Dee Peyok Q&A

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pic – Martin Jay

Dee Peyok is a writer from the UK. She has spent the last six months in Cambodia researching a new book about the ‘Golden Age’ of Cambodian rock’n’roll music of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Now back in London, Dee found time to answer a few questions for Leng Pleng.

How is the book coming
along and do you have a working title?

The book is coming along
well, thanks. The idea of writing this book was conceived eighteen
months ago, following my first visit to Cambodia. I spent the first
thirteen months in London researching and saving to fund the project
– scrupulously penny-pinching, scouring every corner of the
world-wide web, digging through the repository of the British Museum
– anything I could find outside of Cambodia itself, about the music
of Cambodia’s golden age. Then six months ago, I headed back to The
Kingdom to seek out the musicians who created this music and listen
to their stories. It was an adventure and I met some incredible
people along the way who graciously bestowed on me their time and
their histories. I took away a jigsaw puzzle which I am slowly
piecing together. There are more musicians I would like to talk to in
the USA and Europe next year for those final missing pieces, which I
am currently making plans for.
As for a working title –
emphasis on working – ‘Away from Beloved Lover, The
Music of Cambodia’s Golden Age‘.
The title comes from the first song I heard by Sinn Sisamouth, and
therefore holds a particular significance for me.
How does a writer from
London hear about Cambodian rock’n’roll of the 1960’s and 1970’s?
Does this cult music have an international audience now?
Music has always been in
my blood, and such an important part of my life. My palate is
insatiable and I have a particular interest in how the music of
western, eastern and southern continents have influenced each other
and shaped our music today. I grew up learning how African music
inspired the blues, how Indian folk music influenced jazz, how
European immigrants created country music in the Appalachian
mountains. As I grew older and my palate drew on wider sources I started to
discover bands like Zambian prog-rock band, Witch, Brazilian
psychedelic rock band, Os Mutantes, Indonesian garage rock girl band,
Dara Puspita, to name a few. I am fascinated by the merging of
multiple musical influences, that span continents and time to create
music that is vehemently unique. The music created in Cambodia in
the 1960s-1975 stands alone. Working in record shops people would
say, “you should check out Cambodian music from the 1960s”
but I didn’t take the plunge until I came to Cambodia for the first
time at the end of 2012. I had a friend living in Phnom Penh who told
me where I could get a download, so off we trotted to Boom Boom
records to get that first taste. My husband and I played the music
constantly, repeatedly, for months. We were hooked, and the more I
listened to this music the more I wanted to know about it; who were
these singers, these musicians, where did these musical influences
come from, what instruments were they playing, what were their
stories? I wish that a Cambodian had written this book (with an
English translation also available to answer my burning questions)
rather than someone like me who has not grown up around this music,
does not have it inherently in their blood, does not speak the
language, however loves it all the same. I have been fortunate that
my passion has been received well by the people I have interviewed.
As to whether they think I’m crazy, that is for them to say!
I definitely think that
Cambodian music from this era does have an international audience,
from the decks of Californian psyche dens to world music aficionados
to rare record enthusiasts. I believe with the upcoming release of
John Pirozzi’s ‘Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten’ documentary, this
audience will grow further.
Visiting Sinn Sisamouth’s house in Stung Treng, pic – Martin Jay

Can you tell me about
your magic moment on Bokor Mountain – the first time you heard the
music of Sinn Sisamouth?

It was January 2013. My
husband, Kevin and I had hired a clapped-out one speed moped which
suffered three punctures on the way up Bokor Mountain. One of the
things I love about Cambodia is that when things go bad, there are
always ingenious engineers, opportunists and mavericks that come out
of the woodwork – or in this case the jungle – to help fix a problem.
We met an elderly man who managed to temporarily fix our punctures
and we made it to the cool air and staggering views at the peak of
Bokor, surrounded by its colonial remnants. As we took in the sight
of the abandoned casino with its fresh white render, distant music
was edging closer. Our memory synapses were having a work-out with
“is it?” “No, it’s on the edge of my tongue..”
“what is that song? I know that song!” And then it came to
us, the melody of ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procol Harum bursting out
of the speakers, but there was something not quite right. We followed
the ghettoblaster resting on this stranger’s shoulder, entranced, as
all three side-by-side we climbed the steps into the old Casino. The
warm tones of the Farfisa organ were bouncing off the walls, the
drums built and all the instruments rose together to fill the empty
space with this euphoria, and then a voice like silk cut through. It
was Sinn Sisamouth and his version of this song, ‘Away from Beloved
Lover’. We stood in columns, captivated for the entire song.You interviewed more
than thirty people for your book, travelling all around Cambodia in a
short space of time. Which place was most difficult to leave?

Each place (or more
accurately, the people who made each place) had its own special
merits, from the wilds of Stung Treng in the north-east to Battambang
in the west, to Kampong Chhnang in the middle, to the tranquil Kampot
countryside in the south. The book took me on adventures all over the
country, and the hospitality I received from the people I interviewed
was overwhelming at times, and unforgettable. But I would have to say
the capital, Phnom Penh was the hardest place to leave. Not only were
most of the people I interviewed based there, but we settled there.
We made friends, we worked, we played in Phnom Penh. From 1960’s/70’s
musicians and their families, to music archivists, researchers,
translators, historians, and the new generation of music-makers, the
majority of people I worked with and played with lived in the city.
People are what make a place and it was extremely hard to leave this
one.
Sharing Pchum Ben 2014 in Battambang with Ros Sabouen

How did you get on
with Cambodian food and drink? Any adventurous meals?

I love Cambodian food.
I’d have to say that my favourite dish is not any of the classics:
amok or loc lac, but the fried ginger. However, I’m not sure if it
is primarily Cambodian or more of a South-East Asian dish, as I have
seen it on the menu in Thai restaurants? Any comments welcome! In any
case, I must have sampled the dish in most of the places that serve
it, and no one makes it the same. The salted fish that my friend Oro
adores is pretty good too. My husband and I were treated to dinner by
a member of the Royal Family who was a great friend to me in my
research. He insisted on choosing the dishes and opened me up to new
and exquisite tastes. My husband and I often cook Cambodian food in
England. What is wonderful about it is the simplicity of simply using
a few key – and always fresh – ingredients that just work so well
together. There are a few things I didn’t try; the rice wine, the
fried crickets, but there is always next time… I did try a
tarantula and it tasted quite good, like KFC but without the greasy,
guilty digestion that follows.
Any plans to return to
Cambodia soon?
Without a doubt we will
return. There are things that I need to do here to progress the book
at this stage which will take time, but I am not ruling out a return
to Cambodia for further research. I fell in love with Cambodia the
first time I came here. The past 6 months and this book have only
deepened my ties with The Kingdom of Wonder. Cambodia has our hearts
and it is not a question of if we return, but when. 

– DEE PEYOK

 Check out Dee’s travel
blog, 6 Months in Phnom Penh, which relates some of her
experiences in Cambodia.

 

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