Day 19 of 100 days: writing on flying through Space and Time with Kak Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project
Over this last weekend friends of Kak Channthy from near and far have gathered to reflect upon Channthy’s life and to mark the occasion of 100 Days since her death. In Khmer tradition, Channthy’s family and friends travelled to her humble village home in Prey Veng province to participate in the buddhist ceremony that allows Channthy’s spirit to peaceful transition into the next world. I’m pleased to say that this was a loving and respectful occasion arranged by her siblings and cousin as well as her aunts and uncle who also welcomed many of Channthy’s foreign friends to attend and reflect upon her life.
Previously I’ve written much about Channthy’s homeland and on this occasion the road back to Prey Veng had such deep personal resonance and at times was still so emotionally overwhelming but also a very happy journey accompanied by many friends and well wishers. One of the things that really struck me was the resilience of the elders – all farmer folk, largely women and all survivors of the Khmer Rouge Years – and how they rallied together to ensure Channthy’s passing was ably managed and given the reverence such an occasion needs – for those of us attending this ceremony and still carrying on with life ahead Channthy’s 100 Days (over two days) was poignant and profound, something that like Channthy herself, will touch our lives and forever be remembered.
“While being widely loved for reviving Cambodian rock’n’soul music throughout the world, Kak Channthy stood for more than just music. Her songs and her story represented freedom for poor and oppressed people throughout the world, social equality, human rights and justice.”
I was also happy to see all the children – many who I’ve watched grow up over these last 9 years – and seeing their exuberance and happiness – especially in their curiosity in checking out all the foreigners who’d come to visit – was an uplifting and heartwarming experience. These children of Channthy’s village live in extreme poverty but as Channthy pointed out to me not so long ago, things have changed for the better, there’s now electricity in the village and a massive new Chinese funded irrigation project that will soon supply the farms and add significantly to the yields farmers produce. For myself and the bus loads of friends who made the trek out to Thy’s village, the children also made us think of Channthy’s own childhood – born at a much harder time – war dragging on, unimaginable hardship and famine – she lost two older siblings to famine early on. But as friends, lovers and fans of Kak Channthy we all knew well her sense of humor and in observing the happiness and funniness of the children at play, we could also reflect on how much Channthy’s own playfulness and cheeky sense of fun had got her through life.
My hope now is that other young children growing up in Channthy’s im[overished homeland may also find a future path into their adult lives that can be as full and free spirited as Channthy’s own astonishing life – as so vibrantly illustrated through our own ‘fairy tale’ Cambodian Space Project years – It’s heartbreaking to think of how few years we shared together, less than ten years but ten very rich and fulfilling years of magic! and adventure.
For me personally, I approached Channthy’s 100 Days with the open heart that she would expect me to carry. I was there to mark our own journey together as well as to spend the weekend with friends who’d each made the journey motivated by their own desire to show respect and share emotional support with Channthy’s friends, fans and family. Driving back in, I meet many of the community who has been apart of my life with Channthy and more so, part of The Cambodian Space Project’s journey. The first time I visited the village, I’d traveled their on a little 125cc rental moto and as Channthy and I turned of the main highway and negotiated our way along a deeply potholed road above the rice fields… Channthy was yelling out a basic lesson in Khmer and an introduction to all the farm animals… “Sousday Bong Co” Hello brother cow, “Sok Sabbay Oun Mourn” How’s it going sister chicken … “Chum Reap Sur Bo Krabeik” How do you do Uncle Buffalo… These are my happy memories, the ones that fill my heart and make me cry with joy and these are early memories of the time we set-out on the road together. Of course, that road – the life road with all its ups and downs, all the emotional peaks and troughs – has been about as deeply potholed as that same road above the rice fields Thy and I so happily travelled in all those years ago. Being back in Channthy’s homeland made me reflect on how it had just been the two of us, happily traveling along together, unable to speak each other’s language but in love for our connection through song and laughter and after a time, joined on this journey by so many people. Channthy’s death has brought many people together and many ideas on what might be the best way forward – particularly in regards to supporting Channthy’s wishes – all I can say at the moment is that road ahead is unknown and despite plans being discussed and made, I am taking it one step at a time, or, to use a Channthy Spanish expression Poco a Poco. There’s much to be done and a long way to go and I am luckily that the journey Thy and began as a duo has gathered lots of great people along the way and together, we’ll make something significant come from our lives travelled with Channthy.
