Day 3 of 100 days: writing on flying through Space and Time with Kak Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project

While it’s true that The Cambodian Space Project really just began with Channthy and I banging out a few songs at the first birthday party of a little Phnom Penh hideout called the Alley Cat – by the time we’d twice repeated the 3-4 Cambodian covers we’d roughly figured out, it seemed we had a posse forming. First there was Scott Bywater, a fellow Tasmanian, fronting up to offer “perhaps you guys could do with a few extra musicians? some equipment…? I’ve got both and it’s all just a tuk tuk away…” and he was in from the last set of the night along with a couple of jammers. Next came Gildas Maronneaud on bass joining us on Xmas Day, Gaeten Crespel on accordion, Ratha Khan on congas, The Swedish Ambassador here and there on bass, Ken White on harmonica, Irene Chuon on rhythm guitar and eventually, when we figured out we were gonna need a proper drummer, Bong Sak on the kit. But at first, it was this loose bus load of backpacker lookin’ folks blasting across the dusty highways of Cambodia. It was an incredibly joyous and fun time… a Cambodian band of Merry Pranksters brought together around Channthy who simply went by the name Srey Thy as this stage and was seemingly happy to be swept up and along for the ride.

A long way from home

Channthy, however, had a lot more at stake than the rest of the band or loose collective as it was, she’d taken a chance, a big chance and jumped aboard the bus and into the unknown… an unknowable future, unfamiliar culture, language, people, everything and this was only heightened with our first ventures into OS touring. But there was also something else that motivated us and spun the wheels on the bus… it was the fact that Thy had brought great, original music, to the jam band repertoire of Cambodian rock covers, right from the get go. Highly original songs starting with Mondulkiri, then Whisky Cambodia, then If You Go I Go Too. It was certainly something that made me believe in the enormous, all intuitive, raw talent that she possessed and the CSP potentially had onboard. Plans were made, schedules aligned and dates and plans were made to steer the CSP towards the international market… on thing is we really didn’t have any idea where that would lead us. First opportunity was a visit to Hong Kong… an amazing blow in visit… and it really felt like we’d come out from the jungle into some Blade Runner City where we’d need to sharpen up and we did… but it was also the first time I’d separate from Channthy and the CSP and leave all my friends to travel onto Italy while the band returned home to Cambodia. Thy shed tears as she stared out across Hong Kong on the eve of our last day… I cried too, was this wrong time to step away? still I had been offered an arts residency in Italy and it was a professional opportunity I was keen to undertake…. the band gathered on the rooftop of a 17 story building and sang and jammed the last night away… Thy ad libbed a song about her journey thus far, describing herself as a small bird with little wings that had flown a long way from home.

When it did come to say goodbye at the HK airport the next morning there was no time for tears or long hugs and kisses, we’d arrived late and I had to run like Gump across two terminals and about 7 kms of causeway… it’d be a week or so before I’d even reach my final destination… I stopped first in Istanbul then trained my across Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Marco Polo Station, Venice… the experience of catapulting out of the first incarnation of the CSP and onto a long slow rail journey got me thinking and reflecting on all that had just happened, on Channthy, on CSP, on Cambodia…now already feeling like some faraway mystical land and on my own future direction. I hoped plans we’d mulled over as a group in Hong Kong…. to meet again in a few months in France and not to worry, CSP would keep looking after Thy and rehearsing and getting better and better while I went off to do my thing – an Alcorso Foundation residency to live, write and record in Italy….

Sure enough, I got well and truly immersed in a brilliant project with The Beards of Venice – the writing of a libretto and the recording of an album we called “Muskito” based on a wild and bloody chapter of Tasmania – then Van Diemen’s Land – bitter and bloody frontier history.

