Day 8 of 100 days: writing on flying through Space and Time with Kak Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project
Everything that we learned as The Cambodian Space Project came for what we experienced on the road. At first this was an intersection of our own past lives and experience but then it was a shared journey, one that accumulated thoughts and ideas along the way and inspired out work together. As co-pilots of the CSP the Space Project just wouldn’t exist without both of us… . Channthy and I learned much about ourselves, about each oter and about the world we travelled together. Channthy would often tell people “I’m sorry… I never go to school… I never read or write… but CSP is my school, this is my university of space!”
Let’s hit the road!
“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
RLS quote sums up our driving wheel… much of the time Channthy and I had little idea of what was around the corner or what would come next but we did love living with the knowledge that we could pretty much count on an adventure ahead. At first, much of our travel was difficult, and this part of our story is well documented and something I’ll come back to later. But we loved to travel and it really was the fact that we’d have this shared experience that certainly opened up our minds to new ideas and was equally a “university” of experience and new knowledge to both Thy and I.
There are many writer’s quotes on travel and another one I like – it mirrors my thoughts looking back here – “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” – Paul Theroux. It’s certainly true of our experience… there were terrible times… like the time we were stuck in Jakarta airport, dead tired, very unhappy with each other, sleeping the night on a hard wooden bench as there as no other option … or worse still, arriving in Istanbul, having to join separate queues to get through immigration – I got through only to see Channthy being lead away by immigration police and then deported on the next available flight back to Venice… yes, there are worse places to get deported too and Thy would often tell the story of this flight landing back Italy where police drove to the side of the plane to meet and escort her off the flight… thankfully, we have great friends Max and Lalo of The Beards of Venice who were able to look after Channthy until we could book new flights and meet back in Phnom Penh. Hard times! but one more quote comes to mind and that’s the words of Tennessee Williams –
“Make voyages! Attempt them… there’s nothing else.”
I’d often describe our travel as an undulating orbit and in reality, the more Channthy and I travelled together the more we loved it. Just before Thy died on April 20, I’d called her up from Kampot, “Hey Oun… did you see the video I sent you?” I’d just found a harddrive full of GoPro footage I’d filmed while touring Australia… at times on this 10,000 k journey Thy and the band – the Aussie rhythm section Glenn Lewis and Hugo Cran would get sick of my relentless GoPro’ing but it was a new camera and I was determined to record our travel… maybe later I’d write about it myself… I’d be wandering around in a daze, oblivious to hazards around me with a selfie pole and this little miniature camera with Glenn saying… “hey… a new way to die….death by GoPro” and Channthy getting pissed-off and calling out to me “Come on Possum…hurry up….get in car… everybody waiting you…” – she’d call me pet names and had never been able to pronounce my surname P0ulson…. so at first it was “Julien Person” then later “Possum”. “Possum…. you got big eyes but cannot see!”.
So Thy watched my edit of GoPro footage to her cover of Iggy Pop’s The Passenger and told me how much she loved seeing this… Like me, she’d forgotten we had all this footage and was thrilled to see it all again… yep, travel is indeed much more glamorous and fun to look back on. But it was certainly something we learned from – Channthy’s new lyrics for Iggy Pop’s classic The Passenger was also her way of looking back on that same journey… she was the passenger and she’s re-written Osterberg’s lyrical masterpiece (apparently taking lines borrowed from a Jim Morrison poem) to sing about her own ‘passenger’ experience – an epic road trip across Australia in the CSP’s “White Whale”.
Channthy’s lyrics describe some of the scenes we encountered a long the way including the stunning landscapes, the people, faces and places and she describe all this as a kind of dream, a scene that lifts off from earth and becomes visible again as she travels up through the stratosphere and into some other dimension in outer space – a cosmic trip!. At the time of embarkation on They Came From Somewhere Else tour, we saw the road trip ahead of us as a great opportunity for The Cambodian Space Project to write itself into its own kind of odyssey – a humungous road trip from the top to the bottom of Australia covering near 10,000 kms – white line fever – while taking something of our cosmic Cambodian sounds all the way across the central desert and out to the remotest corners of Australia and…. we did it!
