Go into any restaurant, bar or other business in Phnom Penh, and you’ll find it easy to hear modern pop songs from the most recognizable singers like Ed Sheeran, Gnash, Maroon 5, Charlie Puth, Sam Smith, Camila Cabello… But that’s not all there is because 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. 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 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) tours the capital, Kampot, Siem Reap, and some other locations like Battambang, Mondulkiri and Otres Beach.
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, and train to bring “the most groovy, raw, primitive, primal, wild and bluesy sounds of Southeast Asia & beyond” to the provinces.
The CSP Mothership is 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 ex-pat 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 ex-pats, whose efforts are keeping the Kingdom of Wonder a faint but potentially vital blip on the international hipster culture radar.
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!”
According to southeastasiaglobe.com and eventyas.com