I (pleasantly) discovered The Cambodian Space Project by accident while searching for Cambodian music on youtube. At first I thought the lead singer, Chanthy Kak, who goes by Srey Thy, was a solo artist but I soon realized she is part of a band. A funky, psychedelic band who is leading the revival of Cambodian rock music from the 1960′s and 70′s. The Cambodian Space Project (CSP) is a multi-national band based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The making of the band is quite simple and their music takes you back to the era when Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea rocked the airwaves. From covering songs such as “Chnam Oun 16″, to putting a Khmer twist in their rendition of “House of The Rising Sun”, to writing original pieces, “Kangaroo Boy,” or doing an impromptu performance on a rooftop in Hong Kong, CSP’s music is truely captivating. I was fascinated not only by their music but also by how the band was formed. More specifically, I was touched by Srey Thy’s story of how she became the lead singer of CSP. CSP itself seemed to be formed by “accident” when Julien Poulson, who was shooting a documentary in Cambodia, met Srey Thy in a karaoke bar. That chance encounter soon lead to the rising of one of the hottest rock bands in Cambodia as well as lifting Srey Thy’s life out of poverty. In a country like Cambodia, an opportunity like this is a very fortunate one and a real dream come true. I had the pleasure to interview Srey Thy to learn what CSP means to her and where this journey has taken her.
“Cosmic cross-culture rendezvous featuring space trippers from various planets preparing a mission to beam its unique mix of space rock, surf, reggae, Khmer Surin, Cambodian rock psychedelica out-of-this-world and into another…” – The Cambodian Space Project
Can you please describe The Cambodian Space Project. What should the world know about the Cambodian Space Project?
Srey Thy: I’m not sure what the world should know about the Cambodian Space Project. All I can say is that my world is much bigger now than it use to be. The CSP is a dream come true, and like the name suggests, it’s a lot about achieving the improbable. Not literally a big space project hidden away inside Cambodia but a group of friends from many different cultures intersecting and reaching new heights through the power of music to connect people. So I guess through playing music, our story is getting out to people all around the world. Actually, while it’s our story, our CSP mission is to revive some great music from Cambodia’s past and celebrate this. It’s a lot of fun.
CSP is a multi-national band. May I ask where everyone is from?
Srey Thy: I’m 100% Cambodian, Khmer Angkor. In our group we also have Bong Sak on drums and Bong Hong playing the clarinet. They’re Cambodian, probably 100% too. Then there’s Irene who sometimes joins us on a second guitar. Her parents are Cambodian but she grew up in France. Gildas on bass, he’s 50/50. His dad is from France and he worked at Calmette Hospital before 1975, where he met Gildas’ mother who is Cambodian. Then there’s Gaetan on accordion. He’s Breton from France. Julien and Scott both come from Tasmania. They are connected through Scott’s mother Margaret who has lived in Cambodia for 15 years and speaks fluent Khmer.
So the story goes, Julien meets Srey Thy in Phnom Penh and a band is formed. Was it really that simple? Is that how The Cambodian Space Project came to be? (By the way, I do love the story.)
Srey Thy: Thank you, I love the story too, a music love story and yes, it’s that simple. I really don’t know how we met but I know I’m very lucky. When I tell people this, that I feel lucky, Julien says he is the lucky one. I had never met any foreigners before, not really talked to people from outside Cambodia. I started a new job and five days later I met Julien. He was recording different people in Phnom Penh. Another girl I knew told him I was a good singer and he should talk to me about it but I didn’t understand. I didn’t speak any English. Julien asked me to learn some songs he liked but I already knew them. So we went to play at his friend’s bar. That night many people came and before we finished we had agreed to make a band to play another show. Not long after we formed CSP, Julien had to leave Cambodia to work in Italy. However, the rest of us kept the band going and built up a big list of songs. I believe in dreams and I always thought I might meet people, become a singer and go to many places. Now it’s true.
How would you describe the band’s sound? What or who influences your music?
