Julien Poulson on getting over Kek Channthy’s tragic death and the regrouping tomorrow, at LF Social Club, of The Cambodia Space Project muscos at The Mothership.
When I awoke to a phone call around 6am on March 20 this year, a good friend was on the line calling to tell me that “Channthy has died” – killed in a tragic car accident. That call and that moment of realisation was the kind of shock that numbed all my senses, I sat down for 30 minutes – frozen in time – before daring to go online or even think too much as the devastating news became even more apparent and so painfully real.
The last eight months has been a time of heartbreak and change. It’s also been a time caught up with many events and happenings to do with Channthy’s life and indeed the incredible legacy her life has become.
Immediately after Channthy’s death, I met with friends and began piecing together details of the accident but working quickly to help the family through a time of terrible loss and sadness – funeral, 7 days, 100 days as per Khmer culture but also events concerning The Cambodian Space Project and the future for everyone involved, not least the band and family.
CSP still had gigs booked, one of these events was to be the launch Angkor Pop! A compilation of new Cambodian groups each covering Iggy Pop songs… a fun project that Channthy had a big hand in and had been enjoying – like most of the artists on the compilation – finding out who Iggy Pop was and this, through hearing Iggy talk about her from the distance of his BBC6 radio show.
She was chuffed to listen in and hear mention of her name and her songs… Instead, the April 1 booking at FCC became a memorial concert for Channthy and way to bring together friends and supporters to share grief and as per an Irish wake, to pay tribute to life in music and song. It was at this event that CSP’s drummer Bong Sak shared with me his own feelings – always the least-likeliest-to-speak members of the band but also one of its founders – Bong whose English extends to two words “awesome” and “gorgeous” pulled me aside to speak about the future … we could and should keep going… stay together… and this is exactly what we’re doing. It’s something that Channthy would have wanted too and the fact the CSP Mothership is beginning with Bong Sak’s daughter Nang Ye-ye on vocals – keeps it a family band – one with deep roots.
A month later I had returned to Kampot but was still meeting and talking to people daily about our tragedy. One evening I got news that a little film I’d been making with Mark Roy had been selected to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. It was with mixed emotions that I decided to get on a plane and fly to the ‘world premiere’ and I mostly did this as the film Flicker & Fade is as much a tribute to Channthy as it is to all the great singers of Cambodia whose lives had ended in tragedy.
Flicker and Fade is based on the story of Poev Vannary who vanished in the Khmer Rouge era – needless to say, the film screened to a full-house at Cine Olympia and one of the most moving experiences of my life was sitting there hearing Channthy’s song booming through the sound system.
On the way home, I had a day in Paris and spent this walking the length of Rue Belleville to seek out the Edith Piaf museum… Channthy’s hilarious impersonations of Edith Piaf used to amuse us no-end when first touring to France. I think Edith Piaf’s story certainly resonated with Thy, in fact, songs like La Vie En Rose are long famous in Cambodia not least for King Norodom Sihanouk’s own cover of Piaf’s signature song. It was a long walk and I recalled the time we’d once strolled the same path on the way to visit the grave of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde et al at The Père Lachaise cemetery. I thought much about the life I still had but also of ways to pay tribute to Channthy’s life and all that she has left us.
On arriving at The Musée Édith Piaf I found that the place was closed – a private museum, in a tiny shop, dedicated to Édith Piaf open by appointment only. Why? Piaf a giant of French culture…why was this museum, not something managed as a public institution supported by the French government? It made me think of just how important – a once in a generation artist – Channthy’s own life is – a fable-like story that draws parallels to singers like Piaf and to Thy’s favourites from Nina Simone, Ella Fitgerald, Tina Turner, Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea through to Amy Winehouse.
These thoughts linger and I hope to see something like this little museum open here in Phnom Penh. Like many things, it will take time and planning and most of all the passion and conviction to make it happen.
So this weekend at LF Social Club, St. 308, 12/C Phnom Penh, The Cambodian Space Project performs at The Mothership and obviously we continue on with all that Channthy has given us. It’s deeply personal for all involved but is also a great way for new fans to discover the music that has been the soundtrack of my own ten years in Cambodia.
The Mothership comes at a time when we’re also seeing many artists and fans create tributes to Channthy – images of Guatemalan artist Erick Gonzalez’ street painting has begun to appear online through the location of this beautiful portrait remains a secret. Channthy’s death was reported everywhere from the NY Times (The New York Times) to the NT News (Australia’s Northern Territory News) and if there’s any consolation in this loss, it’s how her songs and legacy lives on. Channthy’s life was taken at the peak of everything she had risen up to become – an iconic singer and a real Cambodian hero.
Iggy Pop recently went to air with Channthy’s song followed by saying, “I was taught that little rhyme that you are supposed to say to god by my mom when I was about six and it never does leave you.
“You know the condition of an end to life never really leaves the table and I think it was Philip Roth the American author who said: ‘Well the meaning of life is that it stops’.
“Hey I’m gonna lighten up with someone else who is gone right now but is not forgotten and she is terrific and her boys are terrific too. So out of Cambodia here is the Cambodian Space Project with 5 Lady Cows.”
This Saturday night’s show introduces another “terrific” singer Nang Ye-ye and as The CSP Mothership, the event will be another of the many tributes happening. Possibly the best endorsement I’ve heard so far in validating The Mothership ticket is from Eng Makara, Channthy’s only child, and as much of a music fan as was his mum, who recently told me, referring to the bands debut release “Smoking Addict”, “that new song by Bong Sak’s daughter is awesome!” such is life.