Friday, April 17, 2015

Hinds on early Steel Pulse

Steel Pulse in 1978
Steel Pulse is one of the most successful reggae bands – not just in the U.K. but in the world. Yet it wasn’t always easy for this group. Lead singer and founder David Hinds, the son of Jamaican immigrants, grew up in the rough Birmingham neighborhood of Handsworth in the 1970s during a socially and racially tense period in England. For their forthcoming program “Dread Inna Inglan: How the U.K. Took the Reggae,” producer Saxon Baird spoke with Hinds about his life as a black youth during this volatile period and how reggae and Rastafarianism played a role in the formation of his identity and music. Read the questions and David Hinds' answers @ http://www.afropop.org/16360/babylon-is-falling-david-hinds-on-the-early-years-of-steel-pulse-and-his-youth-in-england/.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

My Cambodia twenty years ago

Last year was the 20th anniversary of my first-ever visit to Cambodia, in November 1994, and to celebrate that seat-of-the-pants trip I wrote an article for my company's quarterly magazine at the time. I've tracked it down and repeat it here for posterity. Reading it now, so many years later, I wish I had been more descriptive about the sights, sounds and smells I encountered, such as the hordes of limbless beggars in ragged military uniforms that invaded the Central Market area every morning, the constant blaring of car horns at all hours of the day, the absence of any street lighting in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap that left me reluctant to venture out of my hotel and the crazy, lawlessness of the city's traffic, amongst a plethora of experiences that overloaded my senses. I was shit-scared at times but for the majority of my six days in Cambodia, I was utterly exhilarated. Here's the article:

Cambodia : A Land of Charm & Cruelty
The name of Cambodia is synonymous with the cries of the tortured and starving and more recently, the murder of western tourists by the genocidal Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths of over one million of their fellow countrymen in the late 1970s. However, that was my choice of destination for a week's break from the rigours of C&G life at Chief Office in late October [1994]. Cambodia, racked by civil war for the last twenty-five years, is one of the world's poorest countries with a population of nine million, the majority of whom live in abject poverty by western standards. Conversely, it is also a beautiful country with a fascinating culture and people and a history brought vividly to life by one of the world's greatest architectural achievements, the temple ruins of Angkor.

The country had captivated my attention since I was drawn to the suffering of its people in John Pilger's 1979 documentary, Year Zero. My interest was sustained as a member of parliamentary lobbying groups whose aim was to bring to an end the isolation they'd endured at the hands of the international community. A fragile peace had been achieved following the 1993 UN-supervised elections that had ushered in the country's first democratically-elected government and for the first time in recent history, the country had opened its borders to the more adventurous tourist.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of my trip was the three days I spent exploring the dramatic ruined cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Flying from Phnom Penh, the capital, to the northern provincial centre of Siem Reap, I was unprepared for the awesome array of massive stone temples, wide majestic causeways, imposing towers and gates and beautifully intricate stone carvings that I encountered. The monuments were originally constructed by a dozen Khmer god-Kings between the 9th and 13th centuries but had lain hidden by dense jungle for nearly 500 years until their re-discovery by the French in the latter part of the last century. Alongwith my guide Soy Bun and driver Somath, I leisurely wandered for hours amongst the almost-deserted ruins before completing a whistle-stop tour of the lesser-visited outer-lying temples.

For sheer size, the vast spectacle of Angkor Wat, the largest religious edifice in the world, is simply stunning. Its central tower, surrounded by four smaller towers, a myriad of galleries and covered passageways and an 800-metre long series of richly carved bas-reliefs will linger long in the memory, particularly a dawn visit to watch the sun rise and bathe the temple complex in swathes of red and orange light (Note: I was the only foreign tourist that morning for sun rise). Perhaps more startling, although smaller and less restored, is the Bayon, at the centre of Angkor Thom. Its most intriguing feature - although its bas-reliefs are extraordinarily detailed - are the giant faces of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, with its enigmatic half-smile peering down from all four sides of the fifty-four towers. Amongst the other temples to make a lasting impression were the well-preserved Preah Khan - a labyrinth of fascinating pavilions, halls and galleries, and the temple of Ta Prohm. The latter has been left much as it was when it was first re-discovered - a mass of silk-cotton and fig trees, tangled roots and vines and fallen masonry, framing an eerie and haunting scene.

