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The Legacy of Kak Channthy, Cambodia's Rock and Roll Heroine

For many Cambodian music fans, March 20 was a heartbreaking day because Kak Channthy – the 38-year-old female vocal of the band The Cambodian Space Project – passed away in an accident in Phnom Penh.

Founded in 2009, The Cambodian Space Project is widely known for their 60s-influenced psychedelic tunes, Channthy's soaring vocals and playful persona. Since then, the band has released five albums and four singles, toured internationally, and is one of the most widely-known Cambodian bands in contemporary music.

Kak Channthy was working as a karaoke singer in a beer garden when she met the Tasmanian musician Julien Poulson. Channthy didn't speak English and Poulson didn't speak Khmer at the time. The two formed an intimate connection through music instead: Poulson brought a headphone and a laptop and played Channthy his collection of old Cambodian music; she was surprised how a foreigner could be interested in this type of music. Channthy then invited him to listen to her sing a song. He was instantly moved by her voice. The song was 'Somleng Guitar,' the Cambodian version of Peggy Lee’s 'Johnny Guitar.'

Their chance encounter became the foundation for the creation of The Cambodian Space Project. They were joined by Scott Bywater, Jason Shaw and Bong Sak.

Talking with Saigoneer over email, Poulson shares how important Channthy was to the band: “She means everything. Without Channthy there is no Cambodian Space Project. She is irreplaceable.”

Video via Facebook user Julien Poulson.

Kak Channthy was born in 1980 in a small village in Prey Veng, a year after the Khmer Rouge was removed from power. Her upbringing was stricken by poverty and hardship. She recalled her childhood in an interview with Vice China, which was later reposted on the band's website: "I have at times had very scary situations, you learn to grow up and look out for trouble from a very young age, not much time to be a child."

She cycled through jobs to make a living: from working in rubber plantations to laboring on construction sites in Phnom Penh to singing at a beer garden. "I got $2 a day and felt lucky about this," she added.

Still, Channthy was able to find ways to connect with music. She grew up listening to Cambodian music from the 1960s and early 1970s from a small transistor radio in her father's tank. “I don’t know if music really can change the problems in our country, but the only thing I can be sure of is that music is the biggest comfort in a depressed life,” Channthy lamented in an interview. 

Cambodia’s music in the 1960s is a painful story in and of itself. With the 1953’s newfound independence from the past French colonial regime, Cambodian musicians and artists were encouraged to embrace new ways of making music and open up to Western influences. This was the main driving force that gave rise to the emergence of a vibrant Cambodian psychedelic rock scene in the 1960s and early 1970s.

From covers to songs that integrated Western musical instruments into Cambodian techniques, the artists during this era didn't simply adopt new aesthetics outside of the country's border, but transformed them, giving rise to the era's unique sound. According to sociologist anthropologist LinDa Saphan, who co-produced Don't Think I've Forgotten – a documentary about Cambodian rock 'n roll music in the 60s – this open-minded sentiment reflects Cambodia's socio-political position at the time: a country yearning for independence from its past colonizer and wanting to prove its readiness for modernity. Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, Ros Serey Sothea and Huay Meas are some of the most popular artists from the era.

In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of the country and executed most of them. Records, cassettes and all traces of Western influences were eradicated by the Pol Pot regime.

Nonetheless, this episode in the country's musical past managed to carry on through memories and reimaginations, and perhaps into the transistor radio of Channthy's father. Histroy wove its way into her songs, which were instantly recognized in the band's first album '2011: A Space Odyssey.'

Much like her 1960s predecessors, Channthy did not passively adapt a musical style, she integrated them to her own identity. Other musical styles played a role too, as Poulson shares in an email: “Later Channthy fused this influence with her own unique way of [writing songs] while blending in all sorts of influences from music she'd discovered while traveling the world.”

"Channthy was a once-in-a-generation artist. She was an astonishing performer – a force of nature in life and overcame great difficulties to go from poverty and obscurity to [become] renowned internationally. In death she has become immortal and has left the world a great gift, she will always be remembered as a rock'n'roll legend and a Cambodian heroine," he adds. 

Channthy is survived by her 13-year-old son, Makara. A memorial fund has been established to support him, and can be accessed here.

Listen to Cambodian Space Project's 'Electric Blue Boogaloo' below:

[Photo via Bandwagon]


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