POST 22 OF 100 DAYS: WRITING ON FLYING THROUGH SPACE AND TIME WITH KAK CHANNTHY AND THE CAMBODIAN SPACE PROJECT
It has been months since I last posted and this is perhaps because so much has happened and continues to come to bear since our devastating loss of Channthy. This post will describe some of my own thoughts at feelings at this time of Pchum Ben and perhaps what will come next as I continue to contemplate all that has happened. One thing I know is that it’s been so hard to think of music (or much else for that matter) with the knowledge that Channthy’s not with us but at the same time, music is returning to me and I feel its spiritual power and how this can heal.
Pchum Ben can be described as Buddhist Lent, a Cambodian Christmas, or perhaps more as a “Cambodian Day of The Dead” though it’s a religious occasion that runs across two full weeks. Pchum Ben is a time to remember, venerate, and present food offerings to one’s deceased relatives. Ancestors are honoured going back as far as seven generations, and offerings are also brought for those without living descendants or in place of those who could not attend the ceremonies.
Pchum Ben is a public holiday in Cambodia and this time I’m remembering Channthy while visiting the mountain province of Mondulkiri. Many of Channthy’s own family will be already home in her village in Prey Veng Province where our beloved Channthy will be remembered along with ancestors in a tradition that has been kept with great devotion by the Khmer people for longer than anyone can remember.
Pchum Ben is also the time when the “gates of hell” are supposed to open and let out those imprisoned there to travel to the land of the living to receive food from their relatives. Some are let out only temporarily, while others are thought to gain permanent relief. Offerers believe they receive merits by helping the dead and blessings from them but curses if they fail in their familial duty.
Cambodians all over the country will travel to their home provinces for Pchum Ben, and there are services in many towns and villages. Most ceremonies involve processions around temples and crowds that wait outside with lit incense in hand as the monks perform rituals inside. There are also symbolic events where five mounds of sand or rice are formed and decorated in an effort to point to Mount Meru, where various Buddhist gods are thought to reside.
Thinking of and reflecting on Channthy’s life and music from Mondulkiri is especially profound. The moment I knew and understood Channthy’s way of expressing herself as a songwriter – a great songwriter – came some 9 years ago as we were making our first demos at a little studio in Kampot. Most of the jams were covers and were pretty shakey but then Thy suggested her own song… as soon as she’d laid down her vocals and heard the playback, the nakedness and perhaps spiritual power of her own voice shocked her so much she bolted from the studio… sound engineer Hugh at the Bodhi Villa then offered Thy incense sticks and pointed out the shrine where Thy urgently made her own prayers to a song she called Mondulkiri and described as being a prayer to an ancient spirit… an old man of the mountains… calling for goodluck.
I will never tire of listening to this sublimely beautiful song – live recorded versions through to the first collaboration with Jan Mueller aka Prof Kinski and his remix of that first Kampot recording session. But being back here today, in the mountains of Cambodia, I’m thinking again of Channthy’s life and my time sharing life, love and music together. In “Mondulkiri” Channthy summons the ancient spirits of the Mountains and the gods above… she’d also record other songs along the same themes and ideas… but at the time of writing her first song for the CSP, Channthy had hardly traveled outside of her village and Phnom Penh, she’d never been to the mountainous Mondulkiri but it was a place of her imagination, perhaps like the mythical Mount Meru – the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology that is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes.
So, at this time of Pchum Ben, when spirits of the dead return to occupy our earthly world, I am finding my own way of understanding and reflecting upon life and my life making music with Channthy. Friends who know me well will understand just how much this means to me and there are others whom I’ve never met but have sent such kind and thoughtful words of support. I’m slowly coming to the idea of recording more music, and this next step will be working back at Space Eko studios in London where I hope to track music that is inspired by Mondulkiri, by Channthy but also by our shared love for folk melodies and grooves, the kind of music you’ll find sung by the indigenous hill tribes of the region, Khmer Surin styles and the incredible riffs and grooves of Molam, Luk Thung country music out of Thailand and Laos. As my co-pilot of CSP, Channthy was also my guide into discovering and falling in love with these songs and sounds. Lately, I’ve been back on this adventure of music discovery through a radio show I’m having a crack at doing – thanks to Kampot Radio, I’m also back to the joy of ‘crate diggin’ the old and new sounds on a big trip of a show called Asian Garage Underground (tune in Thursday’s 6pm +7GMT). Tonight’s my last night here in Mondulkiri and I’m also returning for my 6th visit to Bou’Sra and to meet and jam with the Bunong musicians whom both Channthy and I have known and loved working with over these past years….