Phnom Penh on the other hand, was an altogether different proposition. It is a city in transformation. The once-elegant French-colonial capital became a ghost town when the Khmer Rouge forcibly emptied it of all its inhabitants in 1975. Today, parts of Phnom Penh are undergoing frenzied reconstruction, although life remains unchanged in the city's back alleys, where the majority of the one million populace live in hovels without basic amenities. Negotiating the traffic - a multitude of mopeds, cyclos and bicycles jockeying with private cars and trucks - was a nerve-wracking experience, the loss of my suitcase at the ramshackle airport for three days was a nightmare but nothing could prepare me for my sobering visit to see the graphic reminders of the cruelty inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge. At the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum - a former high school turned into a torture centre and prison - my guide Kin gave me a tour of room after room of torture implements, photographs and other evidence testifying to the atrocities of the Pol Pot-inspired regime. Ten kilometres outside the city are the 'killing fields' of Choeung Ek, where at least 17,000 people were taken from Tuol Sleng, brutally murdered and buried in mass graves. A memorial glass tower at the site is filled with the cracked skulls of some 8,000 of those victims and is definitely not for the squeamish. I left Cambodia with many lasting memories, enriched by my experiences and eager to return to this fascinating country in the not too distant future. (Note: I returned every year until I moved to live in Phnom Penh in 2007).

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pulse in the house

Steel Pulse 2015 edition
Steel Pulse opened tonight (1 April) in the first of their 5 UK shows - Blaenau Ffestiniog, Manchester, Birmingham, London and Brighton - bringing their whole 1978 album Handsworth Revolution to the stage, followed by their usual array of marvellous tunes. Really regretting not busting a gut to get back to Blighty for the first time in 8 years to see them in the flesh at all five shows. I'm sure they will have a ball on their 40th anniversary tour. Reggae music at its finest.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Get along to Meta House

Robert Carmichael’s new book When Clouds Fell From The Sky spans five lives and five decades as it covers the causes and consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s catastrophic 1975-79 rule, which cost two million lives. A Q&A with the author at the Monument Books-presented Book Launch at Meta House on Thursday 9 April at 7pm.
Also coming to Meta House soon will be French photographer Roland Neveu, who was one of the few foreigners who stayed behind when most of the press corps left Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge arrived on 17 April 1975. The few 35-mm films which he shot that day are some of the only remaining images of that time. Meta House exhibits them to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Phnom Penh. Roland will be present and hold a talk at 8pm on the rooftop on Tuesday 21 April. Exhibition opens at 6pm.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Marc and his Space Project

How remiss of me. I forgot to mention that the Cambodian Space Project was the focus of a BBC 4 Storyville documentary earlier this month. Director Marc Eberle's Rocking Cambodia: Rise of a Pop Diva was screened to millions in the UK. Here are Marc's answers to Storyville's QandA on the BBC website:
What made you first want to explore the subject?
One night in 2002, I was sitting outside Phnom Penh’s then most popular watering hole and nightclub, The Heart of Darkness. The street was deserted and a bright full Moon painted everything in diffuse grey. There were no streetlights and no tarmac and the red laterite dust suffocated all sound like snowflakes. From a distance, I could hear a small transistor radio playing an old song from the golden years of Cambodia’s past. “I’m only 16 years old and my life opens up like a flower…gimmie some love, gimmie some love…lalalalalala”… sang the “Golden Voice of Phnom Penh” Ros Sereysothea. It is the same song we have used at the beginning of the film in the pre-title. I didn’t know the song back then and a Cambodian friend at the table told me that the singer was still very famous in Cambodia and that she’d been killed under Pol Pot.
The sound of her voice was immediately cutting through to me. The aura it had was remarkable.
Then and there, I was hooked on the music.
The voice kept singing, it gave me the shivers and I felt like I was looking straight into the Heart of Darkness.
Having lived in Phnom Penh for some years I learned more and more about the music and singers and was looking for an angle to tell the story of Cambodia’s vibrant artistic past with a focus on the era of the 1960s until the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.
When I met Julien and Srey Thy in December 2009, and when they told me they were starting a band together that would be riffing on Cambodian rock evergreens from the 1960s it immediately clicked. As soon as I heard that I suggested I would make a film about them. Luckily they agreed!
I wanted to make a film that tells of the resurrection of arts and culture in a society that had undergone a complete cultural collapse, and a film that tries to capture the funkiness of the people and the culture that I thought was so prevalent in the whole place. Adopting that approach was a challenge in itself. During the course of filming far greater challenges would come my way.

