It’s Xmas Eve 2019 and I’m penning a little ship’s log update from my art studio back here in Kampot, Cambodia. As I write here, I’m reflecting on the year that’s just been and what it all means, life going on after loss and tragedy, what it means to live and keep living with hope and dreams for the future and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for what we already have. For me personally, 2019 has been a full and busy year. Much of this is to do with living a very creative life through the language and expression of art and music while loving all the good things, and good that comes with this but also taking time to rebuild and continue new work through the framework created by The Cambodian Space Project. Much of this year has involved the rekindling of the artistic expression of Channthy and the CSP – always a sense of joy and happiness – and filling the void of loss and sadness with a real sense of gratitude for all we have.
I formed the Cambodian Space Project about this time ten years ago and right now I feel like I’m looking forward rather than back but I’m doing this in a way that is completely informed by all that has been. It’s been a struggle to arrive at this point where I’m back to looking at the future but I have done this and I’m gonna sign-up for the next decade and whatever it brings while feeling that the spirit and the soul of Kak Channthy will guide the good ship CSP into beautiful new places. Some of this is already happening and this includes producing Cambodian Women of Song, recording many new tracks – much of the musical ideas intended for the CSP – with the CSP Mothership team in the UK and here in Cambodia, it also involves the creation of a new music theatre work The Ratcatcher – already taking shape and all this is an exciting continuum of much of the artistic language and expression that is The Cambodian Space Project.
FOLK ART & BLUES and our community arts festivals
2019 really got rolling with the second edition of our Folk Art & Blues Fest aka FAB Fest. Doing things like FAB – a kinda Ken Kesey magic bus of bands and space trippers blasting across Cambodia – is certainly a lot of fun but it does take a lotta blood, sweat & beers and for my part, a bit of madness for sure! But hey! This is fun right… the joie de vivre that goes hand in hand with getting a whole crazy circus out on the road and simply celebrating life and culture. The best thing about our 2nd installment of FAB was having UK psych rockers Frankie Teardrop Dead returning for another dose of FAB and Cambodia and seeing and hearing just how good this already awesome outfit have become. I also really like the fact that FTD, like the Space Project is somewhat made-in-Cambodia or at least draws energy from it and this comes out in the music – new, awesome rock’n’roll coming to bear simply from sweating it out and banging it out through the oft fucked-up, broken bits of gear and sound systems along the way but never failing to deliver! Getting back up and doing it all again. Finally, the last train home was also with much of the FAB touring party, still somewhat intact, and even performing and singing all the way back to Kampot on the vintage 1940’s train that is even less reliable than some of us train wrecked musicians onboard.
Big thanks again to all who helped make this year’s FAB happen, it was crazy enough for me to think about doing it all again but this year coming, we’ll be staying in just one location, Folk Art & Blues Festival will happen over the lunar New Year at our new community arts centre on Fish Island – stay tuned for updates. Meanwhile, another highlight was most surely opening night at Chinese House and an all in jam with the Kampot Playboys bringing the house down.
FAB Fest best and fairest medal goes to double bassist Dan Davies who somehow rode out the whole tour and as per usual, seemed to pop up in almost every band or jam along the way… Dan and I even took time out to form an improv trio perhaps prophetically named House of Ruin and H.O.R did kick off rather optimistically, performing with a drummer who’d blown in showing off his toes tattooed with the name Gene Krupa… we improvised a soundtrack to Chinese silver screen classic The Goddess and again, tried to record this concept upon arrival a few days later in Siem Reap minus Gene Krupa… it’s a tough one to do… to play and record freely and continuously to images on a movie screen… especially when tired and hung over… still we kinda did it and I like the results. If you take a listen to this House of Ruin performance you’ll notice the bass player drops out about a third of the way through, but hey, that’s another story… later, after an almost aborted studio session, Dan and I performed The Goddess one final time at the opening of our art exhibition featuring portraits of film’s iconic starlette Ruan Lingyu – hence the naming of the trio “House of Ruin”. Check it out here on youtube.