Today, I’m wrapping up this post – day 22 of 100 days on writing in tribute to Channthy – and heading out of Sen Monorom to the village of Bou’Sra where I will meet tribal elders and dear friend Sang Bro who will be inviting myself and friends to visit her culture troupe as rehearse. Somboro is a teacher of traditional customs and is one of the last of her people with this intangible living culture – working to hand down traditional culture through song. I’ve known Somboro’s group for almost a decade and have been saddened to see some of the most important and influential members of her community pass away during this time. Channthy was thrilled to meet and learn from Somboro on our first trip to Mondulkiri and kept some of the melodies of ‘Bunong Song’ in mind for her own compositions such as “Mountain Dance” and “Down From The Mountain”. I’m looking forward to today’s visit and will also record and share music and stories with you across the time ahead. I’m also hoping that my next music work – coming up through recording in London, will be music for the CSP Mothership, drawing much inspiration from all that there is to know and learn from here in remote Cambodia and in all the far-flung corners of our many worlds here on planet earth. By carrying on and creating music – with full heart and passion – is exactly what Channthy would have loved and hoped for.
So, in tribute, I’ll be heading back down the mountain, re-stringing a guitar or two and heading back to the UK where I’m looking forward to tracking with CSP UK rhythm section David Eugene Webb on drums and Brian “Tolly” Tolworthy on bass. This is just a start but the music will nodoubt return to Cambodia where other CSP Mothership members bring sounds and ideas – Jason Shaw on guitar and often mixing the recordings, Bong Sak on drums, his daughter Samnang Ye Ye being the latest member aborad, bringing another incredible and powerful voice to our sonic space, and of course there’s also Thy’s brother Lenny adding percussion along the way. It’s a new beginning and one that referes back to where Channthy and I began with songs like “Mondulkiri” – my hope is to create something beautiful… a great listen… and this will, in turn, be something new that will become the music and future sounds of the Cambodian Space Project “Mothership”. Already – this journey back down from the mountains and all the way over to Space Eko, London, feels imbued with meaning, spirit, and importance to me… perhaps it’s just my own healing needs but I feel guided by all that I know is near and present.
I believe that life is made meaningful by what we remember (or forget). Memory is an impetuous child – returning unconsciously, willingly, selectively, and sometimes grudgingly to help us find our way… in the end, we are what we remember – we are all memories of memories destined to become memories of memories. I know that I will never forget the time I’ve shared with Channthy and the life of music that we made. Through all this has come great friendships plus travel and experiences we could have never imagined. My heart breaks to think that Channthy’s life has ended so soon but I won’t make the mistake of thinking that a good life is quantified in years lived. I always felt Channthy would like to be the grand dame, still singing and writing her songs well into older age but alas, it’s not how things have worked out.
It’s terribly sad that Channthy will not be able to own son Makara grow up and to see her family safe and secure. These last few months I’ve spent a lot of time working to secure the finance needed as well as working closely with family and a support network to establish the right framework for continued support and plan a future. I was wonderful to fulfill just one of Channthy’s dreams and to make Makara’s first visit to Australia a great trip – one that involved Makara attending an Australian school and meeting many friends and fans of his mum in Darwin, and again, this is something that has been made possible by the overwhelming generosity of many people working with us to make this happen. It’s incredible to think how Channthy went from total obscurity and a life of extreme hardship and poverty to making such an impact on people in so many places… I can only hope that by maintaining her legacy and continuing to tell her story that the influence and opportunity this will bring will give hope and inspiration to the next generations, and to Channthy’s own talented and beautiful young son Makara, to aim for the stars and she did with such grace and charm.
Plenty of people have been writing in or creating events and actions in response to remembering Channthy. I have to admit, I haven’t found all of this to be good and somethings – mostly random people or troll commentary – has been horrible to encounter but again, disgusting thoughts and actions… Though, I’ve got to consider human nature and how, in today’s digital universe, our need to react, and respond can be totally knee-jerk according to an individual’s habits and ways…good or bad…there some fucking ugly trolls out there though. The months of working through tasks with getting urgent matters to do with Channthy’s death dealt with, along with some rebuilding of what we’ve lost as a rock’n’roll band losing its indelibly charismatic frontwoman, and to personally pick my self up off the floor and get on with living has been totally overwhelming. Again, sitting up here in a coffee shop in Mondulkiri, taking time out to reflect and draw from the spirit of things, feels like the best thing right now… and just like great music, if it feels right it’s good.
I’m especially encouraged to see and know how Channthy’s voice and the music we’ve made lives on. Lately, CSP family has been able to take time to regroup and to also look at sorting our own archives to put together things yet to be completed or work that had been shelved or previously discarded. This week has been the first time I’ve listened to some of our live recordings – I’m not always a fan of this – but through doing the radio show Asian Garage Underground and unashamedly spinning CSP songs and backtracking through lots of our robust catalogue – 5 albums and many more collaborations and live recordings – I’m finding plenty of joy and happiness in hearing this music. Yes, it’s also heartbreaking to me but somehow it’s compelling me to move forward and to know that music is life! it’s my life that’s for sure and I’ve been missing this. I really don’t know what’s next but be sure that everything that is coming is something that is created to acknowledge and pay tribute to the life and music of one of Cambodia’s great singers – Kak Channthy – who is more than ever with us at this special time of remembering here in Cambodia.