In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, Cambodia lost one of its brightest stars in a tragic road accident. Kak Channthy, the modern-day Pan Ron whose sole passion was to promote the glory days of Cambodia’s music scene, and the woman who showed the world that with perseverance, any obstacle can be overcome – is sadly, no longer with us. For all intents and purposes, this piece is not intended to be yet another obituary or a sob story about Channthy’s life and struggles. Rama Ariadi recounts his first meeting with her in 2011 in Australia, and what turned out to be his last encounter with the star in 2018 on her home turf in Cambodia.
Any (pseudo) hipster who lived in Melbourne’s suburbs of Fitzroy and Carlton would eventually converge in the infamous The Worker’s Club on Brunswick Street, where the libation is cheap and crowd, quirky and unpretentious. Simply put, it was a perfect place for Kak Channthy to perform back in 2011. And it was then and there that I first heard Channthy and the Cambodian Space Project perform a cover of Pan Ron’s ‘Love Like Honey’ – a Cambodian 60’s classic whose lyrics would probably be considered too risqué to be performed in modern-day, conservative Cambodia.
But I had no idea who Pan Ron was at that time, nor was I aware that Cambodia had a robust music scene in the 1960s. That said, so incisive was her voice that I left my drinks and crossed the street to see what the ruckus was all about – I knew something big was in the making.
And as it turned out, that was the right decision to make – for if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have met Channthy in the flesh. Spurred by the crowd, she looked as if she was performing in Phnom Penh – audacious, candid, and confident. So fascinated were the audience by the performance that despite my embarrassing lack of knowledge of what she was performing, I psyched myself up and approached her.
But she was so flustered by the crowd’s attention after her set that she excused herself and disappeared with her crew. That marked the first time I saw Channthy face-to-face, but I was so curious that I purchased a CD that became the soundtrack of my road trips to come, ‘Ban Juarp Pros Snae’ – or ‘I’ve Found My Love’.
Just before International Women’s Day on March 8, almost seven years later, in a bizarre twist of fate, Channthy and I crossed paths again in Phnom Penh. Despite the quantum leaps that she has made in her musical career, she remained as humble as the first time I saw her – so I dared myself to ask whether she remembered that scrawny university student that came to her gig in 2011.
“I’m really sorry but at that time my English was not very good,” she apologised. “It was very overwhelming. That trip was one of my very first trips abroad.”
Her lack of formal education never deterred her from pursuing her passion of promoting Cambodian music to whomever would listen to her work – no matter whether it was her own compositions, or covers of Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron’s classics from the 60s.
Channthy was particularly drawn to this period, because it evoked an image that was starkly different to contemporary Cambodia.
“The country was much more open-minded, and Phnom Penh had a free-spirited vibe that allowed artists of the period to explore themes that are nowhere near cliches,” she explained.
“It could be about a tree, it could be about love, but everything was phrased beautifully, and it always reflected the realities of life at that time – yet it managed to be way ahead of its time relative to its neighbours.”
It was an approach that she truly took to heart, with a twist. Channthy’s compositions are as much songs as they are autobiographical – which ranges from painfully poignant to outright comedic. In ‘Broken Flower’ she explored the dilemma of having to choose between her lover and her family, while ‘Whiskey Cambodia’ is a comical retelling of her version of the ‘Hangover’.
“Inspiration is everywhere, so we have to be brave and think outside of the box,” she said. “Break the mould! Who knows where it would take you?”
Channthy’s gamble proved to be her golden ticket – but sadly, it was an express, one-way ticket to eternity. Her passing is a blow, not only for Cambodia’s artistic communities but also the numerous lives that Channthy had touched throughout the course of her life. The least everyone can do, is to heed her last message.
“At first, no one believed in me,” she said. “But Cambodia has changed, and there are now many opportunities for musicians, more places to explore and people to meet, so be creative and seize the day!”
RIP Kak Channthy.