It still pains me that this time together – mostly as co-pilots of The Cambodian Space Project – is too short, Channthy’s life gone at 38 is such a tragic loss and it is hard to continue on without her but continue on. However, I will, and we all will, continue on, in a way that Channthy would have wanted – I promised her many times to support her son Makara if she was to die before me and this is what I will do. This road will surely have it’s own difficulties for all involved but it’s a path that I am already set on and have the support of friends who will help ensure the best way forward. The other thing that is very important to me right now is to make sure that Channthy’s extraordinary achievements – her music and the way she so touched and connected with so many people of all walks of life – is put to good use. The legacy of Channthy and who she was to me and to so many – a heroic Cambodian woman, a mother, a singer, a lover and a sincere and totally down-to-earth friend who welcomed all as family – is something that I feel an important need to look after and ensure that this legacy continues to bring something good – joy, love, hope and happiness – through music and art.
These last few weeks I have been working with members of the CSP – it’s a wide global community – in Cambodia and abroad to begin again and to create work that is in tribute to Kak Channthy. Some of this has been recording under the moniker CSP MOTHERSHIP with musicians that include Channthy’s young brother Lenny on congas and CSP drummer Bong Sak’s daughter Samnang on vocals – this week, on July 5 at Duplex Phnom Penh we will perform a music tribute and a new road begins. I’ve also been working away on a series of paintings to reflect and pay homage to Channthy’s life as well as my own, deeply personal take on my experience of Cambodian history – this series is currently on exhibit at One Eleven Gallery in Siem Reap and sales of my artworks (as per usual) help me invest cash back into the arts in Cambodia and in this case towards supporting Channthy’s family and sustaining her legacy. The exhibition is called Riders on the Storm after the Doors classic – you can visit online here. I wasn’t conscious of the fact that Riders of the Storm was also Jim Morrison’s last recording let alone that the last vocal take he recorded was actually a whispered voice beneath his spooky lyrics… these last few days I’ve been revisiting CSP’s studio work and last album… Jason Shaw and I recalled that the final vocal Channthy recorded was also a whisper, a whispered voice at the end of Channthy’s take on Iggy Pop’s The Passenger – also a song with lyrics borrowed from a Jim Morrison poem… Channthy’s version of the Passenger describes her own take on an epic journey across Outback Australia and the images and faces she encountered… at the end of the song she whispers in Khmer “What did Thy whisper?” Jason was wondering as we all met up this week in Phnom Penh ahead of Channthy’s 100 Days… we turned the track up loud and our Khmer translator responded by saying “I can’t hear or make out the first part but the last part of what she whispers is the word wonderful”.
Wonderful is truly what Channthy was to all of us whok new her or simply felt a connection to this bold and brave Cambodian woman. We trust her remarkable and often tough life will now become the inspiration for future generations, particularly young Cambodian woman to come to learn of Channthy’s story and how much hope and happiness she gave to so many. She is deeply missed and right now there’s much work to do to make sure all that she stood for, hoped for and represented can be continued on by all who loved her and respected her life and music. I continue to seek your help in supporting this future through Kak Channthy Memorial Fund – please take a moment to visit and support. Thanks to all of you who have already been in touch – my writing here as 100 days of writing for Channthy is also to remind and prompt readers to support through fundraising for Channthy’s only child Makara – pictured here with CSP family – bassist Hollie Lewis, guitarist Jason Shaw and partner Gillian Docherty, all who have recently flown back to Cambodia to be together at this time of mourning and gathering together for the future ahead.
Listen closely to The Cambodian Space Project’s The Passenger and at the end of the song you will hear the last word on Channthy’s final vocal take. She is saying something like “Life is Wonderful” – an ephemeral whisper in space and time by a woman who lived life to the full and has given the world a great gift – music and love.