Srey Thy: It’s easy to answer this because it’s pre-war Cambodian rock that influences our music. I didn’t know any other music other than what I knew as Cambodian but now I know this music was influenced by music from the or USA in the 1960′s. The guys in the band play me lots of songs that they grew up with and some of the songs that the Cambodian artist re-interpreted as their own music. It’s really interesting for me to learn and hear all of this. I mean I just love music and the old music is the stuff that really moves me…it’s my love. Now, I really love Nancy Sinatra and I want to sing her song Bang, Bang. The funny thing about this is that I just discovered from a Cambodian friend, who collects old music, that Pan Ron already covered this song. Wow! I love Pan Ron the best, she was on her own and very risque for a Cambodian woman at the time.
Srey Thy, you said something along the lines of, “The Khmer Rouge killed all the musicians but they didn’t kill their music.” Can you please talk about the music scene before the Khmer Rouge? Why do you think music is so important in rebuilding Cambodia?
Srey Thy: Yes, you can kill the singer but you can’t kill the song. It is so sad what happened in Cambodia. I never had the opportunity to go to school and I didn’t know a lot about Cambodia’s own history until recently. I had never seen live videos of the Cambodian musicians from pre-Khmer Rouge times until I visited Bophana archive centre. I was amazed to see the films from our past. Now I look on the internet and search for old Cambodia music everyday. I can see that more and more people are doing the same and the interest is growing around the world. I’m proud of Cambodia’s rock’n’roll music heritage because the music from the time of Pan Ron, Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pov Vannary, Ho Meas and so on, still sound great today.
Music is important and for someone like me, it’s a language I know. I mean I’ve only had a little bit of schooling. My friends help me with writing, such as to people on Facebook who write me messages. I like to write songs and also to make new versions of songs that appeal to me. I feel that this is a good thing because it is taking something very special from our past and bringing it back to life. Now I’m learning Chapei and about traditional music. I know that it is important to learn to understand and talk about our Khmer culture. Part of our Cambodian musical identity is the 60′s and 70′s artists. I feel humbled by the great voices of this period but honored to carry the music into the future. Music is something very positive and beautiful. It’s an international language that everyone can understand and by making new music in Cambodia, many people from Cambodia and from around the world can see something positive happening here rather than just the negative things about Cambodia.
I’m very happy to see that Cambodia is restoring the art culture that was lost during the Khmer Rouge time. I understand there is an effort to revive music specifically from the 1960′s and 70′s. It’s reported that CPS is leading this effort. How has Cambodia responded to your music?
Srey Thy: It feels like everyone really supports the revival of the culture of pre-Khmer Rouge times. This is wonderful, it’s amazing. I’m learning so much. I’ve met so many people who want to learn about this and are also interested in the revival of Cambodian culture. Now I’m going to many schools, here in Cambodia, last week in Australia, next week in Hong Kong, where the teachers and students are inviting me to talk about this revival. The response is inspiring. In Cambodia, we play in many poor villages that don’t have much opportunity to have bands play. Also, we play at orphanages like PSE where many young people come. Their response is amazing. Some Cambodians in Phnom Penh tell me that our music is not Cambodian but I don’t care. That’s up to them to decide not me.
CSP has been compared to the band Dengue Fever. The frontwoman of Dengue Fever, Chhom Nimol, is Cambodian. The frontwoman of CSP is Cambodian. Both singers were discovered in karaoke bars. Both bands’ music are influenced by Khmer rock from the 1960′s. Both bands are part of the Khmer rock’n’roll revival. So what sets CSP apart from Dengue Fever?
Srey Thy: It’s nice of you to compare me to Chhom Nimol and CSP to Dengue Fever because they’re really great. Like you say, it’s true that both Nimol and I are Cambodian; we have worked as karaoke singers and we both sing songs from the 60′s. However, I have to tell you that we are very different. I do not come from the same Cambodia as Chhom Nimol. I come from a very poor background and have worked very hard jobs from a very young age to support my family. I do not come from a well-known family of musicians but from the rice fields of Prey Veng – a place where many will call a land of beggars. My feet are scared and my hands look very old. There are so many times when I thought I would be better off dead. But I kept going for my family. Thankfully I have been lucky and the one thing that has kept me going is music. I grew up singing music from the old times. In Cambodia, many bands play the same music as Dengue Fever and CSP does. Perhaps because these two bands have foreigners in the line-up is the reason why people like to make this comparison rather than to other Cambodian bands that also play the same songs. Before CSP, I had not heard of Dengue Fever until people started asking me about them. Someone told us they’re the Beatles and CSP is the Rolling Stones – whatever that means. CSP has recorded the some of the same songs as Dengue Fever, I’m not sure if we sound different. Anyone interested in can compare the CSP and DF versions of songs and decide what is the difference themselves.
