I’m thinking back to the visit The Cambodian Space Project made to Washington DC. It was only two years back when photographer Steve Porte snapped this shot of Channthy and the band on a quick visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and just long enough for us to get the word HOPE in the frame. Now this word seems more important than ever. Hoping is something I’ve been doing with the project ever since losing Channthy to tragedy and this means getting through devastation by getting on with what we do best, getting the band together, and playing music. This is what Channthy would have hoped for too.

But now we all find ourselves having to deal with the coronavirus crisis, the shutdown of communities, drastically changing circumstances, and, as musicians who love getting together and playing live, a rather slow time where live streaming and Zoom meetings just ain’t gonna cut it… not for me and not for the way the CSP has always done things. But despite this, there’s still plenty happening aboard the CSP “Mothership” and despite being shut down due to closed borders, health and safety, we’re everyday people who need to get up and celebrate life through good times! music, art, and dance. Never the less, for the moment the ‘get up!’ factor has been a lot of online file sharing, woodshedding, and brainstorming for new work post-COVID-19.

It’s also been a time for dealing with the crisis and shoring up support our artists and community. So far, Cambodia’s come through COVID with relatively few cases, however, the impact of the coronavirus shutdown and complete halt of tourism is having a drastic impact on the lives of everyday people. We’re feeling this on Trey Koh, where I’m usually working with my partner Kek Soon at Fish Island Community Arts Centre, and we’re working through the crisis (and a COVID outbreak in a neighboring village) to make sure we can survive and ultimately get through this time. We’re doing this inspiration from the kids at FICAC and from our supporters who have joined together to work on the distribution of food and COVID-19 relief packages to the most vulnerable in our community. It’s a wonderous site to see, our young team helping to package together 20kg bags of rice, noodles, fish sauce, cooking oil, eggs, etc to distribute from FICAC. It’s keeping everyone busy, focussed, and happy! and while we’re planning ahead for the future, this is the best thing we can do right now.

Of course, FICAC was set-up (we opened last year after 5 years as KAMA in Kampot) to really focus on offering young and up-and-comers, experience in arts and music, language skills, cuisine and culture, and hospitality. That’s all being going great and I’m thrilled of course by the FICAC kids video performance covering Iggy Pop’s Monster Men and while this appeals to me and my tastes, it’s also just the start of a music program for youth. This is more likely to be focussed on English lessons, songwriting skills, and working on creating hip-hop to suit to our local youth group’s own cultural perspective. We’re not there yet but rather than slowing down we’re using this time plan ahead and to build a permanent studio – up to now I’ve been working from the bamboo “Sonic Shack” – and really putting more time into training and learning opportunities through music and media production.

Local teens enjoying Open Mic at FICAC
a sketch of the proposed media studio at FICAC

Turmoil, hard times, and ‘everyday people’…

Seeing the race riots breaking out across USA and here in Australia and around the globe, it’s an even more worrying and saddening twist to the experience of the COVID crisis and it does bring into question what the future may hold? I mean will Donald Trump just fess up to all this mess and chaos and perhaps go quietly into retirement following this coming election? I think not… it’s more likely communities will become even more divided and the opportunities to share across communities, nationally and internationally, more restricted due not only to the shutting down of borders, the closing of doors, but increasing lack of opportunity and desire for people to get together and bridge cultural divides. This is a grim outlook I know but to me, the whole world is looking like the dystopian nightmare we once saw only in sci-fi movies, has now arrived! it’s here and its a catastrophe.

To counter this though, it’s also a time for artists to get to work and to effect change by being involved, taking action, every bit of action counts and as we all know, music is the healer, it’s also the teacher and the soundtrack to uprising and revolution. Needless to say, artists produce great work during hard times. One of my favourite songs with Channthy and CSP is this track “Black To Gold” from the Whisky Cambodia LP. At the time we were in Detroit – another weird and strange time. Detroit City had just declared itself bankrupt. Wild riots had broken out back in Cambodia in response to the shooting dead of 5 protesters demonstrating for basic wages. Channthy was feeling very concerned for her people, protesters back in Stung Meanchey, her family in Prey Veng, and people in Cambodia.

