Cambodian band aims to revive music almost eliminated by Khmer Rouge

A Cambodian woman has formed a rock band with an Australian musician to bring Cambodian to the world after years of being silenced by the Khmer Rouge.

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    The Cambodian Space Project performs in Phnom Penh.
    Jared Ferrie
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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Srey Thy has come a long way from her village in one of Cambodia’s poorest provinces to performing throughout the world. And her music has had a similarly arduous journey.

Ms. Thy sings with the Cambodian Space Project, a band recapturing a musical legacy nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. After taking power in 1975, the regime targeted intellectuals and artists, and many musicians were executed or died in labor camps.

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But Cambodians like Thy’s mother, who came of age in the 1960s, never forgot the music of that era, a fusion of Western garage rock and Khmer vocals. “I always sang because I heard my mom singing every day,” Thy recalls.

At the age of 19, Thy moved to the capital to pursue a singing career in karaoke clubs. But the lines between the karaoke scene and the sex trade are blurred, and Thy had “a lot of bad experiences.”

She eventually quit, and was working as a waitress when she met Australian musician Julien Paulson. He was hooked on Khmer rock and looking around for a collaborator.

The band played its first gig in December 2009 and performed in Hong Kong just a few months later. “When I came back after five days in Hong Kong, I felt like I had just woken up from a dream,” says Thy, recalling her first trip out of Cambodia.

The band has since traveled to Australia and France, and they are booked to play in the “South by Southwest” music festival in Austin, Texas, this March.

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