For many Cambodian music fans, March 20 was a heartbreaking day because Kak Channthy – the 38-year-old female vocal of the band The Cambodian Space Project – passed away in an accident in Phnom Penh.
Founded in 2009, The Cambodian Space Project is widely known for their 60s-influenced psychedelic tunes, Channthy’s soaring vocals and playful persona. Since then, the band has released five albums and four singles, toured internationally, and is one of the most widely-known Cambodian bands in contemporary music.
Kak Channthy was working as a karaoke singer in a beer garden when she met the Tasmanian musician Julien Poulson. Channthy didn’t speak English and Poulson didn’t speak Khmer at the time. The two formed an intimate connection through music instead: Poulson brought a headphone and a laptop and played Channthy his collection of old Cambodian music; she was surprised how a foreigner could be interested in this type of music. Channthy then invited him to listen to her sing a song. He was instantly moved by her voice. The song was ‘Somleng Guitar,’ the Cambodian version of Peggy Lee’s ‘Johnny Guitar.’
Their chance encounter became the foundation for the creation of The Cambodian Space Project. They were joined by Scott Bywater, Jason Shaw and Bong Sak.
Talking with Saigoneer over email, Poulson shares how important Channthy was to the band: “She means everything. Without Channthy there is no Cambodian Space Project. She is irreplaceable.”
Kak Channthy was born in 1980 in a small village in Prey Veng, a year after the Khmer Rouge was removed from power. Her upbringing was stricken by poverty and hardship. She recalled her childhood in an interview with Vice China, which was later reposted on the band’s website: “I have at times had very scary situations, you learn to grow up and look out for trouble from a very young age, not much time to be a child.”
She cycled through jobs to make a living: from working in rubber plantations to laboring on construction sites in Phnom Penh to singing at a beer garden. “I got $2 a day and felt lucky about this,” she added.
Still, Channthy was able to find ways to connect with music. She grew up listening to Cambodian music from the 1960s and early 1970s from a small transistor radio in her father’s tank. “I don’t know if music really can change the problems in our country, but the only thing I can be sure of is that music is the biggest comfort in a depressed life,” Channthy lamented in an interview.
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