Leng Pleng will today turn gratefully to the beautifully written words of Scott Bywater – the (unofficial) expat poet laureate of Phnom Penh – and the ever-wonderful pictures of music photographer Steve Porte, on a day on which witty gig round-ups are a little bit beyond us.
I hope you come back as a tree
A Poem by Scott Bywater
I hope you come back
as a tree that grows
on a curve of a riverbank
dipping its branches
into the water
as it flows on by
to be admired
to be appreciated for shade
after a birthday party
like a roaring twenties movie star
what a way to join the choir
there is no wind in any sails today
our hearts are at half mast
we’re running adrift on this currentless stream
tears creep around the world
as the sun rises
strangers are hugging
and friends are hugging harder
there is a great shaking of heads
and a great wringing of hands
and a great playing of songs:
your gifts that will never leave us
and so the meat still turns on the spits
outside Psar Kandal
and the children still run and laugh
in the twilight streets
and beer o’clock still rolls around
for those who only know this as news
bong svar, chicken prey veng
we will never stop flying, never ever
with your gifts that will never leave us
never to be forgotten
this time around it was a struggle
so I hope you come back as a tree
At time of writing, the funeral service of Cambodian singing star Kak Channty is taking place in her home village in Prey Veng province. Her sudden death at 38 is firstly an inconceivable personal loss for her immediate and extended family – of which she was the brave, bread-winning, head – and also the very large circle of close friends and loved ones with whom she shared her life.
Always unassuming, unpretentious and humble, Channty’s confidence in herself grew as her near-ten year singing career with The Cambodian Space Project took flight. As hurriedly organized gigs to audiences of twenty in backstreet Phnom Penh watering holes became packed houses at FCC and Equinox, then tours of Europe and Australia, then major festival appearances, a BBC documentary, recording studio collaborations with legendary music industry figures and, just last year, a prestigious appearance at the Kennedy Center in Washington… So this awkwardly shy Karaoke singer, frozen to the spot and wondering why all these barangs were looking at her, transformed herself into a strident, Tina-Turner-dancing, anecdote-telling superstar.
Channty’s combination of unguarded vulnerability and jovial, fun-loving, friendly warmth ensured that she charmed the socks off everyone she met. The facts of the hardships, ordeals and travails of her past were not hidden away in the proverbial closet but worn as scars for anyone to see and discussed candidly in the many interviews she gave. Channty found a significant level of success on the international stage with The Cambodian Space Project, but would never ever forget her Prey Veng province roots or enter the ivory tower inhabited by other performers coming into their share of fame.
The quality of her personality and her character inspired an unusually large group of friends, colleagues and loved ones who could genuinely claim a personal and meaningful connection with Channty. We are hurting today, busloads of us, hundreds of us, as we travel to Prey Veng to join the funeral procession, or share our condolences, recollections and grief on the pages of social media.
We will go over the details of what happened again, looking for facts, reason, blame, sense. Perhaps we will take from our pocket our Westernised prism of explanation, investigation, procedure, and attempt to apply it to this unfortunately commonplace set of circumstances. Some of us will have watched the videos broadcast by the quasi-‘news’ reporters at the scene of the accident – the ‘nightcrawlers’ who sometimes arrive before the ambulance does. With our Western prism in hand, we will loudly deplore the reporter’s flashlights pouring down on her body and the crowds of onlookers rubbernecking the wreckage of the tuk tuk from which she was thrown. We might forget that these ‘nightcrawlers’ were not only able to identify Channty’s body (by broadcasting her image) and thus enable her family to get to the scene (she was not carrying identification) but also conducted on-the-spot interviews with those involved in the accident and eyewitnesses to it.
The facts and attributions are carved out in the Cambodian moment, by ranting groups of onlookers, blue-shirted policemen stumbling from one person to the next, the driver of the tuk-tuk being interviewed by a nightcrawler, the young driver of the Toyota Prius frantically making calls on her mobile phone, while Channty’s body lies in the ambulance, her family already on the scene, their grief witnessed by hundreds of viewers on Facebook Live. The story of what happened is spun on the street right there and then… not to be poured over by Judges and investigators in courtrooms and laboratories.
It is a story that is too familiar. A three-wheeled (‘Gong-Bai’) tuk-tuk, late at night, two friends on their way home to Tuol Tumpung. A separate pair of friends are travelling in a Toyota Prius. The junction of Street 163 and Mao-Tse-Tung Boulevard – one driver is travelling at speed, the other is travelling through a red light. A collision, the driver and the passenger of the car are unhurt, the driver of the tuk-tuk is not seriously injured. One passenger of the tuk-tuk is seriously injured, his companion is killed.
Channty’s body was quickly taken to her hometown in Prey Veng province, to begin the funeral rituals of her Cambodian Buddhist faith. While the main ceremony will take place today, Thursday the 22nd March 2018, there will be, according to custom, further ceremonies on the seven-day anniversary of her death, and again on the 100-day anniversary of her death.
Her death at 38 is firstly a personal loss for her family, loved ones and those who worked with her and were fortunate enough to be able to call her a friend. Beyond that, the loss to the Cambodian music scene in general is hard to overstate and one that will be felt for years to come. Quite simply, there was no-one else like her. She carved out her own special niche in the alternative Cambodian scene and, eventually, on the international stage. In an entirely homogeneous Cambodian pop music scene dominated by a handful of production companies and entirely reliant on sponsorship from big name beverage companies or tel-com brands, Channty’s style and the style of her band was strikingly alternative, standing completely at odds with contemporary singing stars… even though, weirdly, they would often be singing the same ‘Golden Era’ Cambodian-language repertoire.
After the awkward Karaoke singer became the strident superstar, a songwriter also emerged, with Channty contributing lyrics and melodies to many Cambodian Space Project albums. One of her many career highlights was duetting with the multiple-ARIA award-winning singer-songwriter Paul Kelly on the Lee Hazlewood song ‘Summer Wine’. Paul sang Hazlewood’s part, while Channty came up with her own Cambodian words and music!
Audiences from Melbourne to Malaysia, London to Los Angeles, loved her. They may not have been able to understand the words but they got the meaning. And often there would be a charming anecdote from Channty to explain the background to a song like ‘Have Visa No Have Rice’ or ‘Not Easy Rock’n’Roll’.
For the singer, songwriter, mother, star, friend, head-of-the-family, businesswoman, bandleader we know as Kak Channty, it was never easy.
Whatever you’re up to and however you’re feeling over the next few days… for pity’s sake, be careful out there… and we’ll, as always, see you around the traps.