Friday, December 11, 2015

Not Easy Rock 'N' Roll

Traveling in the past I’ve never really gotten that into the music of the place I visited. Nepal had way too much of an Indian influence, and no one born outside of South Asia can really take Hindi pop seriously. Cambodia however has an excellent legacy of their own take on rock from the 60s and early 70s when the arts flourished in the Kingdom. I was first introduced to the sound initially via the band Dengue Fever, and was hooked after listening to it. While the band played plenty of their own songs, many of my favorites were covers from singers I had not yet heard of like Ros Sereysothea, Pen Ran, and Sin Sisamuth. Before moving to Cambodia much of this music became regular listening music, either while relaxing, running or in the car.

This week we got to enjoy the Cambodian International Film Festival, which had possibly more murmurs about it this year than average due to the involvement of Angelina Jolie. One of the films we went to see was Before the Fall, a kind of film noir thriller set in the days leading up to the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. The central character was a Cambodian singer who is caught between an increasingly besieged city and two lovers- one American and the other French. The film was a lot of fun and I’d recommend it to anyone, and the soundtrack was absolutely excellent. The music was done by a band called The Cambodian Space Project.

A couple days later, this band was itself the subject of a documentary Not Easy Rock n’ Roll which followed the discovery of the lead singer in a Phnom Penh karaoke bar to their current success touring internationally and all of the struggles getting there and that remain. The story was quite touching, following the hopes and dreams of a woman from a rural province in Cambodia that has dreamed of being a singer all her life. As anyone who has visited South East Asia in the past knows, more than singing goes on in the dens of karaoke bars, so it was great watching her transformation from someone who was essentially shunned by society to someone that was drawing large crowds around the country, supporting her aging parents, and generally going from pariah to respected singer. Highly recommended watching to anyone that gets the chance. 

Cambodian Space Project preform with the grandson of Sin Sisamuth
Not only was the story great, but the band is excellent as well and Srey Thy has an amazing voice. Just a day after seeing the documentary they put on their last gig in Cambodia for the year at The Exchange in Phnom Penh. It was one of the better small venue live sets I’ve been to and was an absolute blast.  One of the things I love about that style of music is that I genuinely enjoy dancing to it, which is not that common for me. They played for almost 3 hours and we danced just about the entire time. The old Cambodian rock songs especially are just pure fun.

All said, it is exciting to be in a country where the music I enjoy is not just things imported from home, but music that was created and is unique to the place where I am living. Often times local arts are in many places supported for the sake of it, not necessarily because they are actually any good. In Phnom Penh this is not the case, there is plenty of really good stuff going on here. So far my impression here is that there is some really talented people putting together things that are not only unique to here but stuff you really want to be engaged in just for the experience of it. That’s exciting, and really makes me look forward to spending more time here. 

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