Fete de la Musique ten years ago, at the newly opened Chinese House, featured the first full public gig for a new outfit, La Magic Potion, playing traditional Celtic and Breton music. A great night, packed; your correspondent was in attendance and even played a couple of songs. “We had enough material to play for not even an hour,” recalls co-founder Jean-Claude Dhuez, who started the band with Australian guitarist David Boyle. “We played for three hours. We kept on going repeat, repeat.” In those days it was only a trio; soon they expanded, renamed themselves Kheltica, and a decade later they are still thriving.
It’s a different beast these days. Now a nine-piece band – in recent years adding oboe and bassoon to the mix – Kheltica has gone through many changes of personnel while managing to retain a family-like cohesion – there is an outstanding love of the band among both members and the alumni.
They are a reminder of a time in Phnom Penh when large bands were the norm (Mekong Pirates, Durian, Phnom Penh Hippie Orchestra, early CSP), and having a dozen or even a baker’s dozen on stage was not unusual. “The most we had on stage at once was 12, one night at Slur Bar,” says Jean-Claude. “There were some guest musicians in town, and we even had a professional flautist with us for a few months.”
Ever the melting pot, Kheltica is currently a musical home for French, British, American, Philippine, Singaporean Chinese and Spanish players – “We welcome people from all over the world” – and has introduced many a musician to Cambodian stages. “Most of the people who join Kheltica do so at their own request. I think we only put out one ad, when we were looking for a bass player, and then that’s when Andre [Swart, from South Africa] joined the band. We were one of the first bands he went to see in Cambodia, and when he saw us he said I want to play with them.”
“When we had Andre with the band, that’s when we were the most hectic. We sometimes had two, three gigs in a month, because Andre was playing in a lot of bands, so he knew a lot of places. But now we try to have a gig every five or six weeks, we don’t want to get too many gigs. This year we had was the celebration of Europe Day, at the request of the EU Ambassador, before that was St Patrick’s Day, and before that the Burns night, the regular event organised by BritCham.”
Jean-Claude is a self taught player of flute and whistle who developed a love for Celtic music as a teenager through friends of his parents. “I’m from Picardy, which is close to Brittany, and to Belgium. The Celtic music in Brittany is still very, very strong. You have a ceilidh every weekend, and people dance, even the young people and teenagers, and they know how to dance.”
The future for Kheltica seems clear: more of the same. “Some people have asked to join for ages, but we’ve had to say no because we already have the instrument. And nine is a lot of people to manage. Nine is a nightmare. But we want to keep also the strength of the band, keep it more like a family. People coming together to play and because they want to have some fun.”
Kheltica will play LF Social Club, the site of the former restaurant La Creperie, which was for a few years one of the band’s favourite places to play (“Pay us in crepes!”) on Saturday 22 from 9 pm.