Category: Uncathegorised
Roof top at Fish Island Records where we’re surrounded by salt fields.

Near Field Recording

These last few weeks, perhaps even a month, have been a blur… a flurry of activity in and around our little recording studio here at Fish Island Records and not least due to the wonderful opportunity of having brilliant sound guy Dave Anderson (Saxon Recorders) in residence and making it all happen – out here in the salt fields and rice fields of Cambodia.

The first thing Dave would have noticed on his way out to FICAC via Tuk Tuk would have been the striking site of the island’s Salt Fields and perhaps glimpes of salt workers getting set to harvest. The second thing our guest sound engineer quickly noticed was the appaling condition of much of our equipment here… that’s compared to US studio standards.

Out here, it’s tough, the elements are well and truly against us and it’s a constant (losing) battle against corrosion… guitar strings, electric things, everything… but hey… we’re in the middle of the Cambodian countryside, it’s hot, humid and as a recording environment…dare I say studio… it’s totally unique. Somehow, Dave got the show happening, wired up a bunch of parts and then the music makers started to show up. 

Hailing from Rochester, Dave would also say things like “what time is such and such coming in…or… is there anything happening today?”, questions for which I could only answer, “not sure…maybe… quite possibly”… knowing full well that Cambodia-time, Fish Island time, runs on its own meter. Nonetheless, it didn’t take long for the first random session to happen.

Ramon “the Carpet Man” turned up. Ramon’s a Cambodia music lover who’s day job has been laying carpets. I first met him when I needed someone to lay carpet here at Fish Island Records… Ramon showed up… did a pretty quick job on the carpet work but soon spotted the instruments and microphones in the studio and next thing I knew, he was singing away and later brought back with him a whole bunch of singing, guitar twangin’ local musicians/carpet layers… needless to say, I collared Carpet Man and got him straight on the mic to record a quick version of Cambodian golden era classic Yuvajon Kouge Jet by wild sixties rocker Youl Aularong. We wanted a garage rock sound and we got it.

Yol Aularong was a Cambodian garage rock musician, and a leading figure in that country’s rock scene of the 1960s and 70s. He is presumed to have been killed during the Cambodian genocide that took place under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.

Primitive Cool

As it turns out, kicking off with Ramon the Carpet Man and Dave Anderson on drums, banging out a Cambodian rocker, was a great way to kick things off… breaking the ice and all… and while this song is just so familiar to me and perhaps anyone who’s lived in Cambodia, it was knew to Dave and a good way to get rolling. This was the first time we’d met in person you see, Dave dropped us a line about a year ago when we’d just opened the studio doors and literally made a one-mic recording of Or Sina who had bussed all the way from Siem Reap with the idea of trying out her voice.

Sina tells me that her family thinks she the best singer… good enough info for me…but yeah, her first song, an original song about being a buffalo minder as a youngster, sounded just great! a voice that gives you goosebumps. Dave wrote us and said, more or less, “Hey Sina, I’m Dave from Rochester, I’m your number 1 fan!” but also expressed interest and the kind offer to get together and record. Wow! that’s nice feedback I told Sina, “perhaps we could go to this guy’s studio in NY”. But really, that’d be a stretch, our focus is here, just getting things up to speed and thankfully, Dave decided to come and join us out here…where it’s never just a job, it’s an adventure.

With one jam in the can, we moved on to more ideas while waiting to see who’d turn up. Me on guitars and Dave on drums, twangin’ and bangin’ away, things that are simple, cool, garage rock ideas. After re-stringing a few of the guitars, I gravitated to the cheapest and gnarliest looking beast… a Japanese guitar labelled “Feever”…and no, I don’t think that’s a typo either…the Feever ain’t no Fender but what a beast! two unidentifiable pick-ups and a great sound, ideal for rhythm tracks, almost unplayable for lead but unplayable in a way that only added ‘character’ the lead riffs I was attempting to play.

Dave Anderson (Saxon Recorders) – It’s a Rockin’ Rochester kinda thing!

