Flashback! to 2010: check out these photos and reviews from CSP’s archives and a bit of insight into The Cambodian Space Project’s first year in orbit!
Flashback: Channthy posing on Hugh’s chopped Suzuki mongrel while at the Bodhi Villa where CSP makes its first set of band recordings
Horse before cart? Channthy still going by the name Srey Thy wears a determined look on her face
Above: a CSP 9-piece makes its first landing in city of ruin Siem Reap. L-R: Gaetan, Julien, Scoddy, Srey Thy, Irene, Aya, Ratha & Gildas
Below: Xmas Day 2009 at La Croisette where Julien suffered severe food poisoning (a bad bologna from restaurant near by) and sweated through a couple of jam band sets plus a lot more mojitos.
We meet Srey Mom (Mekong Pirates) and Gildas for the first time and soon Gildas is a fully fledged space tripper playing bass with CSP.
Davis Zunk on drums and Channthy and Julien recording demos at the Bodhi Villa, late December 2009. First CSP original song to come from the session was MONDULKIRI
Shimmy-til-your-leg-turn-to-jelly – Cambodian Space Project – CMJ Music Report USA
Cambodian Space Project
2011: A Space Odyssey
(Metal Postcard, 2011)
By Lisa Hresko | September 16, 2011
Cambodian rock band, you say? Well, let’s make this easy and assuage any lazy comparisons to Dengue Fever. Yes, both bands fall under the “rock” umbrella, and yes, both bands have female Khmer singers (and, yes, both are thoroughly quality bands). But the similarities end there. Where Dengue Fever leans sublime surf rock, CSP, a little less Mekong Delta blues a lot more down-home dance, hones in on shimmy-til-your-leg-turn-to-jelly reworkings of classic Cambodian pop.
Made up of Australian, French and Cambodian musicians, the Cambodian Space Project’s debut album is a pop party led by scratchy-voiced Srey Thy, a local club singer who was discovered while doing karaoke in a Phnom Penh bar by Australian guitarist Julien Poulson. Watusi like the Mod Squad to “Rom Chong Vat A Go Go (Dancing A Go Go).” The guitar and harmonica solo on a cover of Ros Sereysothea’s stunning “Chnam Oun Dop Pram Mouy (I’m Sixteen)”—and one of 2011: A Space Odyssey’s stand-out tracks—has the ring of a jaunty ’60s British Invasion hit. Even CSP original tracks like “Mean Visa Kmean Bai (Have Visa, No Have Rice)” are a testament to the groovy (and peaceful) “golden age” of Khmer pop.
But look through the campy album title and carefree surface of the album: Politics are deeply embedded in 2011: A Space Odyssey. To separate the genocidal atrocities that swept the country from 1975 to 1979 and Cambodian popular music—truly popular music, not the oppressor-friendly propaganda songs commanded by the military state—would be impossible. Like so many artists and intellectuals executed at the hands Khmer Rouge, the musicians covered here, including Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Sin Sisamouth, met brutal ends—rape, mutilation, death by firing quad, mysterious disappearances—making Srey Thy’s ability to sing both their songs and stories an empowering yet humbling force.
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Out Of The Darkness: The Cambodian Space Project – The Quietus
A Quietus Interview
Out Of The Darkness: The Cambodian Space Project
Kevin E.G. Perry , September 8th, 2011 10:27
Ahead of their performance at this weekend’s Dancing Time, Kevin E.G. Perry speaks to The Cambodian Space Project on their difficult beginnings in the days of the Khmer Rouge
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In 2009, Tasmanian musician Julien Poulson walked into a karaoke bar in Phnom Penh and heard a lone female voice singing Peggy Lee’s ‘Johnny Guitar’. This struck him as odd. Ordinarily the bars in Cambodia’s capital only allow singers to perform in groups of around a dozen, and youth and vacant stares seem to be favoured over musical talent. “They kinda look like the zombies in Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’,” he says. As he listened to her he realised why she sang alone. A voice as naturally gifted as this is a rare find.
Poulson invited the singer, Srey Thy, to start a band with him and together they formed the nucleus of what has become The Cambodian Space Project, a remarkable group who not only cover and preserve songs from the ‘golden age’ of 60s Cambodian pop but also write their own dazzlingly original Khmer psychedelic rock. They’ve now toured all over the world, from Texas to the End of the Road, but the shows they talk of with most pride are the ones they play in remote villages across Cambodia.
To understand the importance of these shows, and their context, we have to go back to April 17th 1975: the day Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia. As Poulson says, they “ripped out the heart and soul of Cambodian culture. Their very ill-conceived manifesto was a kind of fucked-up Maoist thing, to return society to agrarian utopia, which meant destroying and dismantling culture. The Khmer Rouge very successfully destroyed everything, along with almost two million Cambodian lives.”
