Cambodia’s second annual Folk Art & Blues Fest rolls into Phnom Penh on a double-decker London bus in late January for the start of a 16-day tour that will take it all over the Kingdom. Julien Poulson, the guitarist/producer behind the famed Khmer rock revival band Cambodian Space Project, talks with Southeast Asia Globe about the country’s pre-Khmer Rouge rocknroll scene of the 1960s and 1970s that inspired him to launch both his band and Asia’s only rolling psychedelic rock festival
Go into any restaurant, bar or other business in Phnom Penh, and you will hear one of around a dozen songs from the likes of Ed Sheeran, Gnash, Maroon 5, Charlie Puth, Sam Smith and Camila Cabello. Thankfully, Cambodia has something of an underground music scene, though you have to look for it. Long-time Aussie expat Julien Poulson helped revive Khmer rocknroll by collaborating with Cambodian players in his great band the Cambodian Space Project, which headlines his second annual psychedelic music festival in the group’s latest incarnation. It’s now known as the CSP Mothership, renamed and reformed after the passing of its former singer and Poulson’s one-time wife, Kak Channthy, whose life was cut short last year in a tuk tuk accident.
For 16 days, kicking off on 26 January at Chinese House in Phnom Penh, the Folk Art & Blues Fest (Fab Fest for short) will be relieving sufferers of the Ed Sheeran effect as it tours the capital, Kampot, Siem Reap, Battambang and Mondulkiri. Poulson is also one of the minds behind the Kampot Readers & Writers Festival, along with organiser Tony Lefferts.
“Thoughtfulness, quality and spirit of the great pop music of Cambodia vanished with all the artists who lost their lives in the Killing Fields,” says Poulson as he works out the final details of his ambitious festival with musicians from Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Europe, Australia, the US and the UK. “The subsequent exodus of refugees has had a ‘brain drain’ effect on Cambodia, and this is especially part of the importance of rebuilding culture through arts. Unfortunately, the mind-numbingly bad pop music dominates things at the moment, and if I have to take another bus ride with a Khmer version of ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ on high rotation, I’ll jump off – frontways first – and throw myself under the bus.”
Poulson’s fellow Phnom Penh expat scene maker, local poet/ukulele master Scott Bywater, warned of the dangers of one dismal alternative to these dozen or so songs: “There’s also the phenomenon of allowing the patrons to play their own favourites on YouTube, which leads to a steady diet of the same dozen songs by the likes of the Eagles, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Queen and the rest of them. ‘Hotel California’ should be banned, along with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ and the rest of the bilge-a-thon.”
Poulson says Fab Fest was inspired by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, who famously toured the United States in a psychedelic school bus in the 1960s while taking copious amounts of hallucinogenic drugs. It will be traveling 1,334km by London double-decker bus, tuk tuk, moto dop and train to bring “the most groovy, raw, primitive, primal, wild and bluesy sounds of Southeast Asia & beyond” to the provinces.
So where’d the vintage double-decker come from?
“It’s something that Ben [Thomalla] who owns Chinese House has brought to the party,” says Poulson. “As soon as he heard about the festival, he got excited and said, ‘Well, if I can get it done in time, I’ve got just the thing for that: a double-decker bus with a bar fitted in it,’ and then showed me the London double-decker bus parked in its secret location, and to me, it’s a perfect part of the Fab visual, as we’re featuring some of the rising stars of London’s psychedelic music scene at this year’s opening night.”
The CSP Mothership are joined on the tour by psych rockers Frankie Teardrop Dead of London and two bands from Saigon’s vibrant psychedelic rocknroll scene, OPN AIR DRG MKT and Skeleton Goode. Popular Cambodian rock band the Kampot Playboys offer their original hybrid take on Khmer rock by their mix of Cambodian and expat players. Cambodia’s own hard rock chanteuse Vartey Ganiva sings originals, and Cambodian troubadour and Bob Dylan acolyte Ouk Dara makes his debut on the tour.
This music scene benefits from both Cambodians and expats, whose efforts are keeping the Kingdom of Wonder a faint but potentially vital blip on the international hipster culture radar.
“Now, more than ever, there’s a real scene of expats who have moved here specifically to join the party and make their own bands,” says Poulson. “And this is probably because we’ve seen a lot of international exposure on the music scene in Cambodia through films like Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten and, of course, all the international touring of Channthy and the Cambodian Space Project over this last decade.”
Poulson, who was born in 1966 – on “the day the Rolling Stones released Vietnam War classic ‘Paint It Black’”, he says – walked Southeast Asia Globe through the history of Khmer rocknroll.
It started in the ’60s with Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, which he says you still hear being played by cover bands at weddings and beer gardens. In the mid to late ’60s, King Norodom Sihanouk began writing popular music and producing musicians like the legendary Sinn Sisamouth. Much of the music was more or less local takes on British invasion, French ye-ye and American acid rock groups.
“Later, after the coup in 1970, everything changed, including the music,” says Poulson. “As the civil war intensified, so did the music, but it had already lost the ’60s hippie vibe and there were now many bands working the rocknroll circuit of the Vietnam War venues in South Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and, of course, here in Cambodia, where artists like Drakkar Band and the wild man of Cambodian Rock, Yol Aularong, were making some incredibly cool recordings.”
The Folk Art & Blues Fest comes back to Phnom Penh for a showcase on 7 February. The festival winds down with its final shows on 9 and 10 February in a remote location in the mountains of Mondulkiri.
To Poulson, after the exhausting tour has concluded, the festival will have been essentially a nod to his band’s late singer: “It’s a great way to continue to keep the incredible legacy of Kak Channthy very much alive and doing what she did best: bringing people together to celebrate our oneness through joy and happiness and a whole lotta cha cha!”