On International Women’s Day, Chantthy Kak, the frontwoman for Cambodia Space Project, recalls her uphill battle for recognition. She speaks to Rama Ariadi.
“I remember those days when my mother would sing in the kitchen as she cooked our family meals,” said Chantthy Kak. “It was a defining moment for me, I realised the power that music has – that is, to take you to that happy place in your head no matter how tough the circumstances are.”
As the eldest sibling from an impoverished rural family, she had to take on a string of odd jobs before she settled to be a singer at a local bar – Phnom Penh’s Black Cat Club. Little did she know that this decision will eventually change the course of her entire life. “I sang there, I sang for weddings, but it wasn’t enough to provide,” she said. “I thought that I’d be doing this just for fun – to supplement my income, until I met him.”
‘Him’, is former husband Julien Poulsen – with whom she collaborated and formed the internationally acclaimed Cambodian Space Project in 2009. “We got to know each other – and one day I was visiting his home when I found out that he has this vast library of Khmer songs from the golden era of the 60s.”
Fast forward a decade, Chantthy has managed to rise up from the ashes of despair – having gone on tours across 24 countries, where she performs and soaks in the fruits of her labour. “I was living on $2 a day,” she said. “I never would have thought that one day, I would play in front of a sold-out crowd in the UK where the cheapest ticket was £30!”
From Phnom Penh to Paris, Randwick to Reunion, Chantthy has conquered it all. But she admits, that despite the strides that has been made in terms of gender equality and expectations, there are still some room for improvements. “It was especially hard for a Cambodian woman to break into the mainstream music industry without attracting certain prejudices and judgement,” she lamented. “And I’ve heard it all – that I’m not beautiful enough, my skin is too dark, you name it.”
“To break into the indie music scene, is even harder as a woman,” continued Chantthy. “But when there is a will, there is a way.”
Chantthy recalled some of the criticisms she received from agents, friends and relatives alike. “My mother used to say that I am not Cambodian enough and asked me where I’m actually from,” she said. “I told her that I’m an alien from outer space!”
“We are expected to sit with our legs crossed, and keep our opinions to ourselves,” con-tinued Chantthy. “They said my mouth will be my downfall – but look, it is this voice that came out of my mouth that eventually took me around the world.”
“We also have to be able to think outside of the box and do things differently.”
She immediately turned the conversation around. “Songs these days are mostly about love, heartbreak and what not,” said Chantthy. “But in reality there are so many more things that people can write about – what about our lived experiences?”
She recalled one night in Paris during the beginning of the Cambodian Space Project. Cold and starving after the show, she was angry as she could not find any rice to go with her meals. “I was just hungry and angry, and I found it ironic that here I am in France, I have a visa – but no rice to eat,” she said.
Amidst the fury, she came up with the lyrics that eventually became one of Cambodia Space Project’s hit songs – ‘Have Visa, Have No Rice’. “Sometimes the best ideas are right under our noses, we just can’t see it,” laughed Chantthy.
Candid and cheeky throughout the conversation, her voice suddenly calmed down and she took on a more serious tone. “Cambodia is changing rapidly, and this change has to occur in parallel with paradigms and norms,” she concluded. “Don’t let anyone and/or prejudices discourage you, because as long as we put in the hard work, who knows where it will take us?”
“We have to keep trying – I know that I have a lot of problems but I keep thinking of the bigger picture,” she concluded. “I sing mostly in Khmer, but it hasn’t stopped me – nor should it stop anyone – from promoting Cambodian music and talents beyond our borders.”