The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted anybody that they regarded as professionals or intellectuals. This included the majority of Cambodian writers, artists and musicians, many of whom were taken to the Killing Fields. Cambodia today is littered with haunting reminders of the horrors of the regime. At Choeung Ek, about 17 km south of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, there stands a stupa, a Buddhist monument, with glass sides. Inside there are more than 5,000 human skulls piled on top of one another. Many are cracked or smashed in. It was built as a memorial to the 17,000 people killed there between 1975 and 1979, and stands as an awful testament of man’s inhumanity to man.
All traces of the music, including the physical records, from the 60s ‘golden era’ of Cambodian pop were systematically wiped out, while Cambodia’s most famous singers, Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Houy Meas were all murdered. Srey Thy tells me how Houy Meas was gang-raped and her body mutilated, and Poulson recounts the infamous story that Sinn Sisamouth was led in front of a firing squad and invited to sing one last song to the troops who would kill him.
“We do a cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’,” Poulson tells me. “In this country for a band it would be a very silly, overblown and obvious cover, but in the context of a female Cambodian singer, taking the lyrics from Sinn Sisamouth who did an astonishing version of it in the Sixties, it has an incredible power.”
One of the few Cambodian musicians to survive the Khmer Rouge was Master Kong Nay, who was forced to sing propaganda songs in order to save his own life. For Poulson, hearing Kong Nay demonstrated the depth of Cambodian music. “I met Master Kong Nay, the old, blind musician, and also Srey Thy’s teacher. I heard his voice and saw him playing in a corrugated iron hut and I was just blown away. They call it the ‘Mekong Delta blues’. They call him the Ray Charles of Phnom Penh, because he looks like Ray Charles, but really it’s a misnomer. He’s the Leadbelly of Phnom Penh, and just totally fucking cool.”
Srey Thy’s parents lived under the Khmer Rouge, although her mother was forced to give up her own singing ambitions: “My mum sing very good, and she wanted to go to Phnom Penh. But when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge come they kill her parents. She stopped singing. She cut her hair, same as boy. She make up black to put on face. If very beautiful, they want to kill. My mum was very young.” The make-up she describes is a reference to the ethnic element to some of the violence, where darker-skinned Cambodians targeted their lighter-skinned countrymen.
Vietnamese forces captured Phnom Penh and forced Pol Pot from power on January 7, 1979, although widespread fighting would continue for many years. There were some immediate changes in Cambodia, however, as Poulson explains: “It was the biggest baby boom in the world’s history: 1979-1980. Srey Thy was born at the end of that. People weren’t allowed to marry before, or celebrate. I guess we see the result of that now where they have their big Cambodian parties, everyone comes together and the music goes at full blast.”
Srey Thy loved music from a young age, whether it was listening to her mother singing while she worked, or the transistor radio that her father would listen to in his tank as he patrolled the frontlines. As Poulson explained: “Her father was a tank driver. There’s an amazing photo which shows her semi-naked except for a handbag and some pants on. She’s about this big. There’s a table here, there’s a transistor radio with its aerial up, there’s Pa in his military uniform, a six gun slung around his hips, and the tank. They’re moving around the country in a Soviet T-53 tank and listening to the radio. They were moving around the frontlines, as the war continued. This is post-Pol Pot times. What many people don’t understand about Cambodian history is that war continued for a long time. The Khmer Rouge was supported by all the Western countries because they didn’t want to support the Vietnamese occupying forces.”
Srey Thy adds that her mother’s rediscovered love of singing was infectious: “Listen radio, listen my mum sing. I say ‘Oh mum, you sing good.’ We have parties, she sing. She work, she sing. She work, I work beside my mum. She make food, washing, she sing a lot. I sing beside my mum. My mum was my teacher. I didn’t go to school, except for one week. When the teacher ask if anybody sing, I say ‘Me! Me!’ Everybody shy, me not shy!”
Srey Thy has worked constantly since around the age of four or five. At first she began by planting rice, then cutting it. By the time she was nine she had moved on to work at a rubber plantation. At this point her family was targeted by the Royalist military forces, and she recalls having to help her pregnant mother flee from gunfire. As a teenager, she moved to Phnom Penh in search of a living and worked in a variety of shops and even as a builder’s labourer. When she was 18, a girl promised her a job in a beauty parlour but it turned out to be a brutal deception. She was tied to a bed with electrical wire around her wrists and would have been sold to a sex trafficking ring if another woman hadn’t managed to help her escape. She says now that she was targeted “because I young, no had boyfriend”. She would fetch a higher price as a virgin.
She began singing professionally at 19. Club owners told her that although she could sing, they did not think she was as pretty as the other girls so would pay her less. By 2005, Sry They was earning a good living as a singer. She had discovered that her talent could prove lucrative in terms of tips: “People say to me: ‘Oh you sing good, old songs,” she says. “Everybody loves old songs. Romantic.”
