Cambodian rock band, you say? Well, let’s make this easy and assuage any lazy comparisons to Dengue Fever. Yes, both bands fall under the “rock” umbrella, and yes, both bands have female Khmer singers (and, yes, both are thoroughly quality bands). But the similarities end there. Where Dengue Fever leans sublime surf rock, CSP, a little less Mekong Delta blues a lot more down-home dance, hones in on shimmy-til-your-leg-turn-to-jelly reworkings of classic Cambodian pop.
Made up of Australian, French and Cambodian musicians, the Cambodian Space Project’s debut album is a pop party led by scratchy-voiced Srey Thy, a local club singer who was discovered while doing karaoke in a Phnom Penh bar by Australian guitarist Julien Poulson. Watusi like the Mod Squad to “Rom Chong Vat A Go Go (Dancing A Go Go).” The guitar and harmonica solo on a cover of Ros Sereysothea’s stunning “Chnam Oun Dop Pram Mouy (I’m Sixteen)”—and one of 2011: A Space Odyssey’s stand-out tracks—has the ring of a jaunty ’60s British Invasion hit. Even CSP original tracks like “Mean Visa Kmean Bai (Have Visa, No Have Rice)” are a testament to the groovy (and peaceful) “golden age” of Khmer pop.
But look through the campy album title and carefree surface of the album: Politics are deeply embedded in 2011: A Space Odyssey. To separate the genocidal atrocities that swept the country from 1975 to 1979 and Cambodian popular music—truly popular music, not the oppressor-friendly propaganda songs commanded by the military state—would be impossible. Like so many artists and intellectuals executed at the hands Khmer Rouge, the musicians covered here, including Sereysothea, Pan Ron and Sin Sisamouth, met brutal ends—rape, mutilation, death by firing quad, mysterious disappearances—making Srey Thy’s ability to sing both their songs and stories an empowering yet humbling force.