We’re at the Blues and Roots festival in Byron Bay, Australia, and Srey Thy, lead singer of the Cambodian Space Project, has taken time out of their set to address the crowd.
In her fractured English, she begins to tell the story of her improbable journey from Prey Veng, one of the poorest provinces in one of the world’s poorest countries, to the stage in front of us.
Since the age of seven, she has worked as a rice farmer, garment maker, construction worker, prostitute, karaoke girl, and has survived being held captive—chained to a bed with electrical cable—with the intent of being sold as a sex slave. She escaped a violent, gambling addict of a husband, taught herself to read and write at a semi-literate level, and finally arrived here in Byron Bay as a fledgling pop star, ready to blow the dust off Cambodia’s golden era of psychedelia in front of hundreds of fans.
As a sex worker in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, she’d often thought of killing herself but stayed alive for the sake of her family. It was music that helped her through the hardship, just as it had her mother and father during the murderous Pol Pot regime. Like Srey, her mother was a talented songstress and her father an avid fan of the Cambodian psychedelic greats (he’d sing the classics to cows while tending rice crops under the guard of Pol Pot’s soldiers).
It was in a dingy karaoke bar in Phnom Penh that Srey was eventually discovered by Tasmanian-born musician, Julien Paulson. He’d heard rumours of a Cambodian Amy Winehouse, and arrived at the bar with a mixtape comprised of his own music along with some Cambodian psyche classics.
“She goes straight into this sixties dance listening to the songs. She’s going ‘wow, how would a foreigner know this music?’ Her favourite music,” he recalls. “Later, I walked into this club where she’d pre-arranged with a band to let her up on stage, and she performed this song by Peggy Lee called ‘Johnny Guitar’. It’s a really, really haunting song and it really moved me at the time and I thought ‘wow, I have to get back here as fast as I can’. I was leaving in three days and that convinced me to return to Cambodia and seek her out and work with her,” he recalls.
Already home to a rich, ancient tradition of music and art dating back to the vast Khmer Empire, the 60s and 70s bore a fruitful cross-pollination between Cambodia’s rich musical and film traditions (as nurtured by the culturally progressive King Sihanouk) and more Western influences, of which much came via the radio waves of the US Armed Forces stationed in neighbouring Vietnam. The peculiar blend of psychedelic pop and rock with traditional rhythms and folk songs remains one of the greatest and lesser-known musical movements in human history, giving birth to Cambodian psychedelic greats such as Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Houy Meas—who became household names in Asia, re-working the likes of Peggy Lee and Nancy Sinatra while churning out dozens of original hits like the seminal ‘Chnam Oun 16’ (I am 16).
“It’s a culture that’s always been very musical going back to ancient times,” explains Julien. “And that fusion of British Invasion garage rock and American Stax and Motown met here on the Mekong and fused with the Eastern music. It became something very unusual and that’s what we really call the golden era of Cambodian rock and roll.”
When Pol Pot and his revolutionary forces marched into Phnom Penh in 1975 and took control of the country in 1975, so began a genocide that would leave an estimated 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians dead (a quarter of the population) including an entire generation of musicians, artists and academics. Artists like Ros Sereysothea, the musician behind the popular ‘Chnam Oun 16’, who was raped and mutilated before death.
“It’s still deeply affecting and it’s still a place with lots of post-traumatic stress,” says Julien. “Even Srey through the Cambodian Space Project… she embodies and epitomises all the sadness and loss of the Cambodian people and she puts that in her music. She won’t say that herself but that is the result I see,” he says.
Prior to arriving in Cambodia, Julien had already spent a lifetime in the Australian music scene playing in garage punk bands and recording and producing for the likes of Aussie folk songstress Jen Cloher, among others. He moved to East Timor in the mid-2000s on a funding grant aimed at rehabilitating the country through music. But after conflict broke out between the army and the police in 2006, he and his colleagues were forced to flee, taking the money to Cambodia instead where they joined an “incredible cultural revival” that was already underway.
“After the genocide and the cultural genocide which targeted threats to the Pol Pot regime, what we’ve also seen—and what we’re a part of—is this incredible cultural revival in Cambodia and that’s exciting,” he says, adding, “There’s a re-discovery of the pre-war music especially.”
A decade and five albums later (Julien and Srey have also married), the Cambodian Space Project have toured 24 countries, connecting with Cambodian refugees everywhere they go. “We’ve been on this planetary orbit for about seven years. That’s quite a long time and I’m very grateful for that, but of course it’s made more meaningful because of that connection to the Cambodian story, the narrative of the people here, and the people that have rebuilt elsewhere. Shattered memories and lives are reconnected through rock and roll, so that’s a pretty inspiring thing,” he says.
They’ve performed alongside Paul Kelly and earned rave reviews from the likes of Nick Cave—“They’re a great band, the singer is amazing, really beautiful, the guitars really jump out at you, very affecting, great stuff”—but they’re only just getting started, says Julien.
“It’s like this treasure trove of lost rock and roll and we haven’t even scratched the surface yet,” he says, telling us he’s also hoping to explore the rich Cambodian club scene of the 1930s.
For their latest album, Spaced Out In Wonderland (their first made entirely in Cambodia), they’ve stuck with their tried and tested formula—half covers and half original material with re-workings of Western hits, ranging from folk to funk, and a typically tripped out reimagining of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’.
“That was funny to do because everyone knows that song but Srey couldn’t sing the ‘la la la la la la la’ part for some reason, so she sings something completely different, but it really worked,” he says.