Then in 2009 she met Julien Poulson. “Very lucky for me,” she smiles. “Same for me!” he replies. Poulson had been working in East Timor producing media for the country’s truth and reconciliation commission. He had received a grant to work on a music project there but before he could start it up, war broke out. Unable to return to Dili he was granted permission to take the money to Cambodia, where he was looking for musicians who could revive the country’s flagging music scene.
After meeting Srey Thy, he didn’t waste much time before putting together a show: “Our first gig was at a little swampy bar called the Alley Cat in Phnom Penh, and the other musicians blew in literally within ten or fifteen minutes of the first few songs. Scott Bywater, who is with us now, offered to play or bring some instruments down. He was the ‘Bill Wyman’ guy, which I can say because he’s not around at the moment! We wanted him for his instruments at that time, but he’s an incredible musician and such a big part of our creativity now.”
They later also added a drummer, the enigmatic Bong Sak: “Bong Sak was a soldier for a long time. It’s sadly not uncommon in Cambodia. Right now he’s finding it very hard to be here in London. He’d rather stay at home, on the farm, eat food routinely and ride a motorbike down to the gig when it’s on.”
The momentum grew from that first gig. “From that moment on it’s just been this Cambodian gypsy caravan where we all wanted to play music and go to disadvantaged communities, orphanages, schools and perform there, not necessarily with any view to doing anything beyond that but just because that was so important to do and so enriching. It was a big moment when Srey Thy said: ‘Now, I think Cambodian Space Project should come to my village!’ She’s written a song, ‘Whisky Cambodia’, about that moment.”
In the song she describes the feast that is being prepared for the ‘barang’, the foreigners, who are visiting the village. She adds: “Everyone very happy that the barang came. We saw the barang dancing, making music, drinking whiskey Cambodia. Not had barang visitors before.”
Poulson explains how important rural Cambodia is to the band, but also the complicated issues that can arise: “It’s remote, it really is. Srey Thy’s family home is literally a thatched bamboo hut, but she’s very attached to the place and it’s very deep in her persona. She’s steeped in the rice fields of Prey Veng. There are problems with the abject poverty, particularly for Srey Thy, because suddenly everyone there expects her to be rich or to be able to fix problems or to be different. Her grandparents love to look at her pictures from Paris or London, and they’ll say, ‘Now you are very different, very beautiful, you’ve changed!’ She’ll say thank you, and then they’ll say, ‘But never forget, you’re one of us. Your bare feet are in our fields.’ She will say, ‘Yes, I never forget.'”
Srey Thy’s development as a songwriter was initially a surprise for the band, who began by covering the old favourites of Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron. “Fairly early on we tried to record some of the stuff that we’d got down. We went to a little recording studio and did some things which weren’t that great, just demos. Then Srey Thy said ‘I have something I want to sing. Original.’ It was great, that’s what we really wanted.”
Their debut album, 2011: A Space Odyssey, is “very much a party set” mainly made up of covers of 60s standards but with a couple of original Srey Thy songs thrown in. Their follow-up could be quite different: “This album was all recorded in Cambodia, which was very important. It was challenging but the results were pleasing. The next album we’re hopefully going to do in Melbourne with Mick Harvey. He’s interested and wants to do it. He did PJ Harvey’s last album and worked with Anita Lane, so he’s used to female vocalists, and that fact that ours sings in Khmer doesn’t really make any difference if you’re a soundscapey kind of character. Strangely, the darker Cambodian songs are kinda like the Bad Seeds: noir-ish karaoke that ends with murder in the rice paddies. They’ve got this kinda hypnotic groove to them.”
Srey Thy now tries to turn her experiences into positive and powerful stories, whether it is as a human rights advocate and a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women’s UNiTE, the campaign to end violence against women, or as a songwriter. I ask Srey Thy about her songwriting technique, and she explains that while she works hard to observe and write thoughtful songs, her best songs are stories that come from her own experience, and from her heart. “In my song I try to have three emotions: happy, sad and funny,” she says, “‘Not Easy, Rock & Roll’, come from heart. ‘Broken Flower’, from heart, ‘Have Visa, No Have Rice’, from heart, ‘You Go, I Come Too’, from head, ‘Whisky Cambodia’, from head. From head, I see and I write, but write from heart not easy.”
The Cambodian Space Project play at Soundway’s Dancing Time this Saturday, September 10th. There will also be a screening of the Black Goddess film and Quietus DJs. For more information and tickets, go here.
Cambodian Space Project 2011: A Space Odyssey – Blurt USA
Cambodian Space Project
2011: A Space Odyssey (Metal Postcard)
Looking for something different and yet familiar, adventurous listener? Sit back, dig The Cambodian Space Project, and be prepared to be impressed. Very impressed.
2011: A Space Odyssey is the debut CD by The Cambodian Space Project, already quite a big deal in their home country of Cambodia, now taking it around the world. According to the p.r. they are the King of Cambodia’s favorite band and played for Hillary Clinton on one of her trips to their home city of Phnom Penh; make of that what you will.