Meanwhile, back in Phnom Penh, things we moving along too… Channthy was calling me from internet cafes on skype with regular updates on her own progress – she’d begun Chapei lessons with traditional music Master Kong Nay and was also being looked after with much support and kindness from the CSP team who we’re rehearsing regularly at the Bophana Center – Cambodia’s film and sound archive NGO – and coming up with some interest variations on old songs…. we still could barely speak each others language and our long skype chats would always be interspersed with the language in common – a love of music – and Channthy saying things like “Now I have new song bong…very good… this one called Kangaroo Boy… about someone I miss so much… ” .

Kangaroo and Chicken

This pattern of conversation and perhaps our own commitment to each other would waiver in an out like a bad internet connection and continue for the next few months.  But Channthy would always come back with something that surprised me, revealed more about who she was and where see saw things going. Her emails would also be a mixture of shoddy “hello…how are you…hope you happy in your business do well” kind of standard Net cafe scribes to ideas that Thy had clearly gone to lengths to express and translate. On morning a message popped up in my inbox:

Date: Mon, 17 May 2010 06:52:55 -0700
Subject: RE:

Hello bong somlang, I am so worry when I did not see your call but now I feel good because I just talk with you on skype. Now I want to create a film about Kangaroo and Chicken. About chicken life. One day a chicken find food by walking far from home for her parent and sister and brother. When chicken walk far away from home there are many many struggling for chicken. And chicken don’t know which way is good for chicken to go. Many years for chicken to stay away from home and support food for her family. One day there are heavy rain with storm and thunder but the chicken don’t have a place to stay. The chicken think that she may died at that time but immediately there was a tour Kangaroo see a poor chicken and put that chicken into his belly. The Kangaroo asked the chicken what happen, the chicken told kangaroo that she don’t have food for many days and now she is very tired. Then kangaroo told chicken that he has some foods to help chicken for a while. The chicken was very very happy and she slap her wing to thank to kangaroo. Kangaroo said that don’t do like this because he can’t help chicken forever because he has to go back to his country. Since then chicken fall in love with kangaroo. But kangaroo don’t realize that chicken fall for him. He go back to his country for a long time. When chicken miss kangaroo she always cry loudly from apart to make kangaroo hear. Kangaroo wonder why chicken cry to him everyday for many months until kangaroo realize that chicken fall in love with him. Then kangaroo come back to Cambodia again and meet with chicken again and the chicken was very very happy because she can’t imagine that she can meet kangaroo again. When kangaroo meet chicken, he always put chicken into his belly. And chicken cry softly for kangaroo, it’s very nice for chicken. The chicken which used to tied up and used to be food for human. When chicken sleep she always afraid that next morning she will become food for human. But now she not worry anymore because under kangaroo’s belly she can rest in peace without fear…. there are still continue for this film. I want to make it to be cartoon because not only kids but I think that adult will like this cartoon too. I will continue this film tomorrow and if you see that there’s something wrong with this story just tell me. I am waiting to hear from you. Wish you good luck.

From Chicken Prey Veng

Music Theatre

So with Channthy’s thoughts and ideas, especially her announcement that she wanted to make a film…perhaps a cartoon…coming in through Skype calls and Internet Cafe scribes, I would marvel from the distance – culturally and geographically of Venezia, Italy – to what was occurring with Thy and my band of gypsies back in the Penh. Time was getting closer to when we’d all meet again, a plan to arrive in Paris then make our way across France to play (busk) at our first festival booking… a kind of “oh… if you guys get here… we suppose you might be able to play…” kinda booking at the Confolens World Music Festival. Thy called to tell me Scoddy, Gildas and Gaeten had sets dates, booked her flight and were working on a visa… her thoughts and ideas were becoming more animated as the excitement mounted but at the same time, it was worrying for Thy, in the background to all this – new relationships, new people, big new opportunities – was her concern and worry for her family, especially her sick mother.

