Leng Pleng is predominantly a live music guide, somewhat biased towards rock’n’roll but attempting to show the diversity of musical offerings available. For the club scene, we recommend Phnom Penh Underground as a source of information. Leng Pleng sat down with PPUG co-founder Lhoyd ahead of a major CUBIK event this weekend featuring Thai/Berlin DJ Nakadia to talk of the opportunities and potentialities of dance music for Cambodia.
“Phnom Penh Underground is a website and also we – me and my wife Jess – put on our own events,” explains Lhoyd. “We promote the scene, put up mixes on Soundcloud, list events, do interviews.” It all started small, coming out of a search for the music they love. “We always go out to clubs, that’s our thing, ever since the [UK] rave explosion in 1991. We came to Cambodia in 2011, and there were great people doing great things, but nothing that we really were into that much. We’d been promoting in London before, but we hadn’t done it for five, seven years, it was very difficult in London.”
“The best place [in Phnom Penh] was Meta House,” Lhoyd says, and that’s where things got started, where meeting other clubbers led to the establishment of a series of parties called Berlin Tropical, inspired by Berlin techno. The PPUG name came almost by accident. “I was in Photoshop one day and I typed in Phnom Penh Underground, and it worked [graphically] – Phnom Penh is kind of the same length as Underground. And there was a series of mixes in the 90s called Global Underground, they’d have Berlin Underground, Tel Aviv Underground, I liked the concept.” It’s not without it’s complications though. “Underground is a very loaded kind of word: people say unless you’re playing in a squat in a slum in Venezuela you’re not underground, so it’s become a something of a millstone around our neck. And the big DJs obviously need sponsors, and people might be saying it’s not very underground to have a beer company sponsoring your thing, but we don’t have $X thousand to pay the fees.”
Since 2018 PPU have been running a series of monthly events called CUBIK with Eddie Newman, formerly of Pontoon and Code Red, attemptingto put Phnom Penh on the clubbing map for South East Asia, with a strong international feel. “We have fantastic talent here, some great DJs. We’re from England, Eddie’s from Scotland, and Nico of Meta House from Germany. But for touring DJs it’s Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur – that’s about it. So far we’ve had Leroy Thornhill from the Prodigy, we’ve had Jasper James, we’ve had street parties, Enter the Heart of Darkness. The important thing for that is we’ve got to get the audience, and the audience can’t just be expats. To go to the next level we have to get Khmer people interested.”
Lhoyd points to an observable change in the audience mix. “At first the only Khmer people were the staff. Gradually it’s begun to rise, and it’s not 50/50 but it’s, say, 30/70. Our last event, at Heart of Darkness, we had two Cambodian DJs playing. And not just tokenism – they were really good.” On the Cambodian side, Lhoyd tells me, the EDM Cambodia collective is putting on two or three high quality events a year. “1,000 people attending, from 4 pm to 10 pm.”
PPUG is about creating opportunities to bring people together through music. “I think any kind of music – it’s a universal thing. The Cambodian kids don’t have a filter. YouTube is their radio. They learn to DJ by watching video tutorials. These kids have got the world in their pocket. It’s a bit like punk, where suddenly you didn’t have to be signed to a major record label and be booking time at Abbey Road – you could just get a Woolworths guitar, go to some studio for £10 an hour. Suddenly it’s accessible. The equipment is not expensive these days, they can get a cheap laptop, Cubase, free samples, just like punk.
“We’re still years behind Thailand and Malaysia and so on, but it’s exploded recently – I get three, four, five emails a day, people saying hi, I’m a DJ from X, I would like to come and play in Phnom Penh. Or: I am in Battambang, I need learn DJ. Can help? And now I’ve got a little text I had translated into Khmer, a really simple guide – try this software, these are the settings you need on your computer, here are some places you can get music. I’ve never met these kids. It’s great. In Battambang, in Kep, often I have no idea where they are.”
Removing the language barrier is a key point. “Our type of music, which is predominantly instrumental, is culture-less. It’s derided by many – dance music, rave music, whatever – but it’s an important social phenomenon that’s beginning to be recognised now. There are certain landmark things – there’s The Sixties, there’s punk, and then there’s dance music. Dance music is an endless melting pot with a thousand million things stirred in. My favourite, drum and bass, is a mixture between British people listening to hip-hop, techno music from Detroit, the sound system influence of Jamaican immigrants to the UK; mix it up and you’ve got something that’s uniquely English. But then it’s big in Brazil, it’s big in Russia.”
This weekend the CUBIK event features DJ Nakadia, originally from Isaan in Thailand, a former farm girl and factory worker who is now based in Berlin and has become one of the biggest stars in the world of techno. “She went to Germany, where she saw a female German DJ, Marusha, and said hey, I can do this. It’s not playing an instrument, but in the end, proper DJing is the same thing: sharing your love for the music with other people. It’s like curation, and at the same time showing your enthusiasm.
“And the Germans are serious about their dance music, they don’t tolerate frauds or fakes. They want authenticity. They don’t really care about the backstory. Are you going to play the good music? It’s a very unforgiving atmosphere there. And she’s succeeded. If she can do it, then it shows it can be done. She had to put up with a lot of misogynistic and racist attitudes, attempting to match it with the men of dance music. Now she’s massive – the biggest booking we’ve ever had. An incredible star in Berlin.”
For Phnom Penh Underground, the challenges match the excitement. “Like everything, you’ve got to do things as well as you can. You’ve got to get the little things right. We’ve got expectations from sponsors, expectations from partners, expectations from DJs, managers, booking agents – they will all be coming to this event to see what Cambodia can do.”