Introducing Thyda Chea with The Cambodian Space Project live at Oz Asia Festival, Adelaide, Australia October, 2022

Surfing into 2023

Getting set to twang out the surf sounds of Cambodia at Fish Island Records. We’ll call this studio concept band The Angkor Watts!

It’s The Cambodian Space Project’s return to touring (first time in over 5 years), and with a suite of new recordings and releases coming up it’s looking like a great year ahead. In 2023 we’re celebrating 70 years of Cambodia’s independence.
Strap in and prepare for blast off!

Welcome aboard folks, it feels good to be reflecting on the year just gone and the one coming up. I can see it’s the start of a new purple patch of creativity for the CSP and, best of all, more live shows with the band back on the road in Cambodia and beyond. We’re also at an exciting stage of studio building and launching new work recorded at our dedicated “Yellow Sub” studio on Fish Island. So, yeah and hell yeah! we’re back in the water and the musical fish are jumping.

After a good long bit of holidaying in Australia, plus a side trip to Bali, I’m now chomping at the bit to get back to work in Cambodia. First up, putting some time in, to write and sketch out ideas, while decamping to work from Temple Town, Siem Reap for a few weeks.

I’ve always loved the creative scene in the Reap and it’s drawing me back for collaborations with local artists and writers. I’m also sketching out ideas for the stage play Yesterday, Once More – based on the life and disappearance of 1970’s Cambodian singer Poev Vannery – and putting in time to plan and organise (not too much!) It’s Garage Fest! Cambodia . The 2nd edition of Garage Fest! will include shows by The Cambodian Space Project and friends with dates and venues across Cambodia – from Angkor Wat to Kampot! yep, it’s got a ring to it. Look out for the The CSP touring across the Kingdom from March through to Khmer New Year.

The Cambodian Space Project fronted by Khmer Australian chanteuse Thyda Chea will be performing dates in Cambodia March-April 2023

Being back on tour again feels good! And doing this with Khmer Australian songstress Thyda Chea who is fronting the band, is especially good. Based on the shows we’ve just done together in Australia, we’re already excited about the idea of Thyda joining us in Cambodia, and I’m sure it’s going to be a great homecoming for her too.

Set up a touring rock festival Garage Fest! in 2013, is a great opportunity to highlight Cambodia’s ever expanding live music and arts scene, and for me and the CSP, it gives us a great opportunity to document stories and collect video footage along the way – it’s something we’ve been doing for a while now and this material adds to a music documentary that has been quietly taking shape over the last few years.

We’re following our own, previously blazed trail across the across the Kingdom of Wonder. No doubt there’ll be plenty of twists and turns, after all it’s underground rock’n’roll, and will take us to new places and yet discovered venues. Along the way, the touring invariably captures new thoughts and idea, documentary material that will marry up with archival footage, commentary and a collections of interviews, ready to cut into a new rockumentary called Land of 1000 Dances.

Samy Nine videographed 30 days and 30 nights of touring Cambodia with the CSP, 2016.

Land of 1000 Dances looks at the story of Cambodian rock’n’roll – from the “singing King” to present day. The story kicks off some 70 years ago when a young Norodom Sihanouk, the last of Cambodia’s God King’s, secures independence from France in 1953. The following year, another remarkable King bursts onto the world’s stage – the future rock ‘n’ roll superstar was a young unknown when his debut single, ‘That’s All Right,’ came out July 19, 1954. Elvis Presley would soon change the world and the tremors would reach and ignite the burgeoning Cambodian rock scene.

Shake your hips baby! Dance and rock’n’roll are inseparable in Cambodia and this year’s Garage Fest! is a great chance to shake some action and jump aboard the tour bus as it rolls out across the dusty highways of Cambodia.

In 2016, The CSP touring circus was brilliantly captured by videographer Samy Nine back, who filmed 30 wild days and 30 nights of the bands 2016 Motown to Mekong tour. Samy’s footage is an intimate look at CSP on the road, and Kak Channthy at her very best. It is a gritty cinéma vérité look at life on the road, with all its high highs and low lows. Needless to say, this is great footage of a band on the road in Cambodia and will be central to the new doco, showing Channthy and her merry pranksters, rocking, charming, and beguiling, and audiences across the Kingdom.

