producer and guitarist in the fabulous Dirtbombs. He and I participated in a 'Motown to the Mekong/We Gotta Get Outta this Place' panel-discussion event back at the Exchange with Chantthy, Em from the Messenger Band, Oro and various other mixed legends of Pol Pop, and both Jim and I felt humbled to be in such company and simply stepped back and let them take the floor. Read a report on the event here
The next morning we all boarded the Boogalo Bus, bound for Battambang along typically erratic Cambo roads. In Battambang, the band played a great show at a joint called Here Be Dragons, and the next day, as Tony Lefferts and Diamond Jim set off for nearby Siem Reap to set up for recording due to start on the Monday at 60 Road studios, the band played a special charity show for the Cambodian Children's Trust. The CCT is a newish initiative in Cambodia, which is reforming the orphanage scene, which like many things in Khmer is undermined by corruption and not functioning as it should. Rather than breaking families up, the CCT is trying to keep them together, by offering what we in the West might recognize as more akin to a daycare-centre service. At the CCT’s such facility in Battambang, the CSP played a set and naturally it was heartwrenching. The kids, who are so beautiful and looked so healthy and happy, went crazy, forming into line-dances and generally having a ball. There was one brand new little girl, still in dirty clothes, suspicious of all this noise and smiles like she'd never seen such fun and probably hadn't, clutching several bags of sandwiches because, as the carers told me, the new ones don't eat their food, they horde it and take it home, because they don't think they'll see anything like it again. It was comforting to think that in maybe just a short time this little girl would be smiling herself and joining in with all the other kids.
The next day the band and Samy and I made the not-so short hop over to Siem Reap. Went straight to the 60 Road studio, which Jim had all primed and set to go. The band straight away laid into it, and started getting down, in their preferred live-take approach, many of the new songs.
The next day, I headed back to PP, to catch the plane home. It was all over too quickly, but then I was exhausted as well. The band played on for a couple more days in the studio, and then played a show in Battambang on the way home to PP to play a wind-up show back at the Exchange again, and then play a Mikestock memorial event for Big Mike. The road does seem to go on forever. The new Space Project album will come when it comes – hey, it’s Cambodia, anything can happen! – and for me, well, hey, Next stop Kampot! hopefully, the Kampot Writers’ Festival in November...