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The Cambodian Space Project

An unlikely tale uncovered by Jamie Renton A

hot July night in east London. Shoreditch’s Bedroom Bar is packed to its rafters and the band on stage are blasting out an amped-up party mix of Far Eastern ’60s psych and garage rock. It’s as if the scuzzy proto-punks featured on the Nuggets com- pilations had relocated to Cambodia, found themselves a local singer, ingested a heady mix of local musical influences (and quite possibly quite a few other things besides), plugged in and blasted off!

The Cambodian Space Project (for it is they), take their lead from Cambodian rock, a heavy East-meets-West folk-rock mutation that flourished in the late 1960s and early ’70s, until the Khmer Rouge put a stop to it in a horrible way (many of its original prac- titioners were executed by a regime afraid of such decadence). Contemporary with Ethiopia’s pre-Derg musical golden age (as celebrated on the Éthiopiques compila- tions), Cambodian rock’n’roll is a lost sound that’s been rediscovered, revived and is proving very popular beyond the confines of the world music scene. There are two main revivalists of this sound, California’s poppy Dengue Fever and the heavier rock- ing Cambodian Space Project, who are based in Cambodia (although members hail

from all over) and on the night in question, launching their self-released fourth album, Electric Blue Boogaloo.

A couple of hours before this riotous performance, I get round the table with a few of the band to chew the fat (and the Korean fried chicken the venue’s kitchen has kindly provided). There’s lead singer Kak Channthy, who’s kind of like a member of a Phil Spector 1960s girl group, if Spector had journeyed to the Far East. She started the CSP with amiable Aussie guitarist Julien Poulson. “We thought we’d play a few songs at a little bar in Phnom Penh called the Alleycat,” recalls Julien. This was back in 2009. “We played them and the bar filled up, so we played them again and by the time we played them a third time, we’d got ourselves a band, because people had gone home and got instruments.”

Julien ended up in Cambodia by acci- dent. He was about to embark on a music project in East Timor, when war broke out and he needed to get away quick. A film- maker friend recommended Cambodia for its thriving arts and culture. With little knowledge of the country, he flew in and immersed himself in the local music scene, originally with the intention of making it the subject of a documentary film.

bodia very quickly,” Julien explains. “That’s the nature of the buzz of a coun- try that’s developing rapidly. Over 80 per- cent of the population are under 30 and anything that’s new, people just love!” Lots of local support for CSP then, lots of invites to perform at parties and events, lots of opportunities to hone their sound.


Their debut was recorded in a tiny stu- dio in Phnom Penh, which had micro- phones donated by Peter Gabriel (who’d previously been over to record in Cambo- dia). “It was a pretty rough and shoddy process,” recalls Julien.

Since then they’ve recorded three fur- ther albums with a line-up that changes from time to time, but always retains the core membership. They mix Cambodian rock classics and obscurities with original material often composed by Channthy who, according to Julien, “Doesn’t have a formal musical education, doesn’t even have a ‘record shop’ education, but knows what she likes.”

Their first trip abroad was to Hong Kong. “It was my first time out of Cambo- dia,” recalls Channthy in heavily accented English. “I didn’t believe that I could fly. But then I did. I saw very tall modern houses and I was so excited. No one could understand my language, but when I started to sing and dance, everyone clapped hands all together and that made me go ‘Wow!’”

The new album was recorded in France and reflects their globetrotting touring schedule with Mexican, Italian, French, Dutch, Thai and US rock’n’roll and beat group influences, all underpinned by the classic Cambodian sound. The roots of Cam- bodian and US garage rock are so tangled up together that it’s hard to work out what stems from where. As it says on the sleevenotes “So voilà! Thirteen rough dia- monds, deliberately made raw/wild/alien for your listening pleasure.”

“There’s lots of people around the world who are revisiting lost pockets of musical treasure that have been dug up, brushed off and had a look at,” says Julien. “Whether that’s Indonesian rock’n’roll or Eritrean jazz or Bollywood or Mexican garage. So people find those things out and they anchor themselves around them. For us, the reference point, the common place that we always come back to, is ’60s Cambodian rock.” F

ollowing the Alleycat gig, the move from jam session to proper- job band was surprisingly smooth. “Things can be celebrated in Cam-

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