Founded in 2009 by the Australian guitar and keyboard player Julien Poulson (he also produced the record), fronted by the fabulously gifted vocalist Srey Thy, and composed of Cambodian, Australian and French musicians, The Cambodian Space Project weave a lot of disparate elements into a hugely impressive whole on their debut CD. The nine tracks combine a couple of originals with several tracks from Cambodia’s “golden age” of pop music (the 1960s into the early 70s) that were originally recorded by pop stars like Pan Ron, Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. The new versions both pay tribute to and update the classics: this is, most definitely, a modern rock band, with a big, fat drum sound, charging guitars and terrific mixes on the vocals; some of it sounds like what The Godfathers might sound like it they had come from Phnom Penh instead of London.
The difference of course, is in the traditional elements. Music of SE Asia, especially Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, has generally been characterized by droning, repetitive traditional instruments and keening vocals, and Cambodian Space Project wisely plays them up without overplaying them. The traditional Trou ou combines with a droning accordion and some imaginative use of a harmonica and keyboards to give the band a fantastically rich, complex overlay over all of the considerable rocking out going on underneath. But Srey Thy is the absolute capper: her vocals – confident, penetrating, deeply expressive, full of humor and feeling – are what propel Cambodian Space Project fully into the sublime. Seriously: show me a better vocal performance all year, and well…then we’ll both know, but until then the prize goes to Srey Thy. This is perhaps most evident on the last track “Kolos Srey Chaom” (“Love God”) which marries the words from a Ros Sereysoteha song to a letter perfect version of Shocking Blue’s classic “I’m Your Venus.” If there was a universal jukebox for 2011 this number would be in the Top Ten. Seriously, it’s so great that I’m just going to shut up about it.
DOWNLOAD: “Chnam Oun Dop Pram Mouy,” “Kolos Srey Chaom,” “Snaeha Doc Toek Kmom,” “Rom Chong Vat A Go Go” CARL HANNI
BBC Radio programme ALWAYS HOPE – Cambodia’s New Music – BBC World Service
Features Prof Kinski, Kampot Playboys, Cambodian Space Project, Dub Addiction and more
New review: Cambodian Space Project – 2011: A Space Odyssey – the F Word – contemorary UK feminism
Cambodian Space Project – 2011: A Space Odyssey
Srey Thy is a singer with a story to tell. Louise Allan discovers this album from Thy’s band, Cambodian Space Project, is a mixture of Thy-penned Kmer rock and tributes to a golden age of 60’s Cambodian pop
Louise Allan, 16 September 2011
Cambodian Space Project Album cover.jpg
Here’s something you’ve never heard before: psychedelic Khmer psych-rock. Or perhaps you have, if you’ve been lucky enough to while away an evening in a Phnom Penh karaoke bar. Either way, Cambodian Space Project’s unique melting-pot of sounds should be winging its way to a stereo near you.
Formed on Christmas day 2009 in Phnom Penh, the band has been whipping up a storm in Cambodia over the last two years and has been lauded as the king of Cambodia’s favourite band.
The effervescent, klaxon-voiced Srey Thy fronts the band which is made up of French, Australian and Cambodian musicians.
The band was born when Tasmanian musician and film producer Julien Poulson happened upon Thy belting out Peggy Lee’s Johnny Guitar in a karaoke bar – the evening pastime of choice for Phnom Penn’s youth. Singing has been an escape for Thy in more ways but one. Growing up in one of the poorest areas of Cambodia, Prey Vang, she left home at 18 for the bright lights of Phnom Penn only to be kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring.
“Thy’s own mother was forced to abandon her singing ambitions under the Khmer Rouge”
Fortunate enough to be rescued by an unknown woman, Thy scraped a life for herself and her family in the big city while indulging her love of singing by night in the city’s bars. She now uses her profile to raise awareness of human trafficking in Cambodia through workshops and talks, and uses her lyrics to comment on her experiences of traditional and modern Cambodian society.
Modern-day Cambodia is strewn with chilling reminders of the Khmer Rouge, a regime that ripped the heart and soul out of the country in the 1970s. Writers, artists and musicians were among the 17,000 dragged to the Killing Fields. CSP’s musical idols Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Houy Meas all lost their lives there, and their physical musical legacies were wiped out. Thy’s own mother was forced to abandon her singing ambitions under the Khmer Rouge. CSP are leading the crop of artists that are finally breathing life back into the music scene.
2011: A Space Odyssey is a party album with a difference, welding traditional Khmer instrumentation with gypsy-folk rhythms and rock’n’roll sensibilities. Half of the tracks are covers or tributes to artists from golden age of 60’s Cambodian pop: Ros Sereysothea, Sin Sisamouth and Pan Ron. The album also features a clutch of dizzying, Thy-penned psychedelic Khmer rock songs.