How long did it take to get the film off the ground?
It has taken 5 years to complete, I started filming in December 2009 – 3 weeks after I’d met Julien and Srey Thy, right from the get go when the band started. When I began filming Srey Thy attempting to capture her thoughts and personality it became clear that my role of director/cameraman would go beyond simply following her in observational mode. It became a balancing act of maintaining the formal filmmaker-subject relationship while also supporting her in the massive transition her life was taking as the front lady in a rock’n’roll band. My main aide was Srey Roath, translator and sound-woman, who was also a student of psychology. Roath understood very well the dilemma and problems Srey Thy was facing trying to survive day by day seeking to build a future for both her family of five and herself. Currently approx. 40% of Cambodians live in abject poverty and are faced with the same problems, but it is mostly women who have to bear the weight of it and are sent out to bring home money–whichever way they can. Some people say that this is due to Cambodian tradition and the Woman’s code of conduct, which is handed down from mother to daughter and also taught in schools. Yet, tradition also features the Man’s code of conduct, which isn’t practiced anymore and frowned upon like a relic of the past.
Very early on in the shoot I talked with Srey Thy about what it meant for her to participate in a film and tell her story to the world. Unlike most women in her position she was neither shy nor scared to talk about her past as sex worker. Quite to the contrary she said that she hoped she could make a difference by telling other girls and young women out there what happened to her so that they would know and hopefully make better-informed choices than her.
I kept pitching the film project at festivals and markets, there was interest from broadcasters, but no contract and no budget, so I refreshed my skills as a bass player again and joined the band for their tour through Australia – the only way for me to pay for the shoot/trip.

What were you most surprised to learn in the course of production?
One of the biggest challenges was researching the historical background. Sadly as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to obliterate Culture the availability of documents, films and songs from the period 1960-75 is poor. Research and exploration for this film involved pioneering work into the obscured fields of Cambodian rock’n’roll and Cambodia’s cinematic legacy predating the Khmer Rouge-induced cultural collapse. This work was both uplifting and tragic. During the making of this film I unearthed musical recordings, precious scraps of Cambodian films believed to be completely lost, and other previously unseen archival material.
Filmmaker friend Jim Gerrand opened up his garage and went through reels of 16mm film that he filmed in Battambang in 1971 and found previously unused footage of band rehearsals with singer Song Seng Horn. We also found footage that demonstrated well how rock music and modern dance was brought to the countryside by the King. In the rushes of an old CBS TV show we found a reel of King Sihanouk visiting the provinces with uniformed dancers twisting on stage and the King clapping in the background. Priceless. We found rare documentary footage from Phnom Penh in the late 1960s shot by a French cameraman Jean-Pierre Janssen who was here filming for a feature film that he never completed. We came a cross a KR propaganda film I’d never seen anywhere that was originally produced for the international market with Chinese help, but then never had been released.
Last but not least, I came across the last few remaining photographs of Pen Ran, even one of her singing in the studio, when Seng Dara, music lover extraordinaire showed his archive to me.
A very important part of the archival process was finding high quality recordings of songs as they originally sounded. Most of Cambodia’s rock’n’roll song recordings resurfaced in the 1990s – but with new overdubs that added a new, contemporary punch to the music. Many of the tracks sold at markets and available as downloads are these new and somewhat compromised versions. Enter Hen Sophal, a painter in his sixties, who had hunted down and amassed the biggest collection of songs, often by risking his own life in a time during the early 1980s when Rock’n’Roll was still outlawed in Cambodia. Himself a passionate connoisseur and in love with the music he happily agreed to provide original recordings of the songs for the soundtrack.
The pinnacle of shooting the historic backstory was finding out more about Pen Ran, Srey Thy’s idol (and inspiration), and Cambodia’s most famous yet enigmatic female singer of the so-called Golden Era. Everybody in Cambodia, whether young or old, knows her name and her voice. But nobody knows any details about her life. Today, a total of four photographs are all that remains and there is no moving (film) footage of her. With the help of a group of students we visited a village two hours south of Phnom Penh in order to find out what really happened to Cambodia’s most celebrated and mysterious female singer.

What is more important, story or character?