Planet Dystopia! You have arrived.

We’d just seen The Family Stone and played our own shown at the afterparty at MOCAD – a great honor – and started recording with Dennis Coffey at Rust Belt. Channthy’s “Black To Gold” took us a while to record, it wasn’t working at first, too much emotional stuff going down, Thy and I took a break, took a train right across USA, hung out in Portland and by the time we made it back to Detroit, Hard Times was in the can. Channthy open’s with the line “Be Ba’at Na” Hard Times… the situation in Cambodia was already much like it is in the Western world now, Hong Kong, Minneapolis, NYC, Paris, Sydney, London… and that’s what we were writing and singing about – something’s gotta change!

The CSP Mothership new territories…

COVID-19 has also brought some good developments. Simply, stopping, shutdown for a while, and using this time to think, rethink, reflect has been a good experience. From my point of view, and now working from Ulladulla – beautiful southern coasts of New South Wales – has brought a windfall of creative time and I haven’t really slowed down on plans for the CSP and our “Mothership” concept of bringing in new musicians, vocalists to expand our work, especially in the direction of musical theatre and as a platform for new singers to jump aboard. Here in Australia, I’m using my time to touch base with musicians and studio engineers to work with the CSP on our future steps and that’s heading toward the production of The Rat Catcher of Angkor Wat – a story and show that began to take shape a while back but is feeling even more prescient and timely than before.

Phim modeling a potential “Space Cat” character, standing nonchalantly by her robo rodent.

2020: Next Steps and new directions…

So, for now, I’m preoccupied with ideas of Space Cats, Rats, evil overlords, thought police and future musical directions for the CSP and our expanding community of artist collaborators, not least musicians in Australia and the team at A Blanck Canvas with whom we’re busy working up creature and puppet designs along with concepts and directions for something already taking shape as a groundbreaking piece of post-COVID music theatre, and this is all a hugely exciting time with much hope ahead.

A Blanck Canvas team

Locked down and hankering for a Mustang!

Channthy and JP at Melbourn Arts Centre.

Over the coming weeks, I’m looking forward to introducing and showing off a whole bunch of new things cooking up here as well as introducing you to the work of each of the artists and musicians involved. But until then, I’m hunkered down in Ulladulla (Indigenous word meaning ‘safe harbour’) where the CSP Mothership is on the slip, getting ready to launch back in the water 2021. I arrived back in Australia and directly into quarantine in Darwin mid-March but with restrictions easing, looking forward to a few more get-togethers with music friends here. Because I travelled in lightly – bag of clothes, acoustic, laptop, camera, passport, wah-wah pedal – I’ve been electric guitarless (lucky for the neighbours) and champing at the bit to get twangin’. This little baby just arrived in the mail, she’s a Japanese student model Mustang, some would say cheap and nasty but this little beauties really are great, and this will be my main twanger for the year ahead… best thing about this beauty is that she’s got “Freedom of Expression” written across her headstock – right on!

Tomson Splendor Series Mustang…a funky little twanger!

Meanwhile, here’s my lockdown mixtape “Space Junk and Other Funk” for your listening pleasure

Support for Fish Island Community Arts Centre

But before then, I’m working on building a music studio at FICAC and calling on friends and supporters to help us make it all happen, check our Survive and Thrive! callout here and join us if you can. Meanwhile, stay safe and sound and make life awesome!

FICAC Kids keeping life awesome! staying healthy and happy during coronavirus.
FICAC kids getting out to meet and distribute COVID-19 food relief packs to vulnerable elders.
“ting mong” scarecrows or voodoo dolls appearing around the neighborhood, ward off bad spirits and COVID-19
Our food distribution program at FICAC
Yep! We’re still cooking on all burners! FICAC junior chef school.