Back in August, much-loved reggae band Vibratone returned to Phnom Penh stages after an extended absence. They formed in 2013, and after a few years working together a few key members left Cambodia to pursue other futures – but not before they put together an album, Phnom Penh Reggae, which was released in 2017.
The band has always been committed to performing only original material, avoiding the reggae band trap of endless Bob Marley covers, and the reformed Vibratone has taken this a step further by now having two singers, both songwriters, at the helm: Maia Doikno, co-founder of the band, now returned after a couple of years in Manila is joined by Chris Limmi, who was involved in a brief reformation last year. Together they share the vocals and the writing. Maia sat down with Leng Pleng this week ahead of their second return show at Alchemy on Saturday night.
The double singer front provides both stylistic and musical contrasts. “Chris’s voice and my voice are very, very different,” says Maia. “We sing in different ranges, and she can do a lot of the high notes – if it was jazz you’d call it scat. I’m more with the formal – I think it’s my lawyer training – you have a form, you follow a structure. She likes to do a lot of the free stuff, and it suits her voice. She writes her own lyrics and melodies. When I first joined Vibratone, I had to write everything.”
Maia first came to Phnom Penh in 1997, and it’s been her second home ever since, working primarily as a human rights lawyer, and slowly doing more and more music. The compressed version: after nervously getting involved as a singer in an office band and branching out into other small combos, she caught the attention of Bona Thiem in the early days of the now legendary (and now closed) Memphis Bar, who asked her to come in to sing every weekend. “[Original Vibratone member] Benoit heard me at Memphis, and he came up and asked me would I like to join a reggae band? And I said I really don’t know reggae, but why not? Let’s try. At that point I had been singing for Memphis for years, but when you do the same songs for so long after a while you can do it in your sleep.”
The next big challenge was becoming the Vibratone songwriter. “I didn’t realise how much my work fit with reggae until after I started singing and playing it, and writing the lyrics.” Inspired by bass player and band leader Julian Gorimaa, Maia set to work. “Julian has been playing reggae for decades, he’s amazing. He tells me this is the bassline, and then he says: write something. For the first few songs I was so scared to share what I had come up with. In fact one of the first songs I wrote, which we still do, Who Are You Fooling, he says: why did you put the chorus in the bridge? Because I had no idea what I was doing! I thought that was the chorus, it made sense to me. He’s says, that’s supposed to be the bridge. But it’s okay, it’s written, we make it work.”
And so the writer in Maia was unleashed. “[Now] I love writing the songs. It’s another way to get stuff out, [to express] anger about situations. Because reggae, it talks about social injustice: this is wrong, this is what has to be made right. I grew up writing a lot of poetry, short stories, and from the time I was 14 I had a diary – that goes on and off. I have notebooks at home that if I suddenly feel the need I will just grab it and start writing. Usually when I’m travelling: I have a notebook just for planes and airports.”
Unusually, Maia grew up speaking English. “My great grandfather refused to speak English. He would either speak Tagalog or Spanish, because he fought against the Americans when they came. When my father grew up, it was a period in history where we were not allowed to speak the native language. You couldn’t write in Tagalog, you couldn’t sing in Tagalog, you couldn’t speak. That was an American law. My father grew up speaking English and Spanish – he only learned Tagalog when he was in his 40s. My mother, on the other hand, spoke Tagalog and Spanish, and learned English in school. So I can understand it, but I did not grow up really speaking it. And I went to a sort of exclusive convent school where they taught in English.
“People keep saying I need to write a book about my experiences in Cambodia, and in the Philippines, because I grew up in a family that was very political. My father was a Senator in the opposition, so he was actually a political prisoner for two years – when I was eight years old he was arrested and kept in gaol. So I had a lot of experiences – and a very different childhood.”
Vibratone at their return gig in August.
The band is often asked to play covers, but it won’t happen. “There are way too many cover bands, especially here,” she says. “In 1997 we would go to the hotels and it was all Filipino cover bands: exactly the same as a CD. If you hear Filipinos sing in Tagalog or their dialect, it’s really different, because if you’re not really a native English speaker, and you don’t understand the words, you won’t get the feeling behind it. When you’re singing your own language, and you know it, that’s when you really express. For me, I grew up speaking English, I grew up thinking in English. So for me that is a regret, but I can’t change it. So I can identify more with English, and with English songs, but when I hear some Filipino musicians singing in Tagalog my heart really – something just clicks.”
The new line up of Vibratone – the other members being James Adams on drums, Jan Mueller on guitar, Damani on keyboards and the new addition of Jim Wilson on percussion – will be playing at Alchemy on Saturday 26, and again soon.