Through February and March I spent most of my time back in Kampot, my adopted hometown when I can really decamp and chill-out from things like going on the road with rock’n’roll bands. It’s also where I’m taking time to paint and dream up ideas but mostly a place where I just really relax with my little family and wait until the next adventure comes calling… this time it turned out to be a knock on the door for my partner Kek Soon who was informed she’d won a World Tourism Forum award for her cuisine, art & culture tours here in Kampot and that she’d be flown to Lucerne, Switzerland to pick-up the award and attend the forum – wonderful news! It also prompted me to call up the CSP Mothership team in the UK and book in another recording session, I’d join Soon in Switzerland but would travel via Space Eko studios in London where bassist Brian Tolly Tolworthy, drummer David Eugene Webb and I could continue our work recording bed tracks for The CSP Mothership. But this would all come up in June and meanwhile, Kampot living proved to be relaxed and calming as living out in coastal Cambodia can be. But around this same time, I also met Sam Dara for the first time and in a way, through songwriting together for The CSP Mothership, expanded upon ideas for a whole body of new music. Soon and I and friends visiting from Tasmania also took time out to do a little bit of Cambodia travel and took to the mountains of Mondulkiri where I’m always happy to go and seek out the musicians of the mountains, this occasion was as fascinating and as wonderful as each of my earlier visits, as well as a chance to really put time in with friends I’ve made within the indigenous Bunong community at Bou’Sra.
Just before leaving Cambodia to for the UK, I put in a several weeks in Phnom Penh to workshop and write songs as well as to get together with Dara and plan a tribute concert to Channthy – this is something I hope to do every year in memory of Channthy’s life and all she has left us. During this time I also met up with Sochi who began sitting in on songwriting sessions and came up with a whole suite of new music in a matter of days, not least the super catchy! Lazy Husband Blues… so before taking off to UK I made sure we’d shoot a rough’n’ready street video just to put some of this great (and very fun) new music and singers out there!
Arriving back in the UK for the third session I’ve put in at Space Eko was a treat! First of all, I’d dreamt up a few ideas ahead of the session while still in the mountains of Mondulkiri. Wifi is scarce up there but somehow I’d been online and stumbled across a ‘holy grail’ of electric 12-string guitars – a WEM Sapphire for sale in the UK and, in my mind, a perfect textural sound for the type of LP I’m imaging and hearing taking shape. I sent the seller a message, and arranged to buy the guitar but to meet him a month later, at a road stop not far from Heathrow (his suggestion) to pick it up. Sure enough, I arrived back in the UK early am, Tolly picked me up then some Costa coffee down and about 30k’s up the road, we pulled into a truck stop, spotted the black range rover we’d been told to look-out for and proceed to gingerly tap on the driver’s window to wake up sleeping dude reclined in the driver’s seat. Guitar guy got out of the car, opened the book, the case, pulled back a covering to reveal the spendor of a mint condition 1965 WEM Sapphire – a guitar promoted at the time by none other than Bo Diddley appearing as a model with the instrument in music store adverts. Needless to say, the get-together with the Mothership team at Space Eko was a thrill… great songs, some of the new songs workshopped with Dara and the CSP team rehearsed and recorded as well as a few nice new ideas and reworkings of some classics by groups like The Beatles, Sinn Sisamouth, Jefferson Airplane and of course, can’t do a session with an electric 12-string without The Byrds flying in on bits here and there. Hopefully, 2020 will be the year I’ll get to finish this 14 track long-player and fans of the CSP can enjoy hearing some great new recordings coming to light.
After calling it a wrap at Space Eko, I took off to meet Soon and travel a bit in Switzerland, Italy and a return visit to Istanbul. It was wonderful trip, a real holiday and catching up with old friends in Istanbul again gave me the time to immerse into the wonderful sounds of the city and the soundtrack of Turkish psych rock. We did a few flea markets and record shops but best of all, I got to hear lots of great new discoveries (for me at least) and to meet local producer/musician Gunesh at his studio where we spent a couple of nice afternoons chilling and listening to music as well as taking some time to record a Turkish special for my radio podcast Asian Garage Underground. Now…did I mention it’s been one heck of a hectic year? Well yeah, it has and I still haven’t got around to recording season four of AGU but some great stuff including our Turkish feature is coming up once edits are done and new podcasts are good to go!
