2020, or The Year Phnom Penh Became the Live Music Capital of the World

This year started as the preceding few did: Phnom Penh had increasingly been on the itinerary of bands passing through South East Asia, there were new venues and musical projects growing, and, despite a trend of lower high seasons, no reason to expect any radical change.  How wrong we were.

Back in March, leading up to the Tuesday night celebration of St Patrick’s Day, gigs for the following weekend began to be cancelled, and by Thursday 19 it was all over.  The gear was packed up and we waited to see what would happen next; some packed up everything and returned to from whence they had come, in many cases dodging flight cancellations left and right.

But at the same time action was being taken.  Farm to Table switched to livestreaming their Acoustic Friday gigs, while Mimi and the Merrymakers initiated weekly kids’ music livestreams that continued until schools reopened, there was a bunch of people videoing themselves playing in living rooms and balconies, and Marianna & Joe set up regular weekly livestreams.  Wood House and Mee Cha Records got musicians together for jams that were then shared on-line, plus putting together a single video release, Corona!, featuring Mike D and Yaco; Boxchords and PRERNA went onto Instagram.  By the end of March, the first of the Sssessionsss videos was posted to YouTube, some energetically amateur tomfoolery that produced a show a week for ten weeks.  There was also the debut of a number of new presenters on Kampot Radio, delivering content via distance.

Keiko Kitamura and Colin Grafton: enmasked in March 

Different venues had different approaches to the dry days of April and May.  Some closed, some introduced social distancing measures.   The Sunday Sundowner Sessions at Tacos Kokopelli continued in acoustic mode.  Many places that normally had gigs opted to open slowly but without music.

By the beginning of June things started to get back to normal, albeit with audiences at first somewhat tentative.  It was then that we entered a period when Phnom Penh really did become the live music capital of the world.  In our bubble of activity, our friends around the world were scratching their heads at us – how was it that we were playing and attending gigs?

Maki Orkestr at Alchemy, 3 October

And the two-month break brought some new energy and new venues online.  Italian restaurant Green Pepper was an early mover, with Intan Andriana and Metta Legita leading with Friday jazz nights, each week with different themes and guests.  Boran House kicked off as host of the Pay The Piper series of concerts experimenting with door charges.  The Box Office expanded both its music programme and its size – the new room boasts a drum kit.  Bouchon have added a regular Friday Khmer music night to their long-running Wednesday night gigs.  In the last few months we’ve said hello to Little Susie and goodbye to LF Social ClubSharky had another try at being a rock’n’roll bar and appears to have retreated again.  Alchemy continues to host and Oscar’s on the Corner keeps on keeping on.

For new music, we were graced by the sudden rise and dissolution of Blood Bricks, RAGE JAM and The Conspiracy Theory, the appearance of Funan Beat Empire, Maki Orkestr, Little Thieves, Rocket Science and TheBlueSouls; on the horizon we have first world problems, But Of Course and Fathers of Medicine.  There were new recording releases by The Schkoots, RJ Marshall, Gone Marshall, Channthy Cha Cha, and our adopted friends Geography of the Moon and Jared Bibler.  We saw the return of the Cambodia Country Band, the development of Blues Routes, and a range of new solo performers, such as Ieva Zdram, Lewis McTie and Gareth Bawden.  And acoustic music finally finds a place at Oscar’s.  Passion projects and alternative ways to remunerate performers were explored – it’s got us being collectively creative.

As schkoot as ever: The Schkoots at Oscar’s on the Corner, 28 November

This year was a time when many long time figures in the music scene moved on to their next steps – including Rhiannon Johnson, Carrie Herbert, Phillipe Javelle, Saska Chewan.  Others seem less likely to stay away from Cambodia – Vanntin Hoeurn, Mark Chattaway and Ernie Buck have likely not seen their last Phnom Penh stages.

The November 3 and November 28 events notwithstanding we appear to be heading into the new year a little more cautious than before, but with good potential in the tank to keep the music alive in Cambodia.

So that’s Leng Pleng’s version of the year – we now call on players and punters alike to contribute your musical highlights of the year we shan’t forget in a hurry, the year Phnom Penh was the livest musical city in the world.

Stay safe out there, and see you around the traps.

your correspondent,

Guillermo Wheremount

p.s. special thanks to photographer Steve Porte for more of his unflagging work and generosity this year

Adios, amigo, and out: Blood Bricks at Oscar’s on the Corner, 14 November

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