Just the two of us playing on guitar and drums was fun but still, we were itching for the others to show up and with everyone on different schedules, I could see it was just going to be a case of doing whatever with whoever whenever they showed up. Also, I was conscious that Dave had come all the way from USA and was keen to record Cambodian sounds…Cambodian garage rock to be precious. CSP band members would be visiting soon but until then another cool idea had come up. I’d been in Siem Reap a week earlier and had seen a great young singer belting out Guns and Roses (err yes, I know, not my taste) at Brin Wood’s much loved Wednesday night Open Mic at The Laundry. Mikayla Gonzales, looks, sounds and performs great on stage. Later Mikayla came and sang a beautiful version of The Carpenters’ Super Star at my Past // Present // Future event and I invited her to come to record at Fish Island.

Thankfully, Mikayla jumped on a bus and arrived at the studio door. Apparently, she’d never been in a studio before and it was all new to her but despite this, got down to trying out brand new ideas, writing songs, trying stuff out, picking out a cool retro cover to throw into the mix. We kinda started off gentle and slow and even took the day off to head up to Bokor Mountain and try out an idea of “field recording”, using the 1930’s old abandoned chapel on Bokor as the studio setting. What a good idea that turned out to be…the reverb in the place is phenomenal… massive… we recorded just voice and nylon string guitar on a song inspired by the morning’s weather forcast “No More Rain” just clouds today. It’s a nice track though it’s probably not the right key for Mikayla it still sounds great in her low register and set things rolling for another really cool, soul kinda song called “Just A Sad Song”.

“No More Rain” inspired by that morning’s weather forecast and our plans to ride to Bokor Mountain for a field recording.

Meanwhile, down below… the band was arriving in Kampot

Always, great to meet-up with the band. It’d been a couple of months since I’d last seen CSP rhythm machine Phea (bass) and Bong Sak (drums) off early on Monday morning at the airport in Adelaide, Australia. That’s an earlier story but what a great trip that was, first time the CSP has been back with a stage show and touring to present our funk opera The Rat Catcher of Angkor Wat in Melbourne and at Oz Asia Festival, in Adelaide. During that trip we’d also taken time to add a horn section and play a wonderfully fun night with Jack Howard’s Epic Brass horn section.

In Melbourne, we also had a blast tracking out new album The Golden Phoenix and with all this new material in motion, getting back to where the jamming started, our little studio at Fish Island, was sure to be productive if not awesome!

Sure enough, Phea lead us into getting the sessions fired up and for the benefit of Dave’s enthusiasm to record Cambodian rock, we were soon jamming out some of the classics, but new material to me, things we’d often considered covering in CSP but hadn’t quite got to. I’ve been loving playing tracks like Maxi Maxi, Jeas Cyclo and Korng Phnao & Pan Ron’s “Pnhaeu Samnieng” – a trance-inducing reworking of The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night. But first up, there was also the unplanned opportunity of having Mikayla front the Cambodian Space Project. Mikayla’s heritage is half Filipina half Mexican and in our impromptu group photo on the studio roof, she really looks the part. We got down to recording an appropriate cover of Spanish sixties Los Bravos and their one hit wonder Black is Black.

Mikayla Gonzales recording Black is Black with The Cambodian Space Project
Sound engineer Dave Anderson finding the spot for a field recording with Mikayla Gonzales at the old chapel on Bokor Mountain
It’s getting hot in here, more water please!

Master Leng Bouen

I’ve always thought Cambodian Chapei players kinda seem and look like some sort of cosmic space buddhas. Just like the Buddha, a wandering ascetic and religious teacher who lived in South Asia during the 6th or 5th, these amazing Cambodian musicians are wandering minstrel types, folksy troubadours and more often than not, usually blind. Master Leng Bouen is no exception and while we’ve put in a few sessions with him, he’s always witty and wonderful to record. This time he even managed to climb the narrow stairs to our studio rooftop and shoot a nice photo session for promotion our future Roof Top Sessions Cambodia Space. It’s up on the third floor of our studio building and boasts spectacular 360 views of the surrounding salt fields, rice paddies the wonderful sunset views of Bokor Mountain.

