Harry Hawcroft, Contributor, The Hague, Netherlands
A tribute to one of Cambodia’s most beloved and unique artists, Kak Channthy of The Cambodian Space Project.
Image credits hyperlinked to image.
I climbed the Equinox staircase to be greeted by the now familiar urban art mural decorating the back wall opposite the dimly lit, fire red stage. Equinox, one of Phnom Penh’s leading advocates for an inclusive, genre diverse, live music scene in Cambodia, was notorious for its impressive sound system and its communal atmosphere. The company tonight was a welcoming mixture of fellow expats, tourists and Cambodians alike, excited for what promised to be a spectacular evening of Khmer rock ‘n’ roll. This was not the first, nor the last time the Cambodian Space Project would perform at Equinox, however, it would be the first time I ever heard the band’s defining vocals of the legendary Kak Channthy.
The Cambodian Space Project erupted onto the stage and were greeted with energetic applause from the diverse fan base the band had come to acquire since their formation in 2009. Despite my limited knowledge of the Khmer language, Channthy was still able to immediately encapsulate the entirety of my attention via her fresh, sen gerais vocals that juxtaposed the overly familiar lukewarm taste of Anchor beer that aided me in the rhythmic swaying to the concoction of electric guitars and guiding drum beat. The exceedingly talented Aussie-Cambodian hybrid band remained modestly in the shadow of Channthy who effortlessly seemed to entice the crowd with her classic rock ‘n’ roll jigs, relatively uncommon in post 1960’s Cambodia. Throughout the entirety of the set, my attention was captivated by Channthy, who closed the concert with an astonishing cover of Sinn Sisamouth covering The Animals’ – House of the Rising Sun. With some final words of goodbye from Channthy, translated by her into French, English and Khmer, the band left the stage for the final time that night.
I left the concert, energized and full of hope for the future of the Cambodian music scene. I got in a tuk tuk and headed to my home where I would continue to play The Cambodia Space Project regularly throughout my duration in Cambodia. This was in 2014, prior to the closure of Equinox and more devastatingly, the untimely death of their lead singer, Kak Channthy.
It was during the early hours of Tuesday 20th March, 2018 when the tuk tuk in which Kak Channthy was traveling in with her British friend was struck by a Toyota Prius, killing the renowned singer, who has been referred to as the “Amy Winehouse of Cambodia”. The world, with a particular emphasis on Cambodia, awoke to the shocking news and tributes were quick to pour in, with a fundraiser being established in order to support Kak Channthy’s 13-year-old son, Makara, still residing in Channthy’s home province Prey Veng. The rest of the band members and their associates teamed up with the Foreign Correspondents Club to organise a memorial concert at The Mansion, Phnom Penh to celebrate the life and legacy of Kak Channthy via public speeches and artistic performances from some of Cambodia’s most notable local and expatriate artists including the likes of: Laura Mam, Kampot Playboys, New Cambodian Artists Dance Troupe and the musicians of The Cambodian Space Project. Unsurprisingly, the memorial concert proved to be a success with donations going towards the aforementioned fundraiser.
The overwhelming response was unsurprising considering Kak Channthy’s story was so rare and miraculous. When Channthy was born in the notoriously poor Prey Veng province in 1980, Cambodia was in a state of turmoil. The Khmer Rouge had outlawed or exterminated the majority of the intellectuals and artists, leaving a musically barren and destroyed nation. In order to assist her family, Channthy started working as a young child by farming rice and working in rubber plantations before moving to Phnom Penh as a teenager. After working as a cleaner, Channthy acquired a job as a singer in a beer garden. It was here, where she met musical and romantic partner, Julien Poulsen. Together the duo formed the rest of the band who were notorious for covering 1960’s Cambodian classics, paying the greatest of respects to the Golden Age of Cambodian music whilst simultaneously applying a fresh, psychedelic edge.
After finding success in Cambodia, the band would go on to perform internationally in: London, Berlin, Texas, Melbourne and Hong Kong, whilst never forgetting where they formed, they regularly performed throughout Cambodia.
Kak Channthy persevered through poverty and defied the odds in order to define herself as a powerful musician and inspiration. If the memorial concert proved anything, it’s that Channthy’s legacy lives on through contemporary Cambodian music and her son and two brothers for which the fundraiser hopes to support.