I arrived back to Phnom Penh a few days ahead of our planned “Cambodian Women of Song: A tribute to Kak Channthy” concert to be held at the Institut Francais to coincide with Fete de Musique… needless to say, there were many things that needed urgent attention and follow up if we were going to make such an event happen… I’m most thankful to the team and each and everyone one of the singers and musicians and a wonderful audience, who all came together on Friday, June 21. A great night it was and made even better with a wild storm of intense wind and rain blowing in across the dance floor just as the show was going up a gear! In the lead up to staging Cambodian Women of Song I had also worked on painting 10 canvas’ (and there’s more on the way) to visually illustrate the incredible history and legacy of the Cambodian Women of Song, I’m continuing to explore and document this – from the beginnings of the recording industry and Norodom Sihanouk’s reign right up until Cambodian rock’n’roll going global in the 2000’s not least with Kak Channthy and the CSP.
Through July and August, I continued putting in time to work on songwriting and demo recordings. Much of this was done with Jan Mueller aka Professor Kinski as well as offline demos, recording new ideas with Sochi, Nang Ye-Ye, Sam Dara and Srey Ka. Ostensibly these ideas will take shape and some of the tracks will be part of The CSP Mothership album coming up. There’s nothing complete but I do like the direction of some examples including the track Coming Home… it’s written by Dara and I but features the voice of Nang Ye-Ye, was demo’d in PP, recorded in London and mixed down at Birdland Studios back in Melbourne and… I think this track shows the kind of sound, the sonic style and retro feel that I’m looking for, for the Mothership debut. Meanwhile, some of the other tracks will become the basis of another LP – a compilation album of the Cambodian Women of Song work we’re continuing to create and develop.
Come late August I was on a plane (or three of ‘em) flying back to my homeland Tasmania – where I’d planned to have a real, quite time back down by the sea, somewhere to take time to think and write but soon that idea went out the window… thanks to a dear old friend, I was soon out sailing the mighty Derwent River and out into the Southern corner of Tasmania… a part of the far south where all the place names are French – named after the D’entrecasteaux mission that had been dispatched, circa 1792, in search of the vanished La Pérouse expedition. Needless to say, the experience of being back in Tasmania and out on these waters was absolutely brilliant… much of the stories and legends of this place had inspired an earlier instrumental album of mine, a project called The Green Mist, this was the music I’d carried in my mind on my first trip to Cambodia back in 2007 and later by 2009, grooves like this Black Louie’s Ambergris became woven into the music I was shaping as The Cambodian Space Project and tracks like Whisky Cambodia. As and artist and musician I’ve always felt that place shapes what we create and brings a particular flavor or attitude to it.
I ended up spending almost a quarter of 2019 back in Australia, the longest visit I’ve put in in more than ten years. In early October, I was back in Sydney, wonderful times and well-timed to celebrate my birthday with the arrival of my partner Kek Soon and a great week catching old friends, mostly people who’ve joined us through times in Cambodia but first stop, bunking down at rock’n’roll author Clinton Walker’s beautiful house in Dulwich Hill and taking time to mull over the idea of a books on music and cultural icons. Clinton’s advice and ideas have been invaluable to me but also contributing to the Cambodian Space Project, not least by joining the CSP as ‘writer-in-residence’ on a National tour of Cambodia at the time of recording our last release Spaced-Out in Wonderland. I’m still working away and assembling a book on the CSP but it’s an overwhelming task and in the meantime, returning to blog on our ‘ship’s log’ here on the CSP website is the best I can offer for now. Clinton’s advice, ‘just write it all down…for better or worse…’ is in part to blame for all this! But hey.each and everyone’s actions in life are chords that ring out and reverberate across time and eternity and this idea always returns me to the value of marking our lives through the scratchings and marks we make along the way… be they recordings, paintings, family life or the stories we build through the lives we live.