Land of 1000 Dances kicks off in the early 1950’s, showing how contemporary ideas in music and a ‘new, modern image of Cambodia’ had much to do with the vision of the young, mercurial Norodom Sihanouk, a monarch who placed great emphasis on his own Royal entourage of musicians, not least Sin Sisamouth – the hugely influential composer and band leader of Sihanouk’s Sangkum period.

Now, in 2023, we’re work towards a movie that shows the story of this 70 extraordinary years of wildly, free-spirited, ground-breaking rock’n’roll. With luck, we’ll be in and out of the edit suite and ready to show a cut of Land of 1000 Dances: 70 years of Cambodian Rock’n’Roll just in time to mark the nation’s 70th anniversary – Thursday, 9 November Independence Day of Cambodia 2023.

Princess Norodom Buppha Devi. Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, 1965.

Shadows of Angkor, surf music and movie soundtracks

Just recently I was invited to present a video and music retrospective at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. This was such a thrill to do and an unexpected chance to curate CSP’s own retrospective story through song, recordings, and video clips. The opportunity also was to be part of a double feature alongside Cambodia’s film and sound archive NGO Bophana Centre and their presentation of vintage Khmer movie Thavory Meas Bong and it came right on the heals of CSP’s Australian shows – performing The Rat Catcher of Angkor Wat – in Melbourne and Adelaide.

Needless to say, the ACMI brief got me looking at the Cambodian film archives and watching old Khmer cinema, including the film Thavory Meas Bong. It struck me as a strange choice of film to show and when I asked why it was chosen I was told “because it hasn’t been seen in a long time” – well perhaps there’s good reason for that, it sure ain’t a great movie! but stylistically looks fabulous, 1960’s fashion and design, and its soundtrack is pretty groovy! Austin Powers style – it’s the cool and chic fashion and style of the Sixties in Cambodia.

I think this film Thavory Bong Meas was made and released in 1967 or ’68? And maybe the soundtrack was recorded then too but to my ears the soundtrack is impossibly funky and modern… sure the film’s title is a Sin Siamouth hit song but the rest of the score sounds like the kind of funk music that wasn’t even performed or recorded until mid 70’s. But who knows? it’s something for soundtrack trainspotters like me to ponder… perhaps the music was inspired by the then USA number #1 “Soul Finger” – the hugely popular and super funky 1967 release by the Bar-Kays. However, I suspect the soundtrack was an overdub created in the early 80’s – a significant time, when Cambodian people, free of the Khmer Rouge, were beginning to find and re-connect shattered lives and communities with their own music and films from the past – the ‘golden era’ before the time of civil war and the Khmer Rouge.

As a side note: The Bar-Kays, originally formed in 1966, biggest hit was ‘Soul Finger’ would have. been well and truly spinning in the night clubs of Phnom Penh around the time Thavory Bong Meas was being made. The band had a worldwide hit and looked like they had a healthy career in front of them as a session band & recording outfit before the backbone of the group was killed, along with Otis Redding, in a horrific plane crash.

They don’t dance like the used to… 1930’s dance cut to the Bar-Kays biggest hit Soul Finger

The CSP’s next album is titled Sovanna Hong / The Golden Phoenix named after a vintage Khmer movie by Yvon Hem. It’s shaping up as totally (funky) movie-soundtrack-inspired body of work. At its centre is the bass player! Yep! that’s Phea Bass, CSP’s youngest and funkiest space cadet. But it’s also the bands first new album without our astonishing diva Kak Channthy being front and centre of the picture. We’ve long held the idea of doing an instruments album, even on CSP’s Electric Blue Boogaloo there’s a couple of good examples of this, but hey, it’s taken some time and here we are in 2023, landing on an entirely new musical planet. This time ’round there’s a lot more instrumental space in the mix but there’s also some exciting new tracks featuring Thyda Chea who’ll be joining the live band for dates in Cambodia.

Phea Bass, Thyda Chea and Bong Sak – Oz Asia Festival, Adelaide, October 2022.

