Revival instinct

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 February, 2011, 12:00am

The sepia tone photo shows a young child, wearing nothing but a nappy and a slight scowl, sitting on a small wooden seat. Her father stands beside her, wearing an army uniform with flared trousers, a pistol in a holster hung on his right hip. Parked in the background, behind a rabble of dust and vegetation, is a Soviet T-54 tank. The child's hand rests on a transistor radio, its aerial pointing straight up.

The girl in the photo would grow up to be Srey Thy, one-time karaoke singer and now the frontwoman for the Cambodian Space Project, a band that is leading a psychedelic rock revival in Phnom Penh. As the radio in the photo proves, rock 'n' roll prevailed even in Srey Thy's embattled village in Cambodia's southern Prey Veng province.

Srey Thy was born into conflict. As the daughter of a tank driver, she would move around the battlefields with her family as Cambodia's civil war dragged on even after dictator Pol Pot had fled Phnom Penh. For her, war was a normal part of life.

She has never owned a CD player. When Cambodian Space Project founder Julien Poulson discovered her in a karaoke bar and asked her to join the group, she would listen to music on her cellphone. She was enjoying a tradition from before Pol Pot and his genocidal regime, the Khmer Rouge, came to power in 1975.

'There was a childlike innocence to the Cambodia of the 1960s,' says Poulson, an Australian guitarist who first visited Cambodia on a fellowship to study the country's music in 2007 and since decided to stay on and form the band, which will play in Hong Kong on Saturday, March 5. 'It was a very sweet, innocent place, which adopted this explosion of music from the West.'

Wealthy Cambodian teenagers were embracing music from the 'British Invasion' - led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones - that swept the world. Less well-to-do music lovers heard popular Western tunes over the airwaves courtesy of American troops stationed in neighbouring Vietnam.

There was a swinging scene in the capital, with singers Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea attaining star status with their uniquely Cambodian takes on Western hits. 'That time was Phnom Penh as the kind of Paris of Indochina,' Poulson says.

However, all three are believed to have been killed by the Khmer Rouge, which wanted to destroy culture and return the country to a misconceived agrarian utopia.

'So that meant targeting musicians, destroying all instruments, destroying record players - any evidence of the culture that had gone before,' Poulson says. Musicians, intellectuals, people with light-coloured skin and, perversely, anyone wearing glasses were systematically killed.

'Everything changed quickly. As you got to 1975, the lights were ripped out. The heart and soul of Cambodia were destroyed overnight.' But Pol Pot failed to kill culture. 'Their music remains very popular today,' Poulson says. 'You'll hear it come out of the CD players of tuk-tuks or from market stalls. It's a haunting legacy to a different time.'

Now, 30 years after the Killing Fields, the music is getting a second lease of life. In October, the CSP released their first single - a reworking of the Pan Ron single I'm Unsatisfied - at a Phnom Penh launch party that attracted surviving musicians from the 60s and 70s, as well as Roy Sereysothea's sister.

'For me, it was one of the more joyful musical evenings of my life,' says Sean Hocking, owner of boutique indie label Metal Postcard, which released the single. 'If I had been at the Buena Vista Social Club reunion of musicians [in Cuba], I would describe the evening as the Cambodian version of that.'

Despite being new on the scene, the CSP has already enjoyed measured success in Cambodia. The eight-piece band, made up of expats and locals - including a master drummer called Bong Sak who was once a rice farmer and soldier - plays three nights a week in the country and has just finished a 20-stop tour of Australia, which included a slot at the highly regarded Mona Foma Festival in Tasmania. As well as clubs and bars in Phnom Penh, they play regularly at villages, schools, orphanages - and once, even, at an elephant's 50th birthday party. But they're not alone in reawakening Cambodia's lost years of rock 'n' roll.

Filmmaker John Pirozzi is putting the finishing touches to a documentary about Cambodia's rock' n' roll history. Called Don't Think I've Forgotten, it will complement Pirozzi's 2007 film Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which followed US band Dengue Fever on their tour of the country. Dengue Fever is fronted by Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol, who the band discovered singing at a karaoke bar in Long Beach, California, home to the largest Cambodian community outside of the homeland. The band plays Cambodian-inspired rock, and Chhom Nimol sings most of the songs in Khmer.

Pirozzi says there is a new-found appreciation in Cambodia for the music from the 60s and 70s. 'Now you're getting a group of people who are young adults who didn't directly experience the Khmer Rouge,' says Pirozzi. 'They are curious about the cultures past and they are rediscovering it.

'When I started the film [in 2005], it really wasn't like that, because the younger people weren't as curious. There was still a real cloud over Cambodia about the past - it was really the older generation's music.'

New York-based Pirozzi interviewed more than 60 people, many of them musicians from Cambodia and the US, for the film. Throughout the process, he has seen them develop a growing sense of pride in the past.

'So much has happened to that country and the culture that they had almost forgotten it. It was almost something in their past that they now realise they can look back on and have some pride in.'

Dengue Fever have also noticed the change. 'There is kind of a young scene happening there,' says Senon Williams, the band's bass player.

'When we first went there in 2005, we didn't meet any artists, we didn't meet any rock 'n' roll musicians, we didn't see these coffee houses and all this funky stuff. When we went back last year, it was like this heavy-duty arts scene, where the Westerners were mixing with the Cambodians more. Because when we first went there, it was completely segregated.'

Williams and Pirozzi hope their efforts will help people realise what Cambodia was like before the Khmer Rouge distorted its place in history.

Says Pirozzi: 'It's such a devastating thing that happened there that I think it required this amount of time for people to get some distance from it to not just focus solely on the horror of it, and now people are able to also take in other aspects of their culture.'

The upshot is that we are now witnessing a musical event that can appeal to hipsters, hippies and has-beens alike - one that is new and exciting, but retro and familiar at the same time. This corner of Asia is reopening a portal to a glorious but fleeting musical past.

'It really is as far away from the formal Western music industry as you can get, says Poulson. 'And [it's] totally free of any concern about what's fashionable or who's doing what, or whether there's a record company or an agent going to look at you. It feels like a frontier.'

Julien Poulson and Srey Thy play an acoustic Cambodian Space Project set at Metal Postcard's 'Half-Baked' show, Saturday, March 5, 8pm, HK$100 (adv), HK$125 (door), Saffron on The Peak, Dairy Farm Building, 100 Peak Rd. Tickets from Saffron outlets at Stanley, Repulse Bay, The Peak. For details, call 2818 3233.

Dengue Fever's new album, Cannibal Courtship, is out now.