At first if you don’t succeed try try again

Another memorable – for sheer frustration – Skype call from Thy was when she told me about her first Visa rejection… she’d been to the French Embassy in Phnom Penh… she felt they looked down upon her…refused her a visa…. her first Cambodian passport had Occupation: Singer written inside it … it didn’t help… of course, an appeal was made and the then French Consul even personally intervened to assist making sure the next application got through but not before Thy had again updated my with another funny story…. while she’d taken the rejection personally she’d also fashioned it into a song and she would later finish this song and record it when we finally did all meet in France. Have Visa No Have Rice was jammed out in a garage in La Rochelle and the first recording was made by Ken Stringfellow who we’d somehow met along the way… Ken was great to work with us… he’d somehow heard about CSP and I was already a fan of his own work with The Posies. This was Thy’s first real producer…taking her song apart, reassembling it and getting it rocking! For me, the great thing about this song is it was suddenly printing all Thy’s humour, her cartoon pop image of herself… placed as per usual – centre stage in the middle of a bizarre carnivale.

At first if you don’t succeed try try again

Finally we all arrived as one CSP in Paris! An amazing day and a great reunion which kicked of at Gildas’s parents place just on the outskirts of the city. Soon we’d be on the road for our semi-official festival booking but first it was time to explore the City and to also purchase some equipment… I still didn’t own much more than my old battered K. Yairi acoustic and I figured we’d need to amp up… and so we did… we bought the tiniest looking battery powered Roland amps – a bass amp, 2 x guitar amps and room enough to plug in a vocal mic. Feeling excited and quite proud of this ‘new kit’ we decided that we’d make our own Paris show… we could perhaps go down to the river and busk that evening on the banks of the Seine… Great idea! except Thy was unaware of any of this… and we hadn’t really considered what her debut show expectations might be either….

Now inside Paris, and just a short 1k walk to the Seine, Channthy started to cotton to our World Premiere! plans and was not happy! even less happy with the fact that in Paris the streets had these stupid things called cobble stones and she only had high heels, the silly barang people didn’t even have tuk tuks or motodops and her stupid band, lead by public enemy number 1 – Moi – had come up with some crazy idea of begging! in the street….something called Busking.

Arrrgh! “Why? why I come here? Paris no good”. 

I tried to appeal “Look Thy… this is good, we’re all happy to relax and play and it’s a great way to practice… ” but to no avail. “Bong…you stupid… I not play in street look for money like this one…this not good…. If boss ask me come play restaurant I go… play in the road… ask for money ….NO GOOD… why I come here?”

This mood of course blew over as soon as we started playing….psychedelic sounds echoed out beautifully in a cascade of melodic notes across the riverside walkway and in moments we had an enthusiastic crowd of onlookers, who not only stopped and paid attention to the music but became transfixed by the spectacle of our straight-outta-Cambodia rabble and then, as Channthy decided to pick-up a microphone and sing out into the night skies, totally mesemerized and intrigued by her vocals and Khmer language – not discernible to most of the crowd.

Soon, we were happily and confidently repeating the ‘band-o-buskers’ shows all across the French countryside. Channthy loved her first taste of a real World Music Festival at Confolens and more so, the countryside of Bretagne and the little shows – impromptu gigs in cafes, town squares, bar and backyards….  later, Thy was always fondly looking back on this first big trip – despite as the Have Visa No Have Rice lyrics imply – not having an immediate taste for it. At one point we spent time hanging out in Gaetan’s Breton village Jugon Les Lacs and even shot a few funny videos but as recently as July last year we were back in the same village with Channthy happily devouring all that she’d felt alien on the first time around.

Looking forward to France

This year Thy and I talked about things ahead and she was especially looking forward to returning to France, she’d become a real lover of French culture, not least the music of France – from Edith Piaf whom she loved to impersonate through to Serge Gainsbourg whose songs she covered and loved. But mostly it was because of our great friends in France, so many people who have come onboard and really made France a great place for the CSP.

I am sorry deeply sorry that Channthy will nver be with us again and will not get to do all the great things, especially the travel that she’d come to love. I’m going to continue to write thoughts on our journey together as daily postings for the next 100 Days in tribute to Channthy and her incredible life but also to remind all of our friends and fans that we need your ongoing help and support to secure the kind of future for Channthy’s son that she would have dreamed possible. Please take a moment to visit Kak Channthy Memorial Fund