Channthy was loved.
By sheer force of nature, hers was a life energy – a spirit – that exuded joy and happiness and this was her brilliance as a performer, Kak Channthy she brought her sheer joy to the world. From the moment I connected with Channthy I could sense that she was someone who possessed a vast soul, emotionally deep and full of complexities. She shone through the darkness and from a life born into war and poverty and the trauma inherent to survivors of the most debased humanity, to overcome! against all odds. On stage, from the moment of our first gig in a cramped little bar (as a duo) to the stages of the world, this was something I felt and loved, we became co-pilots to an incredible journey and the story of our lives – The Cambodian Space Project.
Today, Channthy is still loved and listened too. So many who are now listening to the voice of Kak Channthy have only just discovered her. It’s been interesting to see how many of these new listeners are Cambodians who now tuning into the voice of a women who was largely shunned in life but has become the voice of a nation. When I first met Channthy, by chance we’d both consulted the same fortune teller, me out of curiosity rather than belief, Thy out of a desire to find a future. Sometime later, when Channthy was obviously on her way to stardom, she told me how people would stop and call out to her from across the street when she’d be out at the markets, I asked her if she was surprised? “No, not surprised… I was always going to do this… it’s just that before, I was invisible”.
At the time I was more or less invisible too. Happy to be as far away from the commercial music industry as possible and living in a city that still remains one of the darkest places on earth. At times I felt like the character Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. At other times, I was awed by the edginess of this strange new world, the underbelly of Phnom Penh where I was swimming through the nights with a couple of wonderful accomplices and indulging the marvels of the nightlife noir, where you could even find yourself in The Heart of Darkness – a seedy nightclub with its roots in the earliest days of post-Khmer Rouge nightclubbing. This is where my journey with Channthy began, in a place, strange, dark, confronting, and exotic, but to Thy, a doorway to a future.
I was at the time living a stone’s throw from the Genocide Museum and had brought an Irish Bouzouki with me as a travel instrument, I was already seeking out local musicians to record variations of Khmer ethic folk melodies but at the same time, becoming soaked in the sounds of the so-called Cambodian psychedelic rock’n’roll. Hanging out street side with local tuk-tuk drivers, sharing the last of my Duty Free vodka and becomming schooled in the incredible story of the Golden Era musicians – the sounds of pre-war Cambodia, producer singer Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea – the Golden Voice of Phnom Penh and the enigma, the mysterious Pan Ron. Through Channthy I would become intimately immersed in this extraordinary music history but at this stage, I was mostly recording instrumental pieces with the voice just as an instrument, not a lead, Channthy and I soon moved in together, she would sing to anything I would play, one day it was to be an epic storytelling song Whisky Cambodia and that’s where our life in music and art began to fly.
Israeli fortune teller I spoke of earlier is named is Ilian – he’s army deserter – gypsy card reader – and a long-time resident on the streets of Phnom Penh and his card reads “Future Teller” not a fortune teller as he explained to me, most of his customers were local women working in the bars, all wanting to know about future, not their fortune. Sometime after Chanthy and I first met Ilian, a curious Polish film director made a movie about Ilian’s strange life on the streets, it’s called Phnom Penh Lullably and well worth checking out. Here’s Ilian’s prophecy.
Recorded on handycam: Background voice “how are you….very well” and you…. And what-a-bout-yooo?” “Very well…” etc
“The cards say… some young foreigner… he can help you…under about 40…he can help about some project… work with him at the beginning, not so good… at the beginning only. In the beginning, there are some comprise with him…but afterward… some good money will come from good success about some project with success finally. Some manager jealous about your work later…want to make a crisis but later you can win also.
Then talks about the ‘lost foreigners’ around the edges of the Phnom Penh night. “Are there people here, maybe lost their passport, maybe junkies, can’t go home?” “Many, many so many around here…especially over at the lake”.