It always depends on the grammar of the film and how much the story is plot driven or character driven. Each film has to find its own balance between plot and characters.
The crux that editor Andrea Lang and myself had to solve was, how much story and how much of the characters do we need to develop in the shortest amount of screen time and be able to pay it off at the end. Four years of rushes and roughly sixty years of history of Cambodia is a lot of ground to cover, so clearly this film is a plot driven story that requires many emotionally charged moments of telling and showing of character- all told in the best visual way possible.

Which documentary has most inspired you?
Little Dieter needs to fly (1997), Grizzly Man (2005), by Werner Herzog.
Hearts of Darkness – A filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) by Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola.
Favourite Website/blog?
Re Cambodia
http://blog.andybrouwer.co.uk/
http://blueladyblog.com/
http://www.movetocambodia.com/blog/
https://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Cambodia/
Person you’d most like to interview (living or dead?)
Hitler and Elvis.
Best piece of filmmaking advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s only a film!
If money was no object, what is your dream documentary subject?
Life, the universe and everything.
Favourite film of all time?
Apocalypse Now!
Most difficult access?
Long Cheng, Laos-former CIA airbase.
Best recent read?
The Man with the Golden Mind.

You can read another article, by Marc himself on the BBC website @ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1GB8bQ4x19MhhdZnqRFJ1bd/bringing-the-mythical-golden-hong-to-life.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Sarah's in town

With Sarah in the foyer of the Patio Hotel
Dinner at Deco tonight with the lovely Sarah O'Brien, after she arrived in Phnom Penh on a brief whistle-stop visit. Sarah was telling me of her first-ever trip to Cambodia back in 1997 that inspired her to pen the Winds of Angkor musical. She's been back a few times since including when she brought a WOA musical highlights package to the Chaktomuk Theatre stage in 2010, as well as a performance at the Angkor temples. When Sarah is not engrossed in musicals and making documentaries, she's a cellist of some repute, touring often with international artist Yanni or supporting singers of the ilk of Celine Dion or Andrea Bocelli. And a really great friend as well. She's a Nottingham lass but now lives in Los Angeles.

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When Clouds Fell out in April

Phnom Penh-based author Robert Carmichael talks about his new book, When Clouds Fell From the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal, which is due out in April. "My book weaves the stories of five people whose lives intersected to catastrophic effect in the maelstrom of 1970s Cambodia, and explains how the consequences of that collision remain relevant today. In 1977 a young Cambodian diplomat called Ouk Ket was recalled to Phnom Penh from his post in Senegal. He was under the impression that he would take part in the rebuilding of his country, but on his return he was taken to the Khmer Rouge’s secret prison, known as S-21, where he was held for six months, tortured and finally executed. In a country as rigidly Communist as Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Ket - a royalist - was a class enemy. Left behind in France were his wife, Martine, whom Ket had met while studying in Paris, and their two children. Their daughter, Neary, was just two when Ket left and the family never heard from him again. It was years before they knew what had happened to Ket and it took even longer to come to terms with his fate.
Ket had grown up in Phnom Penh and was close to his cousin Sam Sady. When the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in April 1975, Sady, her family and Ket’s family were among the 2.5 million people forcibly evacuated into brutal agricultural cooperatives. Sady’s story recounts how Pol Pot’s 1975-79 rule affected ordinary Cambodians when around 2 million people, or one in four of the population, died. The person linking them is Comrade Duch, the former head of S-21, where at least 15,000 so-called enemies of the revolution were tortured and executed. Fewer than a dozen inmates survived. In 2009 Duch was tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity, found guilty and sentenced to 35 years. He appealed, and in 2012 was jailed for life. The paths of these five people crossed in the 1970s and again in 2009 when Neary and Martine testified as civil parties at Duch’s trial to tell the UN-backed court how Ket’s disappearance and murder had shattered their lives. The book will be published in April 2015, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge."
You can read an interview with the author in The Diplomat @ http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/cambodia-when-clouds-fell/. The book website is @ http://www.whencloudsfell.com.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Off to London

The Last Reel's Ma Rynet in a still from the movie
Onto movie business...The Last Reel is off to London next week for a showing at the Asia House Film Festival in the big smoke on Saturday 28 March at the Rich Mix cinema in Shoreditch. The screening is already a sell-out. Next up will be the Asean Film Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia on 9-11 April, whilst director Kulikar Sotho will then head Stateside to Los Angeles, for two screenings on 25 and 27 April in downtown LA, at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Italy will be the next port of call a few days later and all points global after that. A pretty good review in the Easternkicks website will help too @ http://www.easternkicks.com/reviews/the-last-reel. For local fans of the film, we are beavering away on a plan to screen the film far and wide in Cambodia later in the year.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Savy's a painted jezebel

