Apologies to William Shakespeare’s opening lines to his play, Twelfth Night, but his words , somewhat taken out of context, capture the night life of the capital city, from dark alley to neon-lit boulevard, from sinful saloons to rooftop havens coining it in with colourful cocktails.
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Bars big and small strewn across the city resonate with the plucking of strings, the plonking of piano keys, windy banshees and percussive ambition enjoined by heartily hopeful chanteuses, crooners and balladeers paying homage to blasts from the past or aiming for the horizons of future dissonant musical discourse like the ghosts of old punk and synthesised songsters.
In between lie soulful blues, raging rock and choral accomplishment.
Be it a cacophony or a serenade, foreign musicians young and old play for the need for food and shelter or other essential trappings of a troubadour across the dark metropolis, bringing the humid night alive with the highs and lows of sound snatched from the air and modelled into a miasma of magical musical appeal.
Shakespeare’s character Duke Orsino, who vocalises the words in the headline, goes on to say: “Give me excess of it; that surfeiting the appetite may sicken, and so die.”
There’s little chance of that in vibrant Phnom Penh, where bars battle for custom and added value comes in the form of artistic excellence designed to empty the wallets of the most cautious of customers.
Capital Cambodia talked to a handful of musicians and bar owners to discuss the music scene, the finances and the competition that lure locals and visitors alike out for a night of auditory delight.
Belgian Thomas Michels, 57, who also goes by the name of Michael Thomas de Jensac (sometimes dropping the de Jensac) for gigs, first stepped on a stage at the age of 9 at school. When he was moved to a Catholic school in France, he used to hide from bullies in the chapel, where he discovered the organ, which aided him in learning the piano. He later learned to play guitar and developed a talent for singing.
By coincidence, he happened to be singing “Imagine” by John Lennon when news of the former Beatles’ murder was announced. Later, he became friend’s with Lennon’s son Julian and members of Pink Floyd. He now has a regular gig at Raffles hotel, having fallen in love with and married a Cambodian, although she now lives separately with his children in France.
His first single, “Season for Loving” in 1983 was a flop but he later made the French charts and was a regular on national TV there with releases, including “Dance des Oubres” (Dance of the Shadows) as his presence on YouTube testifies.
He formed a band called “Purple Dream” in 1991 in France and once played before 2,000 people as well as going on tour around France. He has since resurrected it to record an album at a British-owned studio in Siem Reap, although he lives in Phnom Penh now. His former drummer, Paul Newman, who lives in Kampot, where Michael also lived for a while, is the current drummer. Michael’s guitarist is Kenny Smith and Thomas Jeijer is on keyboards.
Music to monkhood
At one stage, this self-confessed depressive and occasional wig-wearer who tried to commit suicide twice became a monk at Angkor Wat, fed up with the world of showbiz. However, he lost faith in Buddha and found a different form of enlightenment by returning to music. He hopes his new album will be released by Sony in Berlin, Tokyo or London by the end of June.
“I was going to call the album ‘Sexy, Sexy Rock and Roll’ but changed it to ‘Bar 69 out of sensitivity to the culture,” he says.
Dreams of past glory
Michels, who has lived in Cambodia for 11 years, also made documentaries and tops up his royalties with his gigs at Raffles and other night spots, performing cover versions of classic hits with Filipino band members.
So, from being a one-time star in France to gigging in Phnom Penh, Michael Thomas hopes his Purple Dream will restore him to past glory on a bigger stage 40 years on.
Another musician who’s been around the traps in the Kingdom is German national Jan Mueller – or Professor Kinski as he prefers to be known. Jan has lived in the country for 17 years, after working at an internship at local TV stations back home as a TV producer and sound engineer. He’s played guitar, drums, sampler, synths and flute for almost all of his life, he says.
Over the years, Kinski had a couple of different outfits in Phnom Penh playing different styles of music. After producing a lot of solo Electro albums from 2002 to 2008 his musical career in Cambodia kicked off in 2009 while producing a Cambodian Hip Hop album with Khmer rapper MC Curly and his crew, known as the “OVC” (Orphaned Vulnerable Children). They quickly linked up with Channty Kak from the Cambodian Space Project in 2009 to deliver spaced-out hook lines for the hip hop tunes of the OVC which worked very well, according to Kinski.
In 2010 Prof Kinski’s breakthrough came with remixing the Cambodian Space Project with his well-received album: CSP – the Hummer H5 Remixes. The album was a Cambodian journey into electro, dub, and chilled-out groove music with the haunting vocals of CSP lead singer Channty Kak.
Later on, it was followed by an original one-hour nonstop UK breakbeat album in 2011 with 33 of Kinski’s Cambodian recordings, including MC Curly, Kak Channty, Meng Buno, Heng Bunleap and many more popular artists.
In the same year, Kinski co-founded and produced the Cambodian Ragga Dub outfit Dub Addiction, touring through Europe and Asia, including France, Denmark, Reunion Island, Thailand and Vietnam. In the five years of their active performing time, Dub Addiction released five albums with Cambodian-flavoured Khmer Raggamuffin and Dub Reggae songs as well as international collaborations from all over the world.