The sounds on the album are as jumbled as the band’s story. Rough and bluesy, it’s all dreamy accordians, trippy vocals and jangling guitars. Love Like Honey gets the proceedings off to a bouncy, hypnotic start, before the squalling trad-rock guitars of Wait 10 Months More reminds us of the sometimes jarring clash of influences that make up the band’s sound. I’ve Found My Love slows the pace to a funk while Have Visa, Have No Rice could be a very drunk Irish jig. Kangaroo Boy is a perky singalong, while Love God, a Khmer/Shocking Blue mash-up, winds things up with a triple dose of sugar.
CSP are clearly a highly adaptable band, accustomed to playing tiny villages, boats on the Mekong and now international rock festivals. On stage, you’d never guess the life Thy has lived. A beautiful, engulfing presence, she draws every eye and ear in the room and puts the rest of her band in the shadows.
2011: A Space Odyssey is an intriguing debut; there’s certainly no one around like Cambodian Space Project.
Second picture provided by Metal Postcard Records. This shows the four members of the Cambodian Space Project in a field in front of a small open building with a palm tree and orange parasol/umbrella in the roof and an artificially lime/olive green tinged sky. Branches of a tree can be seen in the top right-hand corner and three out of four of the band members are looking up into the sky. The band member to the left has a keyboard and two guitars in front of him.
2011: A Space Odyssey – Clash Magazine
Before I’d even listened I was grinning. Do you want to import ‘The Moons Aspara Rides The Cosmic Golden Swan Goose’ into your library? Who wouldn’t? This multi-national psychedelic Khmer rock band formed in Pnom Penh to play tribute to the golden age of Cambodian popular music. Their lead singer Srey Thy is a former professional karaoke singer and campaigner against human trafficking. So far, so obscure. The music is as exotic as the backstory, bursting with late-’60s influences, twanging guitars, French accordions and trippy vocals. It’s upbeat, unusual and accomplished, an Asian rock ‘n’ roll space odyssey indeed.
Words by Anna Wilson
2011: A Space Odyssey
Hitting The High Notes – Thai Airways Magazine
The stratospheric rise of The Cambodian Space Project has caught those witnessing the spectacle of this cosmic cross-culture rock band (CSP) as it blasts across the dusty highways of Cambodia by surprise. In Cambodia, The CSP has landed like an unexpected meteor and has made an immediate impact on enthusiastic local audiences with its festival-like live shows. To date, the CSP has performed in venues ranging from chic city clubs to rural villages, schools and orphanages, even an elephant’s 50th birthday party! For the musicians, The Cambodian Space Project is a troupe bonded not only by the diversity of its members’ backgrounds but by an artistic vision to bridge cultures while exploring new musical frontiers.
The Cambodian Space Project
I’m Unsatisfied Metal Postcard Records 7”
Article written by Ged M – Aug 8, 2010
The Cambodian Space Project: I’m Unsatisfied
The label claims this is the first single by a Cambodian band since 1975, when the Khmer Rouge killed all the singers (and the teachers, and the doctors and…) in the Killing Fields. There are diaspora bands like Dengue Fever but this is a Phnom Penh-based outfit put together by an ex-pat Australian and including Cambodians and French players, and fronted by the incredible voice of Srey Thy. It’s a culture clash of sorts – they play like the 5,6,7,8s but their sound is faithful to the spirit of the 60s/ 70s music that itself was a fusion of traditional Khmer songs and the rock’n’roll imported by GIs. ‘Knyom Mun Sok Jet Te (I’m Unsatisfied)’ is staggering, from its warped psych-rock to the unearthly vocals of Srey Thy, who stays true to the spirit of singers like Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron (who originally wrote this). ‘I’m Still Waiting For You’ is another mindfuck, with lyrics by another dead Khmer pop legend Sin Sisamouth played over the tune to ‘House of the Rising Sun’. The incredible picture disc imagery just rounds it off nicely. If you’ve ever heard any of the Cambodia Rocks compilations, or just want an out-of-body experience, you’ll find this perfect.
HITTING THE HIGH NOTES – Thai Airways Magazine story
Srey Thy’s journey from the rice fields of Cambodia to lead singer of one of the hottest bands in the kingdom – The Cambodian Space Project – is truly an inspirational success story
TEXT BY CHARLOTTE LANCASTER
Srey Thy cried for the duration of her flight from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong in March this year (2010). As she sat with a brand new passport in hand, she allowed herself tears of fear and joy. Fear because she was flying into the unknown.
Joy because her life had, finally, taken off in a new direction. A departure from a life of difficulty, to one filled with hope and new possibilities. She was leaving her country for the first time to perform with her band at an international gig.
Born into a poor family in Cambodia’s poverty-stricken province of Prey Veng, nearly forced into the sex trade, and trapped in a violent relationship for a year, life had been tough on Thy. Yet, with some good luck and natural talent on her side, she has successfully moved on to become the lead singer of the Cambodian Space Project, a band that has managed to cause quite an impact with its music in the region in just one year.
