PHNOM PENH -- Cambodian rock 'n' roll from the era before Pol Pot is slowly finding its way back through speakers across the nation and throughout the world, thanks to the lead singer of The Cambodian Space Project.
"When I was 19 years old, I left my village in Prey Veng to find work. My husband was a gambler and I had to do something. So when my son was 7 months old, I went to Phnom Penh. Once in the city, I was taken into a room and tied to a bed with electric cable. I realized I had been deceived. I was so scared. I screamed all night. Finally, a neighbor came and freed me. After that, I worked in karaoke parlors, singing and selling sex. Sometimes I thought of killing myself. But I always dreamt of escaping this life."
And so starts the story of Srey Thy, also known as Srey Channthy: mother, wife, rock singer, and survivor. In the past five years, Thy has journeyed from gigs in seedy Cambodian karaoke bars to glam rock shows around the world, from Texas to Melbourne, from London to Hong Kong. Almost single-handedly, she has brought 1960s Cambodian rock 'n' roll -- all but lost during the vicious rule of the communist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s -- to a new audience around the world. She has hung out with a who's who of rock 'n' roll, from Australia's Nick Cave to America's Wayne Kramer, released six albums, and become an essential part of Galaxy Khmer, a theater tour that showcases Cambodia's culture across Europe. She is also the subject of a documentary made for the British and Australian broadcasting corporations (BBC and ABC) by award-winning German film maker Marc Eberle. The film is called, "The Cambodian Space Project -- Not Easy Rock & Roll." It includes the band's second album title which reflects the exhilarating and tough journey for Thy -- from east to west, from peril to fame, from home and family into the unknown.
"When I was a little girl I dreamt of being a singer. I loved all the old films by our King Sihanouk. I learned the old songs of that era from my mother," she told the Nikkei Asian Review recently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital.
Many Cambodians perceive the paternalistic era of King Norodom Sihanouk as a golden age. Sihanouk was in effective control of Cambodia after gaining independence from France in 1953 until 1970, and reigned for a second time from 1993 to 2004. He was a sometimes benevolent, sometimes despotic ruler of a nation reborn. In post-independence Cambodia, national pride was restored for the first time since the 15th century, when the historical Khmer empire declined following clashes with the neighboring Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, from what is now modern Thailand. The economy boomed and the arts -- especially music, movies and architecture -- flourished. Sihanouk himself dominated the domestic film industry, directing numerous features, some of which used the spectacular Angkor ruins in northwestern Cambodia as a backdrop.
But it was the music that really made waves. From the late 1950s on, Cambodian artists, guided by the musical tastes of their illustrious king, discovered new sounds from the West and made them their own. Cambodian rock 'n' roll is a quirky mix of popular Western music styles and Asian beats, rhythms and melodies. It brims with energy, innocence and frivolity. From 1965, U.S. troops brought new sounds to the beaches, jungles and cities of the region. Soon rock bands in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines were churning out more or less artless copies of hits by Western artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Cambodians produced their own Khmer language versions of songs like "Bang Bang," originally released in 1966 by the American singer Cher, and "The House of the Rising Sun," a worldwide 1964 hit for English rock group The Animals. For a moment, the country reawakened. Blissfully unaware of trouble brewing on the horizon, it recaptured a little of its former glory.
The mystery of Pan Ron
Pan Ron, one of the era's great voices, is Thy's favorite singer. "Everyone knows her songs but hardly anything is known about her. I love her laugh when she sings the 'Monkey Dance.' I want to be like her. She sang straight from the heart and without fear," says Thy. One day, Pan Ron, along with Cambodia's golden age, simply disappeared. The fate of this enigmatic 1960s diva remained a mystery for some 40 years. Only four photographs and her songs, infused with raunchiness and humor, survived.
Following Sihanouk's fall from power in a coup in 1970, a vicious civil war erupted between the Cambodian military and a shadowy army of hard-line communists, the Khmer Rouge, a name coined by Sihanouk. Some leaders of these radical revolutionaries had studied in Paris in the 1950s alongside the architects and artists they despised. The communists took Phnom Penh in April 1975 and immediately embarked on a radical reimagining of Cambodian society as a socialist utopia. Arts and education, money and the postal service were abolished. In the ensuing period of nearly four years, the country's elite, its middle class, judges, politicians, military and police, intelligentsia and most of its Buddhist monks were either murdered or driven into agricultural collectives. Hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions (the precise figure is unknown) -- were murdered or perished from malnutrition and mistreatment.
