The Cambodian Space Project, an Australian-Cambodian band, played to a packed Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, last week, showcasing their unique brand of Khmer-inspired psychedelic rock.
The band, fronted by Cambodian singer Kak Chanthy, drew a crowd of hundreds to hear both old and new tracks such as “I Am Sixteen”, “Sweet Love”, and “Whiskey Cambodia”.
As Chanthy prepared to go on stage, she told VOA Khmer that despite not understanding the lyrics, her songs had proved popular with Americans.
“They cannot speak Khmer, and I sing in Khmer ... so they are very happy that I am performing on a big stage. It makes me feel amazing and I cannot believe it,” she said.
“When I perform, I just smile and dance. The applause is so overwhelming. Sometimes there are thousands of them. I can’t believe it. I sometimes cry because they cannot even understand the language but they value Khmer art.”
Inspired by the great artists of Cambodia’s golden era of the 1960s, the band aims to revive the country’s lost rock'n'roll scene, which was wiped out during the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
American music brought to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War influenced Cambodia's music scene in the 1960s. Bands like Baksei Cham Krong, Bayon and Draka introduced Phnom Penh to new sounds.
As well as original songs, The Cambodian Space Project performs new takes on old classics, originally performed by artists such as Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron, Huy Meas and Sin Sisamuth.
Kunthary de Gaiffier, a Khmer former staffer at the World Bank who attended the concert, said she was “really happy” to hear the songs she listened to as a young girl performed live in the United States.
“It brought back many memories and I really love her voice. Both the songs and her voice, it really makes me excited,” she said.
She added that by performing on stage in the United States, the band was helping to preserve Cambodian arts and culture.
Another audience member, Alicia McCartney, from Washington, said she was thrilled to experience original Cambodian rock music first-hand.
“It’s such a pleasure to see them perform and to see it shared with American people,” she said. “I mean the song, ‘I am Sixteen’, I really love this song, there is so much energy.”
The band’s founder, Australian musician Julien Poulson, told the audience how members of the band were survivors of the war and had suffered in the past but that music had helped them to overcome the trauma. “And we are developing it further and it’s a way of, yes, storytelling, really, but it’s real music. It’s rock and roll,” he said.
“I have been very lucky to know Chanthy and my group here because it’s something I never expected to do.”