Channthy was a trailblazer and the legacy she has left behind demonstrates this in a remarkable way. In the early days she like to point out to me that her favourite TV channel was Nat Geo, she was curious and wanted to know about the world beyond. In her youngest years she was moved around the conflict zones with her army tank driver Father and when I first had a chance to visit and see the humble bamboo hut where Thy’s family lived in Prey Veng province, I was struck by a remarkable photo hanging from the thatched walls, it’s the image of baby Thy, her father with a pistol slung from the hip, a Soviet tank parked in the background and a little transistor radio between them. I wondered what they were listening to? Cambodian rock? Khmer Rouge Cadre radio? It is photograph that says so much about where Channthy came from and shows her at about age 2, clutching a little bag, already facing the unknowable journey ahead.
Light through darkness
Thy would tell me about her fascination with the idea of travel and seeing the world. She’d sing little autobiographic songs around the apartment we’d moved into, “this one called ‘Small Bird Will Fly'”. It was still a time when we shared little language other than music and song in common. But music and song was enough to began the thrill of sharing a love and passion for all the world was throwing at us. The relationship between Thy and I was never easy and came with many stop-starts and misunderstandings but ultimately was an experience of bonding and loving each other as true soul mates.
Thy would tell me of the first time she encountered foreigners, at around age 13 the UN “Blue Hats” had arrived in her village. In this same place, Thy’s mother once told me of the incredible bombing by the b52’s flying over this village situated close to the Vietnam border and how one day, she was the first to spot a platoon of American soldiers making their way through the jungle that once surrounded Prey Ngeat Village. Thy and her parents were survivors, not only of the civil war (which began in 1967), the ensuing Khmer Rouge regime 1975-79, but also of the desperation of the decades that followed. Cambodian’s who endured the 80’s and 90’s suffered and endured the long, terrible transition to rebuilding life after one of the most devastating and debased times in human history.
Channthy’s solace was music and she survived her own isolation and hardship through her love of Cambodian music. When I met her, she had a collection of old phones just for keeping her MP3’s and a couple of beautifully handwritten lyrics books. Music had also been a way for her to earn a living, she would often talk fondly of getting around parts of Cambodia as a singing-dancing girl with a carney-like Cambodian wedding band, working from gig to gig, sleeping under the band’s backline truck, and living an itinerant life on the Cambodian roads. Other times she’d talk about the horrific encounters and exploitation she’d faced, at one-time kidnap and sex trafficking, or hard labor on building sites or the scary times she spent working alone in a rubber plantation, in a dark forest, as a lone teenage girl, vulnerable to robbery and rape. During all these times, Channthy would turn to the music she loved, after all, it was the music her mum had loved and had sung to her as a baby and later encouraged her to sing. After Thy’s mum passed away in 2012, she recovered 5 of her mother’s teeth from the ashes and had these embedded into golden Buddha ingots and would keep these on her for each and every performance. One time we had a huge outdoor show in Switzerland, at a venue aptly named Scene Ella Fitzgerald, our bassist Hollie Lewis’s set-list blew away just before the show and she was super-nervous and struck with stage fright, so Channthy told her “not worry” and placed “My Mum’s teeth” in her hand, “you carry these, my mum always with me at every show”.
While things were often difficult in day-to-day life, Channthy’s professionalism as a singer was unshakable. Each and every show she performed like life depended on it! or perhaps more with the feeling that life was better for it. Each show for the CSP was a little celebration for all involved. From the moment Channthy and I had first started playing live we were soon surrounded by a wonderfully enthusiastic community of fellow musicians, friends and fans. The support of this community made things happen fast! within a short time, we were hanging onto The Cambodian Space Project as the damn thing took off like a rocket-fueled tuk-tuk… I mean, at this time, Channthy wasn’t even fully aware of the band name, still learning to pronounce it in English but had grasped the meaning in Khmer and run with it… explaining that the word for ‘Space’ in Khmer is still “Apollo”… what an image, imagine the American War (Vietnam) raging and engulfing the bucolic villages of Prey Veng while her parents must have gazed into the sky at a time when nothing had changed since medieval times, to be witness to the spectacle of the Moon Landing. Channthy would love to explain that her name Chan and Thy translated as Moon and Earth. She was born for our space mission. Things soon took off.