Dub addiction has now recorded tunes with more than 40 different musicians each with their different significant styles, including Tippa Irie, Tirat and Rouge Reggae, Jahneration, Ras Muhammad plus many more.
As an antidote to all the electronic vibes and massive sound effects of making Dub Reggae, Kinski co-founded the Punk Band The Schkoots together with French guitarists and expatriate locals, Bob Passion and Benoit Carre in 2012, to form an all original three-man Europunk band from the mind of Bob Passion with Kinski on hyper-fast drums also playing alongside French punk legend Didier Wampas. Kinski produced their album “Straight To The Legend” in 2015 with a new album to be recorded in January 2020.
Currently, Kinski plays for the expatriate band Vibratone. Besides that, he remixes and produces all kinds of projects for Cambodian TV, radio and other bands.
Changing genres we have the Hypnotic Fist Technique, a five-piece international band which identifies their sound as a fusion-based sound planted firmly in hip-hop but drawing influences from rock, heavy metal, reggae, R&B, funk, soul, ska, electronic music and “pretty much anything that draws our attention”, according to Gaurav Raul, otherwise known as Initial G, One of the bands’ two vocalists.
The bands’ members hail from all parts of the globe. Current members include Initial G (Gaurav Raul) vocalist from India, Mike Dynamo (Michael A. Bridgett Jr) secondary vocalist from the United States, Supreme Premium D (Damani Kelly), a British Italian bass player for the outfit, I The Mic Factor (Ian Francisco), lead guitarist from the Philippines, and Hot Toddy (Todd Bazley) their drummer from New Zealand.
Meanwhile, Damani is part of several other bands with one of them, the Vartey Ganiva band scheduled to drop a new album imminently among other projects. Todd and his other project – Nightmare A.D. are working on a new album that is expected soon. Mike Dynamo and Initial G have new projects such as Funan Beat Empire, Initial Dynamo and Brainerdz with albums expected from all three projects including a solo album each from both of the frontmen in collaboration with Minnesota based producer/rapper Serebe. Artwork is also under way for all these projects.
From choral tenor to rap
Initial G was trained as a choral tenor since childhood, growing up in Cambodia and partying in the kingdom’s music scene during his teenage years.
When asked how the band was formed, he said: “We all met each other at Showbox – specifically at open mic sessions on Wednesdays. Ian, our guitarist, had just moved to Cambodia with his family and he was playing occasionally there. Damani was already a fixture as part of the instrumentalists playing everything from bass, guitar, keyboards to drums. A regular at Showbox, I was branching out from Bon Jovi covers to freestyle rapping and enjoying the hip-hop twist that was taking over the open mic format and the enthusiasm of the audience too.”
He also claims his musical talents have let him play alongside some relatively big local acts. “I’ve met several globally famous artists already thanks to our close connection to Code Red Agency which has consistently brought big-name acts to our tiny Kingdom. I’ve not played alongside anyone globally famous in a while, not since sharing the same stage as ‘And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead’. Regionally famous is an entirely different story which is a definite yes. We share stages a lot with local legends, for example, The Kampot Playboys.”
He admits although he isn’t the most talented vocalist, he feels as though if it weren’t for the band, he may never have known his true talents. “My entire musical achievement started with Hypnotic three years ago and is continuing with all these new events and acts that I’m spearheading, unless you want to count being in choirs as a kid. I was always surrounded by talented people, though, so attracting and retaining talent around me is becoming an indicator of the talent that I never knew I possessed. All my band members and fellow collaborating artists have an insane number of achievements and accolades to their credit, too numerous to talk about here.”
Initial G said: “We are about 60 percent done with writing the new Hypnotic album. As of now, it’s untitled.
“However, in anticipation of some of the reshuffling we’re scheduled to go through very soon, we are holding off on the recording for now. New artwork is still under way and will be released when we’re satisfied with the result. “When asking Initial G if the band made money from their works, he said: “No. We wish we made enough for it to be our main source of income.”
Passion, not cash
And talking about money, unlike Pink Floyd, nobody here seems to be grabbing that cash with both hands and making a stash. No new car, caviar, four-star daydream, let alone buying a football team.
“We’re not in it for the money but the passion. We have to work ordinary jobs to indulge our musical pleasures,” said Initial G
DJ, author and long-time observer of the Phnom Penh night scene Iain Donnelly, said: “Most musicians in Phnom Penh are ‘hobbyists’. So they don’t really do it for money but for their love of music. Venues tend not to charge money on the door for gigs and depend very much on bar takings. When venues do try to charge, many punters choose not to go, so it’s a catch 22 situation.
“If a venue pays a large amount for a band then they run a risk of taking a major hit money-wise. There is a small amount of musicians who do make a living from their trade, but they are dedicated and can often be playing five to seven nights a week.”
A random survey showed people in the industry are reluctant to disclose incomes because of the competitive nature of making their living from music. But it seems clear, to return to a Shakespearean quote, “There is nothing in the world so much like prayer as music is.”