Nine out of 10 artists became victims of the regime. The country's greatest recording stars, most notably Sinn Sisamouth, who wrote and recorded thousands of songs, and Ros Sereysothea, the main proponents of Khmer rock 'n' roll, were killed. The collective knowledge of an entire society was lost. In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded their smaller neighbor, liberating the country but embroiling themselves in a drawn-out and brutal civil war. Cambodia continued to rupture for years to come, until a final cease-fire was agreed in 1997, following a United Nations-brokered election four years earlier. Of the 300 feature films made in the 1960s, only 30 have survived intact. The music slowly resurfaced in Cambodian markets in the 1990s, on tapes, often spoiled by low-quality overdubs.
Eberle, the film's director, undertook years of painstaking archival work to unearth moments lost in the decades of conflict. "Research and exploration for this film involved pioneering work into the obscure fields of Cambodian rock 'n' roll and Cambodia's cinematic legacy predating the Khmer Rouge-induced cultural collapse. This was both uplifting and tragic," he said.
In the course of making the film, Eberle also unraveled the mystery of the final moments of Thy's idol, Pan Ron. "In 1975, she was tricked by the Khmer Rouge to sing one of her songs, and they killed her in Takeo Province," he recounted.
A star is born
Srey Thy was born five years later, in 1980. "From a young age, I had five people to support. I had been working since I was eight as a housemaid and construction worker, and as a bar girl," she said. In 2009, she met Julien Poulson, an Australian musician, and everything changed. "We couldn't talk to each other, but he liked my singing and we started a band, The Cambodian Space Project. I didn't know what the name meant and it took me months to pronounce it properly."
Poulson and Thy gathered a loose group of musicians and started playing in the bars of Phnom Penh, but Thy wanted to bring the country's forgotten music back to the Cambodian people. The band hired a bus, loaded it with equipment and headed into the countryside -- playing shows in far-flung villages, in rice fields and community squares to often astonished and delighted audiences. The vagabond rock 'n' roll lifestyle was seductive, but Thy needed money; she had a son to take care of, and her parents were ailing.
Then, thanks to a successful single release in 2010, the band landed the chance to play outside the country. Traveling abroad was a big step for Thy. "Our neighbors told my mother I shouldn't go to Hong Kong. Lots of girls were getting trafficked there. The foreigners might sell me. But I wanted to go. I wanted to be famous for all the children of Prey Veng, the girls like me who will never get a chance to fly away."
Thy never looked back. Tour after tour followed, and three years into their adventure, Poulson and Thy married in Australia.
She started writing songs about her extraordinary journey. "In the early days, when I went to the embassies it was hard to get visas. I didn't speak French or English. I didn't know what to say and how to behave. Then, we toured in the West. ... I spent some time alone [though] and wrote a song about my problems. The band liked the song and I felt better." Thy also had to get used to life on the road. "On tour it's hard. Everyone smells bad. On stage we are beautiful, but off stage we looked like garbage collectors."
In 2014, Thy and Julien separated, but the band continues. There is another Galaxy Khmer stint coming up in June and U.K. festivals in July and The Cambodian Space Project plans to land in Japan soon, too. Among numerous videos now available are the title song from the 2013 album "Have Visa, No Have Rice" and a spine tingling version of "House of the Rising Sun," based on an American folk song about a New Orleans brothel.
"I gave so much to my family and to love. Now I want to be free. I know how to do it now. I have permanent residence in Australia, I have some festival gigs with another band coming up, and I want my son to join me," Thy said.
Across Cambodia, the sounds of the 1960s have begun to seep back into the national consciousness. In the early mornings, old ladies do their aerobics exercises to the songs of Ros Sereysothea by the banks of the Mekong River, while night clubs in the capital reverberate with slick remixes of the hits of Cambodia's golden age.
"Young people love the old songs," noted Thy. "They tell me that the new music is okay for a month and then it sounds tired. But everyone is happy to hear the old songs again and again. We have lost so much, we can never get enough."