Her songs her story.
Thy had had little to no school but her intellect and intuition was remarkable. Thy had a great passion for writing story-telling songs and it wasn’t hard for myself and other key members of CSP to recognize and enhance this. She’d say things like “Have Visa, No Have Rice” about finally (3rd attempt) on having her visa approved to travel to France and encounter a place where she felt a desperate lack of rice… like a Frenchman experience a world of no bread! Other songs like Rom Ding Dong, a riff reprised from a 70’s Thai track or Khmer Surin, she’d sing about all her travels to a dozen of so stops around the world… she checks in with Estonia, Switzerland, USA, Australia, China and grooves to a hypnotic beat. There’s a song that’s going through the roof right now, it’s a track she used to sing after touring France and developing a taste for a good Vin Rouge called “Woman Wants to Drink”. Thy would point to the bottles and say hey “I would like one of those black wines please” after all, red wine in green bottles does look black. It’s around this time we lovingly gave her the pet name “Channthy Winehouse”… that stuck, later with comparissons or reference to Channthy as Cambodia’s Amy Winehouse, my apologies for this, they had little in common other than the fact both were extraordinary and iconic and left this mortal coil way too soon.
Channthy was hugely proud of being able to introduce her favourite Khmer rock to the world. When I met her she was already a collector and lover of old recordings and by the time we stepped out into touring some 24 countries, Thy would be picking up songs and music culture everywhere. She loved her time in Detroit and especially the connection through Dennis Coffey to the Motown museum, we made a special pilgrimage there when it was closed to the public and I recall the joy of Thy looking at all the photographs of the incredible Motown artists across the walls as well as stepping into Studio A, where the lyric sheet to My Girl is still on a music stand and at the time, breaking into her own song, a track called Mountain Dance which is beautifully captured on our Detroit session with Dennis Coffey at the helm on the album Whisky Cambodia.
We never really saw any royalties from our recordings other than the income from licensing of our tracks but sadly a lot of the actual releases were out of our hands. This was nobody’s fault or blame but more to do with the fact that things happened thick and fast and as soon as we’d written, recorded, released something, the world had spun and we’d already landed somewhere else. It was hard at times to keep up with all this and for the most part CSP was a busy live band with Channthy generating her own income from some excellent merch and lots of sales of these items. This brought in the cash to keep moving but not enough to put away. After a while, we began producing our own recordings and I’m still to register the IP or even release the work. Recently, Channthy’s song Woman Wants To Drink has gone through the roof with 4.5million views on Youtube. The track was first released by Astronomy Class and has since been covered by a dozen more artists. The Astronomy Class original is a collaboration between Channthy and the Sydney based group but her significant part in the song was something she had and would sing well before it was first recorded and released, sadly, I don’t think she or her family have seen any royalties from this hit song and it’s quite probable that she’s not even attributed credit as the writer but again, this is possibly no fault of any involved, it’s just the pace of things when they’re happening and what happens in hindsight. But, three years on from Thy’s death and the continued interest in her recorded material, it’s time to address this and at least begin the process of cataloging and releasing important legacy recordings. The first release is coming up on vinyl and is a reissue titled Black To Gold this will be a small collectors edition coming out on my own FIR label and hopefully one of many important legacy recordings to come.
Thy was a naturally gifted songwriter, her subject matter could be ‘from head or heart’ and ranged from hilarious funny things that she saw and brought to song or deeply moving and effecting. Her anecdotes and stories would at times draw from Khmer mythology (check out her reworking of Peggy Lee’s Fever) through to day-to-day things… Not Easy Rock’n’Roll for example, a fabulous song and title of our 2nd album. A lot of this creativity and knack of putting things into the ‘cosmic’ ‘out there’ realm was well captured in the BBC4 Documentary: Rise of A Pop Diva. It’s hard to find this film, I’m guessing there are legal or copyright issues but if you do find it, it’s a good window into life at that point in our journey if not somewhat skewed by the author’s own need to fit a story to an audience. It’s ultimately a story that ends in tragedy and is something that is still too painful for me to watch.
