We woke up to a painful news yesterday. Channthy Kak, the well-loved artist who toured across countries to introduce the music of Cambodia to the world, passed away at 38. She was, with her enormous talent and passionate soul, a gift not just to the music industry but to the country as a whole. It was a sudden, tragic demise but her life, no matter how short, was a beautiful one. Rama Ariadi takes us to his last tête-à-tête with the celebrated lead singer of Cambodian Space Project.
Channthy Kak was, by no means, an ordinary singer. Born to an impoverished rural family, she went through series of trials and tribulations to pursue her passion, which she did with an incredible degree of perseverance. She had worked as a bar hostess, a waitress, a wedding singer to feed her family and make her dreams come true. For years she shed blood, sweat and tears, even when there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
And her perseverance paid off handsomely. She rose from the ashes of obscurity to international stardom – having toured across 24 countries with the Cambodian Space Project, an act that she co-founded with her former husband, Julien Poulson.
Beyond that, she has also managed to establish her own name as a solo artist. With her charisma and musical brilliance, Ms Channthy surely stood out from the crowd.
But common wisdom tells us that all good things must come to an end, and Ms Channthy’s meteoric rise to stardom seems to be no exception to the rule. On the early hours of Tuesday (March 20), she was killed in a traffic incident. She was heading home to her residence in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market area after attending a friend’s birthday celebration.
With her passing, she leaves behind her 13-year old son – an aspiring drummer and photographer who had experienced the rollercoaster ride of life with her – as well as a series of unfinished projects, including an autobiography that sadly, might never see the light of day.
And so it seems, the sun has set for the modern-day Pan Ron. But her sincere passion to showcase the music of the Kingdom to an international stage won’t be buried underground.
For those who have been part of Ms Channthy’s journey, her legacy extends far beyond her contribution as an artist. Behind her cheeky image and stage antics, there exists a tempered, humble and sensitive soul. These layers of contradictions in her persona made Ms Channthy well-loved and admired.
While many were lucky enough to know her through her performances in her usual haunts around the Riverside – an area she said she will never forget as it was where her unlikely saga began – I was especially lucky to have had a private conversation with her. I had the chance to dig deeper into the inner workings of the mind of this extraordinary individual.
Little did I know, that conversation would be the last time I would ever meet her in the flesh.
Ms Channthy grew up in a musical family. Her earliest memory of her childhood was the image of her mother singing in the kitchen while doing her best to feed the family. “It was then and there I realised the real power of music,” said Ms Channthy, noting that music has been deeply ingrained in her ever since. “It has that ability to transport us to that ‘happy place’ where everything is well and good.”
This realisation hardened her willpower that someday, she would make a living as a singer. And so she did – like a thirsty sponge, she soaked up different genres of music. At first, Mr Poulson served as her mentor. “He had a vast collection of Cambodian music from the Golden Period of the 60s,” she recounted during our previous interview. “Cambodian music at that era was so far ahead from the rest of the region, it wasn’t all about love and clichés. It is a complex synthesis of beautiful phrasing, combined with the spirit of the Swinging Sixties.”
And her desire to quench her thirst for musical knowledge didn’t stop there. While she resided in Indonesia, she collaborated with The White Shoes and the Couples Company, an Indonesian indie-band, who like Ms Channthy, wanted to highlight a certain musical period and style that had been largely overshadowed by mass-produced pop anthems. Ms Channthy took the time to learn about Indonesian dangdut as she was particularly fascinated by the technicality of the vocal inflections of dangdut masters. And during her travels in Europe, she became particularly fond of the poignantly romantic melodies of gypsy music.
For Ms Channthy, music is not just a way to escape from the harsh realities of life. She believes that music, like all other forms of art, should always be reflective of the realities of life. Music should be an honest depiction of the array of emotions and feelings that an artist feels as he or she journeys through life.
“Love is not the emotion that a human being feels, and sometimes the best ideas are right in front of us,” she once said. “We just have to be able to channel our emotions, our frustrations, our fury into our work.”
And she did, beautifully. “Have Visa Have No Rice” was written within a few hours, driven by her frustration of the fact that there she was in France, where life was supposedly easier, but she couldn’t find rice to satiate her hunger. “I’ve Found My Love” is essentially a story of her blossoming relationship with her then-husband, while “Five Lady Cows” speaks of her promise to buy cattle for her family from the proceeds of her singing. It is more than just music for music’s sake. Her musical pieces tell a story – her reality, from her point of view.
To those who look down on people with little to no formal education, Ms Channthy is the perfect rebuttal – her inability to read or write did not deter her to expand her knowledge in her own way. She wanted this to be her message for all aspiring musicians out there: when there is a will, there is a way. But her most important message was dedicated to her son, Makara, who once said that he wanted to become famous just like his mother.
“One day, if you persevere hard enough, all of this could be yours too,” she told him.