I guess there's a fair bit of backstory to this project. We've really tried to be respectful to the source material and the history we are talking about on the record and we think we've managed that, with a lot of help from Srey Channthy and Julien Poulson from The Cambodian Space Project, journalists and storytellers like Tom Vater, authors like Ray Chandler and as many docos as we could watch. There's also the Klap Ya Handz crew in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian DVD store in Cabramatta, Phavy Kasak and Vandy Kang who helped with translations and many more.
The whole concept for the record began in 2012, when we were invited to Cambodia to perform a set in the old train station in Phnom Penh. At an event to promote Tiger Beer, we met a lot of the Khmer rap crews from Cambodia and beyond, mostly California. As part of our set, we performed a cover of the classic Thra Kha Band song "Do You No Wrong Again" with Cambodian superstar Preap Sovath. You can see the original and some of the footage of our gig below.
The visit sparked our imaginations and we came home with a whole bunch of burned DVDs full of songs from Cambodia's "golden age" of pop. It was an era we knew a little about, but had until then failed to really dig into very deeply. It's an unavoidable sound when you're travelling in Cambodia. You hear it in half the bars and cafes and every taxi and tuk-tuk. We were hooked and set out to discover more.
With superstars such as Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Pov Vannary, the "golden age" between the late 1950s and 1975 saw one of the most spontaneous, joyful and experimental periods of modern music. Brought to the capital by the unrestrained and cutting edge sounds coming out of the studios of Cambodia's national radio station, hundreds of Khmer musicians ventured to Phnom Penh to seek their fortune. The "Pearl of Asia", as the vibrant capital was known at the time, was bursting at the seams with bands and singers influenced by an at times bizarre blend of rock n roll, rhythm & blues, soul, cha cha, mambo and eventually psychedelic rock.
So when we got back we started working with the source material and learning more about the music of the era. At some point we got in touch with Srey Channthy from The Cambodian Space Project, and, after many Skype sessions between Sydney and Phnom Penh, we agreed to work together. In April 2013, we were able to bring Channthy to Sydney for a week and that's when the bulk of the album was recorded.
Thy was able to tell us the backstories for the songs, and brought a deep insight to the project. Hailing from the province of Battembong, the birthplace of many of the greats of Khmer music, Thy grew up listening to her mother sing the classic songs of the age. As a teenager she made her way to Phnom Penh where, after some close calls, she ended up singing the tunes of the 50s and 60s in a karaoke bar.
Channthy has since been recognised as one of the great voices of Khmer music. The Cambodian Space Project's new album was recently NUMBER ONE IN WORLD RELEASES 2014 in Rhapsody magazine.
Songs like "Four Barang In A Tuk Tuk" and "Woman Wants To Drink" were really directed by Thy. Based on her experiences and insight, we were able to create a record that speaks honestly to the Cambodian experience, old and new. She had never sung on a hip hop tune before, but was a complete natural.
We performed together for the first and only time at the Elefant Traks 15th birthday gig in Melbourne last year and it was a thrill. We're really hoping to do more shows together, both here and overseas, but there's a huge amount of coordinating due to the heavy touring schedule of her group. it will happen though! We're working on getting to Cambodia early next year.
Photo by Chris Frape
We're really conscious of the circumstances by which the music has arrived to us. While it's true that none of the greats survived the Khmer Rouge era, their families did. We are working on establishing contact with those families to pay some form of royalty for the inspiration. We are also keen to donate our time and a portion of any profits to worthy charities in Cambodia. We don't know what form this will take but we'll let you know.
So what now? Bucking a trend, the album is available on every format known: digital, CD, vinyl and cassette! We were really keen to do the cassettes because they are still hugely popular in Cambodia and we thought it was a nice tip of the hat to the tape culture over there that kept the music alive. We'll be touring, hopefully get some festival slots, and mainly looking to take the music overseas and play in Cambodia as soon as we can.
I'm sure this doesn't even begin to cover half of it, but it's a start. When we boarded the plane for Cambodia in 2012, we had no idea where it would take us. It's been an amazing project to work on, and as avid beat diggers it has been an absolute treasure trove. It's left us wanting to know more about the beautiful Khmer people who have borne so much tragedy yet maintain a love of their country and a tangible pride in their musical past.
We hope that "Mekong Delta Sunrise" encourages you to learn more as well.
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