All the world’s a stage
By the third year of The Cambodian Space Project we were already in a global orbit, and certainly finding our stride on the world stage. It was an amazing, stratospheric time but also a time of great hardship and sadness for Channthy. Her mother was dying and it was extremely difficult for her to leave Cambodia for touring and carry the worry and frustration of seeing her mother’s life succumbing to years of Tuberculosis. Thy and I had married in Tasmania in 2010 but were already separating by 2013 but were stayed together until shortly after her mother Pan Siem’s death. It was a heartbreaking and tragic time. I remember setting up my laptop bedside for Siem to watch Channthy’s beautiful performance, her first video clip to the song Mondulkiri and she would watch this over and over. Later the doctor told us Thy’s mother would not survive without the breathing machine, she had made a decision to try and return to her village and see home one last time. Unfortunately we never made it, Siem died in the back of an ambulance on the drive home to Prey Veng, we were with her at the Mekong river crossing at Nak Loueng where Channthy held her mother as she quietly passed on. Through the subsequent burial and the Khmer funeral I would learn to understand and appreciate much more about the Buddhist processing of life and death. The heartbreak I have experienced in Cambodia is equally balanced with great beauty and tenderness, qualities that Channthy would also bring to her songs.
I feel that as our lives moved apart (except in rock’n’roll) things got more complicated and difficult for Thy. She’d moved on in life, was in a new relationship and living in Coogee Beach in Sydney by time the CSP documentary came out. It looked like Thy would build and establish a life for herself in Australia but that was not to be. The Australian Immigration Department had begun an investigation into her Permanent Resident status (most likely due to someone reporting that her circumstances had changed) and ruled against her with the eventual notice to leave Australia. She returned to Cambodia hugely saddened by this but was stoic and got on with things. By this time Thy was calling the shots in terms of what she wanted to achieve in her music and professional career and was doing some of her best work. We had already moved into writing and co-presenting music theatre shows, first was a collaboration with Belgian director Michael Laub for our Galaxy Khmer tour in Europe then this was followed by Hanuman Spaceman in Cambodia which evolved into a neat little ‘jungle cabaret’ called Cosmic Cambodia for the Sydney festival. Thy and I had talked about other ideas and wanted to do more work with theatre, in tribute, I’m presently developing a show called The Rat Catcher of Angkor Watt with Melbourne-based puppet/creature design company A Blanck Canvas. Hopefully, this work will be another great tribute to the life and legacy of Channthy and will inspire the next generation. The Rat Catcher is based on funny stories Thy and I would spare together over a Vin Rouge or two, I hope the show will fly and this will be a great inspiration to a whole new generation of Cambodian artists.
On March 20, 2018, I was woken to the hardest and most heartbreaking moment of my life, a 6am phone call from a dear friend who had the awful task of calling and telling me quite simply “Channthy has died”. It was and still is impossible to articulate the feeling of this moment or that day or any of the time that has flowed on since. There is not a day in my life that I am not aware of Channthy and the beautiful gift she was to the world, to my world. I am thankful for the fact that her last year had been a good one, Thy was lonely in life but surrounded by people who loved her, her performances in the USA in 2017 – the Kennedy Centre through to connecting with the Cambodian community in LA were wonderful events and we shared the joy and happiness of these great times as soul mates with a deep love and respect for one another. It had been at times a hard journey but mindblowing and enriching life together and with much love and support from friends, fans, and the Cambodian Space Project family. If this incredible journey started all again tomorrow, I’d be the first aboard. Despite all its challenges, life is beautiful and Channthy’s life remains a gift to the world. Today my thoughts are with all who loved Channthy, family, and loved ones. She shines brightly.
Here’s a couple of wonderfully uplifting songs to leave you with, it’s Channthy’s Mountain Dance and touring travelogue Rom Ding Dong