While the band covers Cambodian hits from the 1960s as part of its cross- over Khmer rock Western psychedelic jungle sound, Thy’s own lyrics comment on modern and traditional Cambodian society as well as reflect on her own past. “Music – both the act of singing and performing – allows me to express my emotions, confront the demons of my past and convey the happiness I feel now,” admits Thy.
The articulate 31-year-old talks candidly of her past and of the dishonesty, desperation and poverty that have until recently defined her life. Thy was first introduced to music listening to her mother sing when she was a child. As a teenager she sang in restaurants in her home town, where audiences claimed she reminded them of the iconic Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron, two stars of the short-lived pre- Khmer Rouge Cambodian rock’n’roll scene.
In search of a better future, Thy left home to work as a maid in Phnom Penh, and while there was kidnapped and nearly forced into a sex trafficking ring. She was only 18 at the time. With deliberation and care she points to a small discolouration on her right wrist that is the only physical reminder of the hours she spent tied to a bed by electrical cables in a small room until an unknown woman freed her and gave her US$2.50 to run away. It was one of the defining moments in her life and she now uses her recently found fame to raise awareness of human trafficking in Cambodia through workshops and public talks.
After that, at the age of 24, Thy was in a tough and violent relationship with a man that resulted in their son. “We lived together for over a year, and separated after seven months of my delivery,” she reveals.
Finding herself working in the capital once again, she was desperate to send money home to her ageing parents and young child, and felt forced to take up odd jobs around the city earning whatever she could manage. From working as a labourer on a construction site to an employee in a garment factory, Thy has done it all – and has the scars to prove it. But things were meant to soon change, and in late 2009 Julien Poulson, an Australian musician and film producer, was in Phnom Penh looking for Cambodian music talent to work with when he stumbled across Thy singing in a karaoke bar, and was immediately taken by her. A couple of months later she was part of a band, and within a year of its forming The Cambodian Space Project has played more than 20 gigs – including, rather bizarrely, playing at an elephant’s 50th birthday party – and has garnered fans on home soil and overseas.
Its participation in a Hong Kong music festival earlier in the year laid the foundations for two international tours set to take them around Australia and France by the end of 2010. “A lot has happened in the last 12 months, but we still have a way to go,” says the lead singer confident of the band’s future success. Her ambitions for her own future, however, betray her difficult past and speak of a desire for stability and security. “As for me, I only hope for financial wellbeing and happiness for my family.”
With a career just taking off, these ambitions may materialise sooner than expected for the rising starlet, whose melodic voice, determined ambition and playful personality have taken her from rice fields to regional rock star in a short period of time. Who knows what’s next in store? For more information on The Cambodian Space Project check outwww.myspace.com/thecambodianspaceproject
Live review from Underground 96:
1. Wa Wa Wa
2. Au Go Go
3. Old Pot Makes Good Rice
4. I’m Unsatisfied
5. Cha Cha Cha
By the time CSP was up, the crowd had swelled considerably; good thing, too, because they were really worth watching. With the drummer’s pink coat, the variety of hats on display on the band-members, the Noel Redding-looking livewire of a bass player, and their striking singer Srey, they were as much a visual spectacle as they were a sonic experience. The groove began right away with Wa Wa Wa, with its sort of rural, dancy mood (courtesy the accordion), and cheeky-sounding vocals, making all present begin to sway immediately. The guitars were excellent throughout, having a very bluesy sound, yet played with a light touch so that the cumbersomeness that usually accompanies the blues was absent, giving their sound a very enjoyable freshness. The solos and riffs could have spilled off the guitar of Mark Knopfler in their ease. There was some stirring harmonica onAu Go Go, while a version of the Troggs’ Wild Thing riff featured on Old Pot.
It was tremendously clear how much these guys love playing music – from the Srey’s dancing (which compelled you to join in as well) to the drummer and bassist feeding off each others’ energies, they were as involved in the music as anyone else. (All this, despite their packed schedule shooting for a video, and playing 3 consecutive nights!) There was good-‘ol rock ‘n’ roll in the songs’ as well, especially the blistering solo on 16, dubbed “a melting pot of all their Western influences”. Sadly, the set had to end sometime, and it did so to each instrument booming in its own way, while people danced like crazy in the front. Apparently, their sets usually are much longer and more free-form, with 10 or 11 people playing; one could certainly imagine this happening, as the dynamic was very much the-more-the-merrier. Perhaps, if Gogol Bordello played the blues, they might happen upon the territory that CSP just blasted off from. ‘Till then, keep watching the skies for any sign of these orbiting rockers.
EN MODE CAMBODIAN SPACE PROJECT
Personne ne sait vraiment ou l’on va, mais on y va. Depuis le début de l’aventure musicale du Cambodian Space Project au Cambodge, c’est l’idée directrice. Jouer pour les gens, aller a la rencontre de ce peuple encore groggy par sa tragique et récente histoire, fusionner les cultures et les émotions, a travers la musique, dernier vestige des libertés individuelles et collectives.