It’s important for us to take time to record musicians such as Leng Bouen whose chapei music even predates the Buddha’s enlightenment and is as old as the hills… rare, wonderful, indentified as UNESCO listed intangible living treasure. Needless to say, our cosmic space buddha did not disappoint, and not only performed for the locals kids here at Fish Island Community Arts Centre but also took time to speak with us about his own remarkable 72 years on planet earth and record an invaluable interview which we will soon translate and share with you all.

Master Leng Bouen. Photo John Connel.

The Cambodian Space Project 2023

At times its felt like this might not happen but in 2023, it seems that we’re already stepping into some wonderful new frontiers with The Cambodian Space Project’s own musical journey. It’s really been 5 years since we’ve done this by the sounds of the music and ideas taking shape, it’s a great thing to do… it feels good. Most readers here will have already spotted the beautiful Thyda Chea taking the lead role and fronting CSP at Oz Asia Festival. We were very lucky to meet Thyda and working with her in Australia has been great.

Now, next steps are recording Thyda’s vocals for The Golden Phoenix here at Fish Island Records but also playing our first live dates in Cambodia in more than 5 years. Watch out for dates coming up very soon, most likely we’ll be doing special shows right here at FICAC, outside the studio door! and putting on these dates to help us promote our campaign to build and open the new Media Arts School right here. Dates in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh may well be on the cards too but for the moment, it’s all staying local.

First dates for The Cambodian Space Project in Cambodia will be Friday 24 and Saturday 25 March at Fish Island Community Arts Centre. Entry is $10 by donation.

New sounds, new frontiers, Phea Bass, Thyda Chea and Bong Sak back stage at Oz Asia Festival.

Other Voices: Music The Khmer Rouge Could Not Kill

Sometimes the best things are right there right before your own eyes. I often feel this coming back home after traveling and being away, the best hotel room is my own. But in the sense of reaching out and recording new musicians and singers every where, with many great results, it’s also true that right here our own neighbourhood, there are some brilliant voices and plenty of talent. The purpose of building the studio here in the farmland Cambodia is also shaped by this notion, we want to record the lesser known singers and musicians and those yet to be discovered.

When Madam Sarun turned up just recently, she’d come by to join others playing cards but was soon coerced into the studio and joined The Cambodian Space Project for this stunning rendition of the Ros Sereysothea classic “Heaven”. And what a heavenly sound too… a great voice and a great surprise, this is our neighbour singing. It’ll also be her husband who will be doing the brick laying and building the next venture here at FICAC, the media arts studio and library.

Once again, hearing voices like Madam Sarun’s just reinforces the mission for me and makes me see that we’re already underway and compiling a very compelling new body of work. Somehow, this work will again be a Cambodian Space Project album/recording project but much more expansive than just the band members working across one or two studios. In 2023 and beyond, we’ll be working to record Cambodian diaspora singers everywhere… regionally in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and on to places like Australia, New Zealand, France, USA, Canada and other places in Europe… this won’t happen all at once but it’s a long held ambition and under the working title Other Voices: Music The Khmer Rouge Could Not Kill we’ll create an amazing and essential human story as told through the music of Cambodia… before and after the time of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. In the meantime, please enjoy this humble beginning with Madam Sarun and The Cambodian Space Project at Fish Island Records.

It’s a long way to the top!

Reaching Sen Monorom is a great feeling. I’ve been coming up to this little mountain top town in Mondulkiri province for more than a decade now. Each time I have usually been able to make a trip out to Bou’Sra village and to catch-up with the indigenous Bunong musicians lead by tribal leader and teacher Sorng Brou. I first visited and recorded with Sorng Brou when Channthy and I traveled to seek out the Bunong musicians and their unique songs and sounds. Since then we’ve lost a few people along the way including a remarkable Bunong songwriter known at Nyel Che. On this visit I again met with Sorng Brou and discussed the life and music of Nyel Che and how I’d like to come to the mountains on day and spend time to live in the village and record a full “Mondulkiri Space Project”. Well we didn’t have a whole lot of time on this recent visit, just a morning and lunch together but did jam out a few taster ideas. Dave Anderson captured some of these sounds and again we ended up using an old chapel in the village as an escape from the wind and as a good place to record. Check this out…sublime, psychedelic Bunong voice accompanied by simple sounds of of the classical guitar.