A new, acoustic stripped-down sound for Savy's latest release, Painted Jezebel, after her previous poptastic releases such as Zero G. You can listen to it on SoundCloud @ https://soundcloud.com/savysom/painted-jezebel. I look forward to the day that Savy brings her gorgeous rich tones to these shores.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Documentary on Haing Ngor

Haing S Ngor's signature
Yesterday saw the world premiere of Arthur Dong's 87-minute film: The Killing Fields of Dr Haing S Ngor, at the CAAMFest in San Francisco. Dr. Haing S Ngor, the only Asian to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, was recruited out of the blue by a casting agent at a wedding to play the heartrending role of Cambodian photographer Dith Pran in Roland Joffé’s 1984 film The Killing Fields. Ngor drew on his own experiences as a four-year survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s labor camps, where he endured gruesome torture and hard labor while his family, including his wife and unborn son, died around him. Though he continued acting, Ngor retrained the spotlight on Cambodia, traveling worldwide to speak out against Pol Pot’s regime and the Vietnamese occupation of his country that followed. He became such a powerful voice that specters of conspiracy still haunt his untimely 1996 death. Veteran doc-maker Arthur Dong unspools Ngor’s phenomenal life with original animation, rare archival material and newly shot footage inspired by his autobiography Survival in the Killing Fields. Here is the actor's signature over a picture of him with his Oscar.

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Easier-to-grasp

The dancers, from a distance
Enjoyed the Lives of Giants at Chaktomuk Theatre tonight, put on by the Sophiline Arts Ensemble group from Takhmao, which gives an interesting new twist to classical story-telling, trying to make it more relevant and easier-to-grasp and getting the dancers to express themselves more, both in movement and speech. The Angels and their whooping and crying brought a welcome touch of humour to the show, making it less stuffy and more accessible, whilst retaining the classical elements that make it very Cambodian. Its on for another 3 days and well worth getting along to watch it for yourself. An all-female cast accompanied by an orchestra and singers.

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On World Cup duty

Va Sokthorn (blue, 6) in action vs Macau: Photo by Masayori Ishikawa
Cambodia battered Macau in the World Cup 1st round qualifier at home today, 3-0 and if they don't get whooped next Tuesday, will be into Round 2 where the big boys like Japan, Korea, etc come into the fray. There's little likelihood of Cambodia getting beyond the group stages of Round 2, but the victory in front of an 8,000 sell-out crowd at the Army Stadium will put the fans in a good mood at last, after years of pretty crappy results, and they certainly look to have the measure of Macau, beyond any unexpected disasters. A repeat of the desperate defeat to Laos in the previous World Cup qualifiers in 2011 will be at the back of everyone's mind next Tuesday. Making his World Cup debut for Cambodia was Phnom Penh Crown's recent recruit from French football, Va Sokthorn, who has Khmer parents. He has yet to play a league match for his club side but has already represented his country, which is quite a feat.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Magical times

Pete King, who managed Steel Pulse at the time of their debut album release Handsworth Revolution in 1978, gives the low down on that time and his involvement in this recorded interview. Magical times. https://soundcloud.com/radio-popolare-roma-103-3/steel-pulses-handsworth-revolution-making-of-mercy-far-i-intervista-pete-king.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Weary legs

The PPCFC staff team. I'm third from left, back row.
A rare photo of me playing football, the first time in 3 years, as the Phnom Penh Crown staff team took on ISF in Tuol Kork recently. We drew 12-12 with the final kick of the game. Miraculously, I came out of the game unscathed. I am the oldest player by a hefty margin and I might find it impossible to get out of bed as a result. 4 of the line-up have played international football for Cambodia. Obviously, not me.

The next chortle-filled night of the Cambodia Comedy club has been set for Friday March 20 at Equinox, start 8pm, tickets at $5 a pop. On the mike will be the comedy trio of Aidan Killian, Graham Wooding and Ray Bradshaw, not all at the same time of course.