A mesure que nous quittons Phnom Penh et les villes environnantes, les visages se font tout de suite plus souriants, les sourires plus francs et plus spontanés. C’est partout pareil, les grandes villes atrophient les gens. Au Cambodge, la ligne de démarcation entre la ville et la campagne est encore plus flagrante.
Julien Poulson connait cette ligne par cœur.
Artiste itinérant, citoyen du monde et de ses mystères à découvrir, il a déjà une riche histoire derrière lui. Originaire de Tasmanie, il sillonne la planète a la recherche de nouvelles sensations artistiques avec entre ses mains une guitare, une caméra et un appareil photo. Et un esprit aussi.
Cet esprit qui l’a poussé à en savoir plus sur la culture, les racines et les traditions cambodgiennes, il cherche, en utilisant la musique comme passeport. Et il trouve, une perle, Srey Thy, une chanteuse de bar à la voix d’or, sous-exploitée par de minables promoteurs, plongée dans la misère depuis de trop nombreuses années.
Née juste après la fin du régime des Khmers rouges dans une des provinces les plus pauvres du Cambodge, Prey Veng, avec un père conducteur de Tank, Srey Thy a connu le pire, avec en prime un enlèvement et une tentative de meurtre sur sa personne, elle veut maintenant connaitre le meilleur, sans oublier de subvenir au besoin de sa famille et de son village, en devenant une chanteuse professionnelle.
A partir de la, Julien décide de réunir tout ce que le Cambodge, mais a Phnom Penh principalement, compte d’aventuriers de la musique, avec une vision commune au départ.
Le Cambodian Space Project est lancé dans l’espace, en plein pays Khmer, des bars glauques, branchés ou chic de la capitale aux endroits les plus improbables du Cambodge.
Avec un équipage mixte et motivé composé de trois australiens, deux franco-khmers, un suédois, un breton, un américano-khmer et deux cambodgiens pur jus. Armé d’un répertoire visant à remettre au gout du jour les classiques du rock Khmer des années 60-70, le CSP part a l’assaut du pays et jouera un peu partout, Prey Veng, Takeo, Otres Beach, Kep, Sihanoukville, sur le Tonle Sap a Phnom Penh et dans bien d’autres endroits encore, déclenchant un intérêt certain un peu partout. Le manque de rigueur aperçu a certains moments étant compensé par le talent enflammé de Julien a la guitare, le charisme de Sry Thy et l’enthousiasme du reste du groupe.
Le Cambodian Space Project atterrit ensuite enfin dans la cité des Temples, tout un programme. Fallait bien que ces champions de la vibration se rencontrent un jour et c’est a l’initiative de Jeff que cela devint possible. Jeff, la quarantaine, un ancien de la poste du 93, venu bourlinguer en Asie plusieurs fois avant de s’y installer définitivement. Personnage haut en couleurs, crane rasé, tatoué et édenté, treillis militaire, colliers au cou et casquette Viet sur la tête, mais surtout passionné, ouvert et curieux, ce qui en fait un cocktail éminemment sympathique. Un mec a part, avec un regard différent sur les gens, forcement intéressant. Un vrai pirate des temps moderne, toujours prêt à partir a l’abordage du genre humain et des paysages improbables, objectif en main. Et Jeff s’était mis en tête de faire venir le CSP a Siem Reap, la ville champignon qui accueille les touristes du monde entier pour visiter les sublimes temples d’Angkor, impressionnants vestiges de la culture Khmer. Bien connecté avec la faune locale de la nuit, il se débrouilla comme un Jeff pour aider a organisé 3 concerts dans plusieurs endroits de Siem Reap sur 3 jours différents.
Ces trois jours a Siem Reap allaient être marqué par deux choses, la visite subliminale des fameux temples d’Angkor, mais aussi et surtout par l’irruption d’une Japonaise au sein du Cambodian Space Project, justifiant une fois de plus, et avec force, cette idée de collectif si chère a Julien. Aya Urata est originaire de Osaka, vit au Cambodge ou elle est professeur de musique et joue également d’un instrument bizarroïde, le Mélodica. Une sorte d’harmonica géant mais avec un clavier. Mini-star locale a Siem Reap, avec son groupe MILO, Aya et le CSP étaient fait pour se rencontrer. Profitant de l’absence de Ken, l’harmoniciste australien parti au chevet de son père au pays et de la novicité de Gaëtan a l’accordéon, Aya s’engouffra tout de suite dans la brèche avec une virtuosité et un enthousiasme étonnants. Intégrant sans problème le répertoire du groupe, cherchant les solos en duo avec Julien et enfin en ayant une attitude sur scène bien dans l’esprit du CSP, comme si elle en avait toujours fait parti. Sexy rock attitude, avec l’exotisme japonais en plus. Apres une première soirée en souplesse au Silk Garden pour un concert acoustique, le CSP s’est aussi produit à l’Abacus pour une soirée étrange, belle scène, jolies lumières, mais sono épouvantable avec une table de mixage abandonnée progressivement par un technicien à la dérive. Ambiance glaciale également au niveau du public, enfin des clients plutôt, comme le remarquera plus tard Scott Bywater sur son blog ‘’ Following the applause ‘’ , les gens présents ce soir la eurent les pires difficultés a rejoindre l’espace de la scène pour apprécier le concert et danser, il faut dire que le bar était très éloigné de la scène, a peu prés quatre mètres !