After Sydney, Soon and I bussed it to Canberra, Melbourne and finally back to Tasmania. This was wonderful trip and along the way gave us the chance to stop in and see a whole bunch of art exhibitions but especially printmaking, two great shows in Sydney by pop/screen print style artists then a visit to Megalo printers in Canberra. A big part of the CSP’s imagery has been our prints and posters coming out of Sticky Fingers Art Prints Cambodia. Great to see the shows including works from the Tin Sheds and also from Red Eye Records founder John Foy at Damien Minton’s place.
- The Tin Sheds were a hothouse of art, music, ideas and politics. They were one of the most radical and memorable ‘alternative art spaces’ in Australia during their heyday from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. A group of dilapidated corrugated iron sheds across a busy city road from the University of Sydney were a place where — for a time — it seemed anything was possible
Last stop in Oz, was a great little music festival in steel town Geelong. River Rocks brought together three days of amazing music but also many old friends and faces from the hey day of the Australian Nineties scene… something I was part of, lived through, survived, as guitarist with Moler and flash forward some 20 years, here we were doing it all again, getting back together as Moler following our 2018 reunion shows and the release of new ep “Work”… a cover of a Moe Tucker (Velvet Underground) song. An amazing feeling to revisit music I’d been a part of so long ago but of course, once yer back into it, it all feels just like yesterday. Meanwhile, another strange coincidence… while I was busy cutting together a video for the Moe Tucker track back Phnom Penh, my staff had taken a snap shot of a guy that they thought I’d like to know about… turns out it was Moe’s old band mater Doug Yule, calling in a KAMA and snapped over a pile of vinyl LP’s I’d left out in our café downstairs from my painting studio. Either the world keeps shrinking or the things that matter – become more present! I owe much to the influence Velvet Underground has had on the concept of the CSP and the blessing of great rock’n’roll soundtrack that stays on hi-rotation through each and every waking day of my life. Awkun!
Sometime between checking out of Tolarno’s, my favourite hotel in Melbourne, and getting set to return to Cambodia. I was lucky enough to catch-up with a group of amazing people, old friends and new, coming together to talk about ideas for a new piece of music theatre we’re working on. Jill Morgan who formerly was CEO at Multicultural Arts Victoria, kindly put on a Sunday lunch and brought me together with Burundian former child soldier turned rapper, educator and public speaker Fablice Manirakiza. It was great to visit Jill’s beautiful home in Coburg and to start a conversation with Fablice on conceptualizing a story for the stage – The Rat Catcher reworking the Pied Piper but also drawing upon Afropolitan literary tropes and some of the ideas of Cameronian philosopher Archille Mbembe – and while working through this, taking in some of the art on walls, including CSP prints and a painting by one of my favourite Road Studio artists David Larwill. Melbourne cultural inspiration! Packed and ready to take home to Cambodia!
Back in Cambodia, I hit the ground running. Over the last weeks away, my buddies Tony Lefferts and Brian Woods had been on the ground, figuring out when and where we might put on a little shindig! Called Garage Fest! Cambodia. Phnom Penh ain’t the place it used to be, venues are fewer or simply not suitable for the looser, wilder, free’r shows I first stumbled some ten or so years earlier. Still, there’s much happening and the time feels right to work on a SXSW style showcase of great underground bands, especially those informed by punk, garage, pysch and otherworldly styles… so that’s precisely what we did. It was hectic, chaotic, the power cut out right at the wrong time, it came back on again and it rocked! A really incredible three-day/night experience with some brilliant acts coming in to join us in Cambodia. Unfortunately we missed seeing awesome Hong Kong celt-punk band Ballychunder but hopefully, they’ll be back through Cambodia along with all the other good folks who joined us at Garage Fest! We’ll do it all again.