Watching the music video, “Mondulkiri”, I felt CSP is almost your project (Srey Thy’s)…your dream, and beyond, coming true. How has CSP changed your life?
Srey Thy: Actually, it’s a very rough music video. It wasn’t meant to be a music video. Australian filmmakers, James and Poppy, came to interview me one morning. I didn’t know they were coming and had just woken up and did not dress for their visit. I was talking about something else and showing Poppy the roof of a friend’s house while James was filming. Later James gave the film to Julien. He thought it would be good to add subtitles and music because he liked the quality of the camera work. Basically, Julien sometimes jokes that CSP is NGO Srey Thy. It’s definitely a project that I’m very happy to be a part of. While it may look like my project, it wouldn’t have been possible without all the people helping us. It’s true to say it has changed my life. I am very lucky that CSP is really a dream come true.
CSP recorded a song with Cambodian Champei Dang Weng master artist Kong Nay, the “Ray Charles of Cambodia”. How was it working with such an iconic artist? How did you feel having the opportunity to work with one of the master artists who survived the genocide of Pol Pot?
Srey Thy: I felt shy and like I was not clever enough to work with master Kong Nay. I have been having lessons with master Kong Nay and when the opportunity to make a new recording with him came, I was worried that it would not work out. Master Kong Nay is so clever and brilliant in how he can tell stories and let emotions jump right out of the heart. Romantic rock keeps emotions closer. When we started recording 3 songs for Human Rights for the United Nations, the first song master Kong Nay sang was something he did very quickly – a song about my visa and first visit to Australia coming up. He sang about my family. How my heart would remain staying at home but I would go see the world and be serious about my job. It was so moving for me that I sat on the studio floor and cried my eyes out while he sang. The other song, “Women”, with master Kong Nay and CSP is really interesting musically. I don’t like my singing but I do really like the Chapei mixed with Bong Sak’s drums and the electric guitars. I want to do more sounds like this.
We ask everyone we interview this question, what is your favorite Khmer dish?
Srey Thy: Sour soup and prahok.
Does CSP have any tours planned in the near future?
Srey Thy: Actually, today is a very good day for me because I just got news that my visa for the USA has been approved! So now I will be able to go to Austin, Texas where CSP has been invited to showcase at the South By Southwest Music Seminar. After Austin, we’re traveling to Colorado, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Washington and maybe to New York City. This is a great opportunity to meet many music people from all over the world, who come for this annual festival. Before this, we’re also going to China for a short tour. Right now I’m back in Phnom Penh. We’re playing a show here on Friday night and then we’re going to Hong Kong the next morning. This will be the first time Bong Sak has gone outside of Cambodia as well. So this is another good opportunity for one of our Cambodian musicians.
Where and how can fans find and purchase your music?
Srey Thy: I think you can purchase our music on iTunes but you can also download songs at www.myspace.com/thecambodianspacesproject and our collaboration with master Kong Nay ’3 songs for Human Rights’ is a free download at www.bophana.org. We have a vinyl record out through www.metalpostcard.com and our debut album will also come out on Metal Postcard Records. The album title is 2011: A Space Odyssey. You can listen to sample tracks on www.soundcloud.com/thecambodianspaceproject.
Last question, what does CSP hope to accomplish in Cambodia and beyond?
Srey Thy: In Cambodia, we want to continue with what we’re doing, playing around the countryside especially. We’re hoping to do more work with schools and are organizing ‘sister school’ projects. We would like to make a recording studio to help produce similar projects by up and coming Cambodian musicians. Outside of Cambodia, we’re hoping to release our music and to tour around the world. We want to share our experience and new music with audiences everywhere!
For more about the Cambodian Space Project:
Originally Posted by Vanny K.
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