Motown to the Mekong
Channthy loved to travel with an entourage… me? perhaps not a much as her. Sometimes I’d turn up to wherever our point of embarkation would be (when touring in Cambodia) and see that Thy had not just booked a taxi but had instead booked a 22 seater bus and invited friends and family to join us – off on safari across the Kingdom of Wonder and as Thy would put it “Happy all together!” and of course this is the Cambodian way… sometimes we’d have a booking where our extended team – band and crew – would each be allocated separate hotel rooms but the Cambodian members would all end up sharing one or two rooms together… early on we learned that an essential piece of touring equipment would be the rice cooker!
We also travelled of course, to take our music to new and unfamiliar places and at the same time to bring music and ideas back into our own project. In 2016 we brought together an ‘entourage’ of CSP band members along with videographer Samy Nine, author Clinton Walker and record producer Jim Diamond plus Thy’s family and set-off on a 30 day/30 night tour of Cambodia that we called Motown to the Mekong. Again, this was an epic trip and a collective experience created by all onboard, not just Thy and I. Along the way, Samy and Gillian Docherty filmed and documented much of this trip… I’d been planning to cut this footage into a documentary a CSP road movie called They Came From Somewhere Else and will certainly do this now… Thy’s left us so much to do and so much of our story is more than music it’s about what it means to travel – what we learn from this? what we can give back to our own communities by taking the punt, jumping out there into the unknown – especially for Channthy where this really was stepping out into the totally alien and unknown…
So, looking back, there’s one heck of a space odyssey to recall and think about. In this time or sorrow and mourning Channthy – Day 8 of 100 days of writing in tribute to my journey with Channthy – I’m going to keep today’s post shorter but also include a fabulous story by Susan Fletcher Haythorpe first published on Leng Pleng website recalling her own travels and the music and the road that led to her relocating to Cambodia – see below.
but one last thought on travel….
Travel is not just about the travelers – the participants – but is also about all the people who are not traveling but who keep the home firest burning, who wish you well along the way… CSP became well known for it’s frequent “Bon Voyage” and “Welcome Home” shows in Phnom Penh… and of course, we the travellers… the space trippers loved setting off on our mission as much as we loved returning home. Right at the start of our Motown to Mekong tour… someone I’d also like to pay tribute to and who wished us well and helped us (with rehearsal space, drinks and social space) prepare, was Big Mike Hsu who loved music and was a larger than life character in the Phnom Penh music scene. Mike wrote to me the day before we set off on tour… we were half to Siem Reap when we heard the very sad news that Mike had passed away, Channthy was especially upset as Mike “always made me feel special, he was very kind to me”. Somehow, I’ve only just come across Mike’s message… it’s good to read and to never forget our friends along the way. With Thy’s own passing I also feel like traveling backwards to everyplace we’ve been and thanking everyone we met for all their kindness and encouragement along the way. Over the last few years I’ve also had drastic emergencies and health problems that have made life, touring and managing the CSP more difficult. Big Mike Hsu, sent me the following message and kind thoughts of encouragement, just a day before he died. Memories mean everything.
Hi Julien, nice to see you last night at Sharkys and thanks for coming by. I really appreciated it and always enjoy hanging with you and chatting. Very interesting to me. I feel badly about your health situation though and with septic shock 3 times, and you are still moving around and playing, is a minor miracle. Most people don’t understand how amazing this is but I am definitely absolutely impressed by your ability to power through your situation !
,Steve Porte told me that I have an appointment with Clint today at 4:45 – 5pm for a brief chat/interview at The Exchange. Is that correct and can you please confirm? I sent a message to Tony Lefferts but he hasn’t responded so sorry that I am bothering you on this. I just don’t want to come by without being invited and would like you to confirm the time of 445pm – 5pm or not. Thanks much.
– Mike Sharky
I am also writing to remind our friends and readers that we need your help to support Channthy’s 13 year old son Makara and to raise funds so that Channthy’s son can also have the opportunity in life to learn and to travel click here for Kak Channthy Memorial Fund
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
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.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.
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.
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