Garage Fest! Rolled into Kampot Readers & Writers Festival – the festival of words, art song, now in it’s 4th edition and back after shutting down over 2018. This year’s KWRF was deliberately kept under-the-rader and back to the ‘speak-easy’ concept where it first began over a few chilled drinks and open mic’s at KAMA and other like-minded venues down in Kampot. Most of the effort in this year’s program went towards the staging and presentation of Cambodian Women of Song – bringing this music revue and story to Kampot to present and develop further as an important social history and music story. Cambodian Women of Song brought together more than 30 individual singers, arts workers and musicians and as the KRWF highlight concert, it was also marked the official opening for the Fish Island Community Arts Centre. This was a brilliant night and I believe it’s plants the seed of something ongoing and fantastic – not just the development of an arts and culture centre in rural Cambodia but the opportunity to produce and develop larger-scale shows such as CWoS, with the view to share this story well beyond the pubs and clubs of Cambodia as it’s something that while hatched here, should be shown internationally, an invaluable part of the creative industry developing at grassroots community level and potentially reaching world audiences.
Just this last weekend, I’ve been back in Phnom Penh, catching up with Ken White, one of the earliest CSP line-up and best heard blowing brilliant harmonica on CSP’s version of Ros Sereysothea’s classic “I’m 16” (Dop Pram Mouy). I caught up with Ken and his young family for a dinner over at the giant new Sokha hotel where the view from the Italian restaurant looks directly across the Tonle Sap river and down into the Royal Palace complex. But it’s also a view down upon the river where, almost to the day, I’d jammed it out with Ken on harp and Channthy as a loosely assembled, just named, Cambodian Space Project on a boat moored on the banks of the Tonle Sap. The dinner occasion was also a bit of a bon voyage for Ken and family as they’re setting up life back in Australia and making a huge move from one homeland to another. Needless to say, looking down on that view of the river, where so much has happened for so many, great to catch up and reflect on life in Cambodia, the end of an era and the upcoming decade ahead! Bon Voyage!
Right now, I’m sitting back at my little café KAMA here in Kampot. It’s Xmas morning, there’s already a 44 gallon drum BBQ fired up, cooking pork belly, while our staff and family are busy running between here and the market, bringing together lots of lovely, tasty treats to put on a Christmas dinner tonight out at our Fish Island venue. I’m going to wrap up this post and hunker down for a few hours before festivities begin, to edit a new video clip for Sochi’s latest track – it’s a cracker! Filmed 6am the morning after dinner with Ken, up on top of the Japanese bridge. It wasn’t the immediate plan but perhaps that view from the hi-rise inspired me, again, I found myself looking out across the expanse of the expanse of water below, filming from the top of the Japanese Bridge, to where the rivers meet and converge, and during monsoon season, flood into the mighty Mekong basin. Cambodia’s massive Tonlé Sap Lake occupies a geological depression (the lowest lying area) of the vast alluvial and lacustrine floodplain and as flood waters rise, a yearly phenomenon occurs, bringing with it thousands of tons of fish, and the river begins to flow backwards.
Looking back over 2019, I feel that this has been a year starts and ends with much gratitude for all the brilliant things we have to live for and to look forward too. Losing Channthy leaves me with the gift of something we’ve created together, The Cambodian Space Project, it’s at times a dream-like feeling and sometimes to my own detriment but mostly feels like a celebration of life, joy and happiness! It’s Xmas day, so why not feel wonderful about life! I’m signing off now but I’m also happy to say I’m catching up with Channthy’s son Makara and her sister Chan Rean tomorrow at the wedding for our dear CSP friend Annie Pizey who also arranged CSP’s first ever tour to Colorado back when it was all getting going. Our catch-up is on Boxing Day and that’s also the day, ten years ago, when CSP formed on a boat on the Tonle Sap. Rivers of time!
For me, 2019 year begins and ends with gratitude. Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. Let’s be grateful to the people in our lives who make us happy, they are the beautiful minstrels who make our souls sing!
So here’s to a great Xmas and feelings of gratitude for all we have, especially from me personally – to our CSP family and friends, all who’ve continued to support us with much kindness and love. You rock!