Nearly four years ago, Tep Modyka, or Srey Ka, began singing with the Oscar Bar house band, joining her husband Ratha who had already been resident fretboard shredder for some time. In those days it was a tiny stage at the end of a skinny bar, with the boss, Oscar, wedged in behind his drum kit and his vocal mic, the standard double keyboards for class clown Sophal, a small space for Ratha to play, and an extra microphone mounted on the side wall near the door to the bathrooms, hooking back over the top of Danny the bass player’s head.
It has now been almost three years since the bar moved upstairs and set up with a much larger stage, and none have developed their presence in that time more than Srey Ka. She slowly gained in confidence, singing and moving with more power and control. Recently as Oscar has taken a step back to focus on management, Srey Ka has stepped forward as the main singer on Wednesday and Sunday nights, the latter focusing on the songs of the Cambodian Golden Era in the 60s and early 70s.
She says she always loved to sing. “I never got training [in music], but all my friends around me are musicians, so I learned.”
She and Ratha are both police officers, players in the police band, and so they have both gone through basic training as well. “I had to study like every police officer,” she says. A highlight of her police career was last year when she performed in Hanoi for a regional police band festival featuring bands from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, an experience that made a dramatic difference to her performance. Additionally, she notes, “That was the first time that I left Cambodia.”
The next trip will be somewhat bigger. This week Srey Ka is off for a two month tour of the United States with the Preap Sovath Band. Preap Sovath is a Cambodian superstar, prominent since the nineties, also well known for judging and coaching on shows like ‘Cambodia’s Got Talent’, ‘Cambodian Idol’ and ‘The Voice Kids Cambodia’, and makes occasional tours to play to Cambodian communities in the US. Among his international claims to fame is taking part in the MTV Exit concert at Angkor Wat in 2008, alongside Placebo, Kate Miller-Heidke and The Click Five.
Srey Ka is performing as the female lead singer on the tour, alongside Sovath’s three sons and the star himself. “We will play Khmer songs, rom vong, rock’n’roll,” she explains. The tour will take in Tacoma, Washington: Long Beach and Stockton, California; Providence, Rhode Island; and finish up in Lowell Massachusetts – among the largest concentrations of Cambodian populations in the USA.
Will her husband be travelling with her? “I go with her to Pochentong,” Ratha says with a laugh.
Meanwhile in Phnom Penh, the beat will go on Friday night as Oscar Bar celebrates its 11th year of operations with a night featuring the Kampot Playboys, one of the most exciting and energetic bands in the country. A brief history: Oscar himself started as a motodop, moved into tuk tuks, and eventually got into the hospitality and music game with a little help from his customers. His father played music, but it was his grandfather, who played traditional Khmer percussion, who inspired him to take up the drums – and he’s also a fine singer.
Oscar Bar was initially in the Wat Botum district, moved to Street 104, took a brief learning curve episode on Street 51, returned to Street 104, and Oscar’s on the Corner is now the premier rock’n’roll music venue in Phnom Penh, with live bands every night, in styles from Khmer to Country. The bar has long been an important part of the development of the city’s music scene, and is much loved by the community of musicians.
Oscar is a man of few words: “Thank you everyone for your support, and I hope you come and enjoy the music,” he says.
Congratulations on your success, Mr Oscar, and rock on brother.