PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - The Cambodian Space Project, long on the forefront of a local rock'n'roll revival, is a band making good with their pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia sound.
The Cambodian-Australian group, kicked off a mini-U.S. tour on Tuesday with a performance at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage. Channthy Kak, 38, also known as Srey Thy, said she was honored to have been invited to perform at the Washington venue, where the band played their original brand of psychedelic rock, before heading to New York City and California. On the West Coast, they'll rock out in Long Beach, which has the largest Cambodian population in the U.S.
“It is very special that we are invited to perform on a very big stage and in a very big city," Chanthy said about the Kennedy Center gig. "It is unbelievable.”
Perhaps more at home among the rice paddies and rural villages of her home province of Prey Veng, Chanthy formed The Cambodian Space Project after being approached by Julien Poulson, a musician from Australia's island state of Tasmania, while working as a karaoke singer at a bar in Phnom Penh. Neither of them expected to be on the international scene just eight years after forming.
Video: A Ros Sereysothea song uploaded to YouTube
'Lost' Cambodian rock
Inspired by the great artists of Cambodia’s golden era of the 1960s, the band aims to revive the country’s lost rock'n'roll scene, which was wiped out during the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
American music brought to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War influenced Cambodia's music scene in the 1960s. Bands like Baksei Cham Krong, Bayon and Draka introduced Phnom Penh to new sounds, said Seng Dara, a music preservationist.
“They were highly educated artists. Though they were influenced by Western culture, they were able to integrate Western music to be authentically Khmer,” he said. “It’s good to conserve pure Khmer culture, but it’s not very creative.”
As the Vietnam War ended in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and erased foreign influences. The regime targeted intellectuals, artists and musicians, destroying documents, cultural records and songs. Citizens identified as the "cultural elite" were sentenced to death during the regime's four-year rule. An estimated 1.7 million lives were lost.
Cambodian Space Project takes off
Chanthy says the inspiration for song comes either from the heart or the head, and the songs of the 1960s "are very deep in the heart."
"When I started writing my own songs, I didn’t have a mentor," she recalled. "But what I experience, see and feel, which can be easily forgotten, I put into words, I put it into a song so that it will always be meaningful and remembered.”
Chanthy dropped out of elementary school with only basic reading and writing skills, and that has made communicating with composers her greatest challenge.
“I don’t know melody. I don’t know the ‘do, re, mi’ things," she said. "We use body language. I raise my hands up, they play the high keys, and as I put my hands down they play lower keys."
Her musical idol is Pan Ron, who became a national star in Cambodia in the mid-60s when she teamed up with Sinn Sisamouth. She is believed to have been executed during the final days of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Her songs are sexy. Her laugh and sense of humor and her voice are beautiful. Ros Serey Sothea also had a golden voice. But Pan Ron, you know, it’s just like me. We only fit with rock and roll because we’re a funny kind of person. Not sentimental. I’m very playful,” Chanthy said.
Her mother was the best singer in her town, Prey Veng, Chanthy said, and she recalls how her father often listened to music on the radio.
At 19, Chanthy moved to Phnom Penh to look for work. After almost being duped into working in a brothel, she tried her hand at everything from construction to owning a souvenir store - until the beat freed her soul.
“Rock'n'roll is the type of music genre that helps people get relief and become happy," she said. "It helps them get out of painful feelings because of its humble and funny lyrics.”
The Cambodian Space Project was the subject of a feature-length film, Not Easy Rock’n’Roll, which premiered in 2015.
Director Marc Eberle said the film’s recent screening on BBC World was “a great way to bring Cambodian culture to the world. In many countries in South America, Africa and across Asia, the story resonates well with the audience.”
Along with The Cambodian Space Project, the Los Angeles-based group Dengue Fever pursues a similar mission to preserve and innovate in the Cambodian music scene.
Jimmy Kiss, a rising Cambodian pop-rock musician, says he is impressed by the current state of Cambodian rock'n'roll. He disagrees with those who say it is stuck in the past.
“The only difference between musicians in the past and the musicians in the present is how people value the music," he said. "There are so many talented musicians out there nowadays. The thing is that people in the past valued musicians more than people do now.”