Back in March, I interviewed Tep Modyka, known as Srey Ka, as she prepared to embark on a two-month plus tour of the USA, either side of Khmer New Year, with Cambodian superstar Preap Sovath’s band. Now she’s back, and with stories to tell.
The band flew into New York City, from where they were driven up to Lowell, Massachusetts, a stronghold of the US Cambodian community, which was to be their home base for the duration of the tour. The next day they were off for their first show –- in Minnesota. “So cold!” she remembers. “But I feel like if I go to the United States and don’t feel cold then it’s not the United States.” Then it was on to Atlanta, and back to Lowell, setting the pattern that was to follow – crisscrossing the country doing show after show, sometimes with arduous turnarounds, always returning to Lowell.
“(Travelling to) some place, if it’s two hours or three hours, we drive. Some places we need to fly, and sometimes we have three shows in one week. We were in Long Beach on a Saturday, then had a show in Lowell on the Sunday, so we finish the Saturday show, take the bags and go to the airport and check in, sleep maybe one hour, and fly to Lowell.”
Philadelphia, Washington DC, Florida, Dallas and Houston in Texas, Stockton and Long Beach (where they were visited by Chhom Nimol of Dengue Fever) in California – they covered a lot of ground, playing at restaurants, halls and casinos to appreciative crowds usually around 400, although one show at Foxwood Casino in Connecticut was in front of 4,000. Cambodian communities welcomed them everywhere. “I went to Florida, Jacksonville, they have a lot of crocodiles but I didn’t see one. So sad. I told the people who live there: I want to see a crocodile.”
The downside, apart from the lack of crocodiles, was the flying. “I’m sick all the time when I’m flying. When the aeroplane goes high, and when the aeroplane goes down. Too many aeroplanes. When I’m going there, the airport is like my home.” And also the food – in their home stays no problem, but there is no Cambodian catering in the airports. “Okay, there is Chinese food, (but only) because I am hungry.”
Has the experience changed her? “I don’t feel different,” she says, “Some people say, oh, when the Khmer girl goes to the USA, after they come back they’re not friendly like before. But I still love my country. A lot of people ask me, after you have been there, you want to live there? I say no, I don’t want to live there. I just want to leave for tour, for concert, to share Khmer culture and the songs of Cambodia. (But) I want to live in my country.”
It wasn’t all work -– there was a little time for vacation. “Las Vegas! I go in Las Vegas, like, wow! When I go there I have to walk in the downtown, see a lot of casinos. And you know what, it’s fantastic for me –- I saw there was to be a show by Celine Dion, she’s my idol! But it’s so sad because a ticket is so expensive, like $500.”
The expanse of the USA was a surprise for a young woman away from home for the first time. “In Cambodia, maybe a daughter who lives in Phnom Penh and her mother in Kampong Cham, will need to drive for two hours. In one year only can go one time, two times, because they think it’s so far. But in the USA, in Lowell, I say, ‘oh, auntie, where you come from?’ They say, ‘I’m from Connecticut -– they need to drive three hours, and it’s simple for them. So now I know a lot of the titles of the songs, like Highway To Hell, It’s A Long Way (To The Top) -– I feel like, that’s why these songs have a lot of highways -– when I go there I see highways everywhere.”
Srey Ka is back out front for K‘n’E, the Oscar’s on the Corner house band, on Wednesdays, Sundays, and some Fridays and Saturdays.