Je n’ai rien contre les mouches mais ces expats qui restent scotchés aux bars comme les mouches sur les ânes, sans s’intéresser le moins du monde a ce qui se passe autours d’eux, me laissent perplexe. La dernière soirée au X Bar fut la meilleure, un espace épatant, du monde, un public assez mixte et des gens qui dansent et participent, la fête, quoi ! Le CSP fit parler la poudre cette nuit la.
5 h du mat, j’ai des frissons ! La dernière journée fut consacrée au tournage d’images pour un futur clip, dans un temple isolé, et puis la joyeuse bande s’en fut vers d’autres cieux.
Prochaine étape Hong Kong, pour 3 dates, et puis la préparation d’un CD et d’une éventuelle tournée internationale, mais ca c’est déjà une autre histoire …
Pour L’Echo du Cambodge- Avril 2010Introducing The Cambodian Space Project – Asialike
The Cambodian Space Project
WRITTEN BY KATE LIANA
From the Outback to the Kingdom, meet the latest cross-cultural collaboration on the musical landscape of Phnom Penh. Words by Kate Liana.
The karaoke bars of Phnom Penh may seem a long way from war-torn East Timor, but while Australian singer Julien Poulson was unsuccessfully trying to record protest songs in East Timor, Srey Thy was singing in karaoke bars in Phnom Penh. Fortunately for the capital’s music lovers Julien paid heed to a friend’s advice – that the Cambodian capital was a cosmopolitan, enticing city with a lively art scene – and decided to move to the Kingdom. If he had not then the pair would never have met and there would be no Cambodian Space Project – the band that has taken the Kingdom by storm since the end of 2009.
However, it was not Srey Thy’s mellifluous voice, but Chapei singer Kung Nai who initially got Julien hooked on Cambodian music.
“I was captivated, I had never heard anything like it,” he says of the first time he heard Kung Nai’s voice. “When I was told what the lyrics meant – basically he had made up a song about my turning up at his house unexpectedly – it helped me understand the humour and playfulness in Cambodian culture.” Julien went on to follow Kung on a tour through Australia and New Zealand, filming the documentary Mekong Delta Blues.
It was on his third trip to Cambodia in early 2009 that he met Srey Thy.
Srey Thy had sung in local restaurants in her province since a child. Initially aspiring to be an Apsara dancer, she grew up working on the family’s farm listening to her mother’s singing, as the family had no money for lessons.
“My mother would sing in school during breaks,” she says. “One of her teachers heard her and asked her to sing for the whole school – he thought her voice was amazing.”
In an effort to make a living as a singer, Srey Thy moved to Phnom Penh four years ago and began working in karaoke parlours. The going was tough in the beginning, until her chance meeting with Julien last year. “My mother is so excited that I’m singing, and so happy for me,” she says. “The first time she saw me perform live, she was crying.”
Unlike other young singers, Srey Thy had always loved the Khmer songs from the 60s and 70s. “They feel more passionate and deep to me,” she explains. “They remind me of my life – growing up poor, working hard, taking care of my family.”
Older people would often say her singing reminded them of that period. Indeed, listening to an original recording of Ros Sereysothea, you are struck by the similarities in their voices. The band performs covers of Srey Thy’s favourite rock songs from the pre-war era, but with their own spin.
Since forming The Cambodian Space Project late last year, Srey Thy and Julien have been very busy. In December, they were joined by local musicians Scott Bywater and Ken White, and Saigon-based Davis Zunk. The group recorded songs in Kampot and hope to record more in the near future. Last month they played Meta House’s fourth anniversary party and the FCC. The group also made a trip to Srey Thy’s village in Prey Veng, bringing with them a generator for the community and putting on a musical spectacle the likes of which had never been seen in the small border town.
Many exciting things are on the horizon for the group. The Australian ambassador has asked them to perform at an upcoming event, and there’s a possibility they could play at an upcoming festival in Australia. For Srey Thy who has never travelled outside of Cambodia, this is a particularly exciting thought. They also have plans to record an album and shoot a video here. A previous video shot over Christmas that was placed on Youtube has already become popular with Khmers living abroad, and has generated much attention.
“The reaction we’ve had is amazing,” says Julien. “I feel like I’ve stumbled upon this gem, and I’m looking forward to developing our sound and creating something otherworldly.” Stay tuned for liftoff.