The Golden Phoenix has been a fun record to make. First by sketching out new tracks and jamming out ideas out in the provinces at Fish Island Community Arts Centre, and then taking our jams to record at some pretty fabulous studio sessions in Melbourne, Australia. So yeah, Golden Phoenix, it’s a funk dance album but there’s one dark horse, and that’s a surf rocker song called “Shadows of Angkor”… this track was almost thrown in as an after thought… it’s something like a sonic-note-to-self, a reminder to get back to recording that reverb-drenched, twangin’ spaghetti western kinda sound that many of those very early surf bands… The Ventures, The Shadows, Australian legends The Atlantics pioneered. It’s also an enticing idea to put to use our every growing collection of vintage Made-in-Japan gear and make the new recordings from out of our Fish Island Studios, a spacious, atmospheric surf style echoing the sounds of those wonderful sounding early Cambodian rock bands.

Getting back to vintage surf band sounds is also an idea that grabbed the attention of music producer Dave Anderson at Saxon Studios in Rochester, New York. Dave’s “Saxon Sound” is already lauded amongst genre aficionados of surf, psych, garage rock – there was even the time when legendary Sky Saxon of The Seeds – thinking Pushin’ Too Hard – turned up looking for that “Saxon Sound”.

Well push has come to shove and we can confirm producer Dave Anderson will be putting in time with the CSP and local musicians at Fish Island Records, and spend a month recording new and very vintage inspired sounds with us in Kampot. Dave and I first connected when a ‘singer test’ I made of Or Sina went online. At the time Dave sent us a very heartwarming, affirming piece of feedback:

“I just wanted you to know how much I enjoy the songs that you recorded together with Or Sina, absolutely beautiful! I think you guitar work is the perfect compliment to Sina’s singing. Her voice is incredible, so pure and genuine. Sina also has a charming personality! The two of you seem to have a very good creative chemistry working together. I hope that you will be continuing to work together and that you’ll consider recording a full length album of more beautiful renditions of classic Khmer songs.

– Dave Anderson

Tarantino soundtracks? Yes please! Here’s Paul Revere and the Raiders
Small, wild and beautiful… this is the 2nd edition of The Cambodian Space Project curated traveling rock’n’roll party in Cambodia

Getting it all down to tape

Recording to tape is a nice idea but perhaps not at Fish Island. But new sessions will have the best of both worlds – totally garage band rock’n’roll set up at Fish Island, then the means to switch to vintage analog back at Anderson’s Saxon Recording Studio back in Rochester. Saxon’s a studio with a great collection of high-end, vintage gear, the kind of stuff you can’t really substitute with digi plug-ins. But it’s also 40 years of experience that sound guys like Dave can bring to our fledgling Cambodian studio.

This February we’re, getting down to work and will be showing and sharing the working process, of creating a live garage band studio set up, and having young interns film and document the process. It’s an exciting, sonic fishing trip and a chance to seek out those wondrous, vintage surf sounds so reminiscent of the early sounds of 1960s Cambodia. It’s also a real opportunity for us to bring to the studio, local talent and many of the singers and musicians on recent projects such as Cambodian Women of Song and more. Here’s a great example – check out Or Sina singing SereySothea.

Or Sina sings at Fish Island Studios

So it’s the combination of Western rock’n’roll from the 50s, 60s, and 70’s as well as the experience of living and working in Cambodia, that will be driving the first fully-shaped album recording project out of Fish Island and what a great way to get things rolling. I’m expecting this new body of work will also find its way into rockumentary soundtrack for Land of 1000 Dances: 70 Wild Years of Cambodian Rock’n’Roll.

The Surf Sounds of South East Asia and Australia

One of the earliest surf band hits from Australia
Fred Pyke (right) with long-time glasser Peter Ashley, pictured in 2009. Photo: BOB SMITH

Speaking of surfing, I was never that much of a surfer but I did grow up by the sea and often in the wild seas of Southern Tasmania, as well as a good immersion in the surf culture of 1970’s Australia. Perhaps it was because it was so freaking cold down on those southern beaches and I never put as much time into wave riding as I did other water sports like sail boarding. Still, I loved the first super surfboard I scored, it was it’s shape and design that got me, much like the way I’d choose an electric guitar. This board was a beat-up second hand plank and while it looked cool to me it was actually considered pretty uncool at the time, too big, too clunky and just too old fashioned in comparison to the much newer, sleaker new tri-fins made by the likes of Water Cooled. It was only later I learned anything about the history my oddly branded Pyke plank and discovered that these were made by renown Australian shaper Fred Pyke.