Just a quick visit this time… Tribal leader Sorng Brou didn’t even have time to change out of her pink pyjamas for this impromptu session.

Ending where we began? or just gettin’ started…

Or Sina had planned to join our recording expedition in Kampot and would have arrived just after the band had split, thankfully, Sina checked in and didn’t turn up by surprise as she’d have discovered that Dave and I were already on a train for bound for Phnom Penh. Cool to think Sina was on her way, after all, hearing her voice in the first place was the thing that caught Dave’s attention and ultimately compelled him to pack a heavy case of sound gear and make the long hike out from NY to Kampot, especially in the hope of meeting Sina and recording new ideas. Instead we all met up 7am at a bus station in Phnom Penh and were soon hiking 8hrs up the mountains to Mondulkiri. We only had a day with Sina but made the most of it and jammed a few ideas over dinner. The track we recorded turned out to be Sina’s Khmer lyrics to the music of a very old English tune…. Scarborough Fair. It’s a piece of music that’s been around since the 16th century but was made hugely by Simon & Garfunkel, sixties super-stars who certainly influenced Cambodian artists. The song’s yearning feeling, a perfect medieval love story, sits well with Khmer song canon and the lyrical story of how a young man delegates certain impossible tasks to his lover with the condition that she would have to finish those to be able to come back to him is something Or Sina interweaves into her own version in Khmer “Still Waiting For You”.

Pressing it down on Vinyl

Once we’d wrapped up our Mondulkiri trip and various recording sessions, Dave and I returned to Phnom Penh where I’d promised to stay on an extra night and see what else we could do. Pretty much as soon as we arrived back in town, we’d checked into the Villa Grange and took advantage of a spare few hours to go record shopping. The only place (and first vinyl shop in Cambodia) to do this was a trip to The Retro Shop. This funky little joint is right in the middle of the Russian Market (near the fruit shake and coffee sellers) and is operated by Channthy’s cousin Chan Rean. We called in long enough for a bite to eat and a catch-up with Rean, check her out in action right here:

Vinyl Records and hand printed posters at The Retro Shop, Phnom Penh
L-R: Phea, Oun, Mikayla, Huot, Julien and Dave taking it to the recording studio roof at FICAC…next stop: stratosphere


CSP poster designed and illustrated by students at Fish Island Community Arts Centre

The first confirmed dates for live shows for The Cambodian Space Project with Thyda Chea and guests are two nights kicking off 7pm – late on 24/25 March. These shows are the only shows booked for the moment and will be more than worth the effort to travel to get to see the CSP debuting new material as well as playing a few of the amazing songs Channthy made famous. We’ll be installing a thumping great sound system and setting up a great little shop of original artworks and merch created by the young team at FICAC. The aim of both nights is to give our local Cambodian audience and families of the students at FICAC a special event but also to present the CSP’s first shows in Cambodia right in front of the studio door… a few folk, including myself, have described our Yellow Sub studio on Fish Island as “the Muscle Shoals of Cambodia”… well that might be a stretch since we’ve just started but it’s certainly got the same kinda atmosphere down here amongst the salt fields and mangroves around Fish Island (Traeuy Kaoh). It’s a great place to visit just for the spectacular views alone and there’s a number of cool places to stay on the island – from the 5 star resort Amber to Fish Island Bungalows to “The Tropicana” aka Kampheak Roath Bungalow. Book in early or call us at FICAC on 096 255 4393 for more info. Can’t wait to see you there for CSP 2023!!

Thyda Chea recording vocals for The Golden Phoenix