It was a time when I also lived on healthy diet of surf culture. Popular surf rag Tracks Magazine was essential reading and I especially loved the naughty Captain Goodvibes comic strips. Vulgar but intrepid Goodvibes and side-kick Gonad Man were hugely popular surf culture cartoon icons of the 70’s. The Captain was a hard-drinking, drug-taking, straight-talking pig, shaped like a pork chop with a funnel mouth ruminating riffs on apocalyptic disaster in a broad Aussie surfer brogue.

Captain Goodvibes, a.k.a. the Pig of Steel, is the creation of Australian cartoonist Tony Edwards and an icon of Australian surfing culture from the 1970s.

The Seventies in Australia, was also a time of mind-blowing surf movies with Morning of The Earth being the finest of them all. Still, to this day, I’ve never seen anything that comes close to Morning of The Earth. It’s the quintessential surf movie capturing 70’s surf culture at its peak. A film where stunning 16mm camera work is made even more dreamy, psychedelic and mystical, by its incredible soundtrack – artists including Taman Shud, Brian Cadd and G. Wayne Thomas, come together to capture the timeless chemistry between surf, film and music. It’s a movie soundtrack that has well and truly stood the test of time and influences many of the new wave of Australian surf bands today – excellent, Aussie stoner, surf psychedelia.

The incredible Australian surf band The Atlantics

But the sport of surfing, unlike any other, arrived with its very own genre of music. Surf music really took off in Australia in the early sixtes with first hit makers being The Atlantics who burst onto the scene with Bombora in 1963 – a thunderous classic! think Pulp Fiction, think master of the Stratocaster Dick Dale and the Del-Tones “Miserlou” and you’ve got it. Well, I’m still thinking about all this and how I used to have a bunch of 45rpms singles with a whole lot of cool surf bands… I think there was plenty of The Ventures, The Shadows back then but they’re long gone. Thankfully, a Cambodian friend spotted a bunch of vinyl in a junk shop in Kampot and called me to let me know… I jumped on my moto and have since scored a phenomenal collection of Japanese pressings of the early 1960s surf groups. A crate digger’s dream come true.

Of course, this had me wondering about the surf sounds of Cambodian and Vietnam and going back to the idea of dedicating time to updating surf music in Cambodia by tracking a few surf songs with the CSP. After all, we all love playing the “unofficial national anthem of Cambodia” Ros Sereysothea’s surf rock classic “Chnam oun dop-pram moi aka I’m 16” (if you’re reading this and have never heard Cambodia Rocks compilation, click this link immediately! ), and what a great way to start a new recording studio, on Fish Island no less, kick it all off with a set of surf music made in Cambodia.

Okay, so there’s no surf in Cambodia but there sure is a history of great surf music

When the electric guitar hit the streets of Saigon, Vietnamese renditions of contemporary instrumental trends such as surf-rock, beat and twist soon emerged, followed by some pretty deep soul sounds inspired by Motown radio hits as well as funk grooves brought on by James Brown and his contemporaries. By the mid-1960s, Vietnam had been ravaged by war for years. American GIs had become a standard fixture in Saigon, as did many of the cultural artefacts they brought with them. This certainly included the music. The sounds of rock and roll dominated the radio waves, and Saigon nightclubs were teeming with new sounds.

Playing raucous American pop in 1960s Vietnam, Phuong Tâm became a sensation – but turned her back on singing after emigrating to the US. Now she’s 76 and her incredible music can finally be heard after her daughter tracked it down. Read full story here
Saigon’s Wartime Beat Click the link for full story
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Soundtrack to the Vietnam War or the American War as it’s know in Indochina
Kak Channthy and The Cambodian Space Project tour footage by Samy Nine @ X-Bar 2016
Behind the scenes and back room at Sharky Bar – CSP rehearsing ahead of Motown to Mekong tour 2016. Photo Steve Porte.