Traditional dance enthusiasts out there - "The Lives of Giants" will be performed by Sophiline Arts Ensemble at Chaktomuk Theatre, Phnom Penh from 12 -15 March from 7pm (4pm on final day). Tickets priced at $3, 5, 20 & 15. This is Cambodia's only professional dance troupe and they are very talented. I'm fortunate enough to be invited on the opening night, so I will be one of the lucky ones - make sure you get to see this very special performance too.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

London Premiere

The Last Reel director, Kulikar Sotho
I can let you know that the Cambodian movie from Hanuman Films, The Last Reel will be making its UK debut with a screening in London at the Asia House Film Festival on Saturday 28 March at the Richmix Cinema. Find out about the Festival @ http://asiahouse.org/arts-learning/film/asia-house-film-festival-2015/ - and just for good measure director Kulikar Sotho will be winging her way to Blighty to present the film to the audience. There will be a stop-off in Helsinki in Finland en route as the movie will also be screened at the Cine Aasia, one of Europe's premiere Asian film festivals, on Sunday 15 March. More @ http://helsinkicineaasia.fi/en/2015/02/helsinki-cine-aasia-2015-ohjelmisto-on-julkaistu/. Expect more festival screenings in the coming months.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Under the skin of aid work

Getting under the skin of the NGO and aid world is the focus of a new work of fiction by the author J and his latest offering, Honour Among Thieves, which will be published from 1 March and will feature Cambodia as its location for intrigue and humanitarian idealism. 274 pages and published by Evil Genius. The mysterious J is a humanitarian worker with more than twenty years of experience in the aid industry.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Selwyn's celebrating

A good friend of mine, Selwyn Brown, has been an intrinsic part of my favourite band, Steel Pulse, since the mid-70s, and he and the band are still going strong today as one of the world's most influential reggae groups. He's also one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. Its hard to believe that it's taken this long but his debut single release as a solo artist, Celebrating Black History, came out today. He literally never stops working and supporting other artists, which is why it's taken this long for him to put out his own music. I'm sure this will be the first of many.
Selwyn and myself in Paris in 2004

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Giffen hits the spot


Matt Giffen, a comedy marvel
Matt Giffen was excellent at the Comedy Club tonight at Equinox. Very loud and very funny. Certainly one of the better stand-ups I've seen for a long while. He looked a bit weird too which always helps - think of Rasputin on some performance-enhancing drug and you get the picture. Deadpan Oz comic Marty Lappan is always a welcome addition too with his self-deprecating humour. Good show from the two imports.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Buyer beware

Buyer Beware - Bopha Phnom Penh Restaurant.
Had a crap experience last night at this restaurant, on the riverside in Phnom Penh. The robbers charged $12 for lok lak as it came with french fries instead of the normal $8 version, even though fries weren't ordered. The waiter didn't mention the price hike and it doesn't show in their printed menu either. The waiter was argumentative and bolshy and the manager said sorry that they weren't up front with their prices, but refused to take my complaint seriously. And a refund was out of the question. In the end I gave up as it was only a few dollars but their customer service sucks and I suggest every customer checks their bill to make sure the thieves aren't overcharging. The staff couldn't care less about individuals or couples, as they cater to big tour groups and family groups - their response at management level was pathetic and stubborn and they need to address customer care issues sympathetically before they hemorrhage business. Such blatant dishonesty is rare in my experience in Cambodia, which is why I was surprised by their refusal to resolve the issue.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

4 of Feingold's finest

Award-winning documentary filmmaker David A. Feingold has been involved in SE Asia for over three decades. In March 2007, Documentary Educational Resources (DER) released a series of his “classic documentaries,” shot in Cambodia. Four of them will be shown at Meta House in Phnom Penh next week and the filmmaker will be there to present them. They are:
Wednesday, 18/Feb, from 7pm:
WAITING FOR CAMBODIA (1988) & RETURN TO YEAR ZERO (1989)
Thursday, 19/Feb, from 7pm:
INSIDE THE KHMER ROUGE (1990) & SILENT SENTINELS, COWARD’S WAR (1995).
Do not miss them.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Beauty & The Beat

Belle answering questions at Meta House
Contemporary dancer Belle was the subject of Sao Sopheak's short 19-minute film, The Beauty & The Beat, shown for the first time at Meta House last night, with the intimate interchanges between the dancing daughter and her mum, offering an all-too-brief insight into their relationship and the complexities of Cambodian culture. Belle and the filmmaker answered questions after the screening, with the next opportunity to see Belle on stage likely to be an Amrita performance on 1 May, after which she will travel to perform in France.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Jon Swain returns forty years on

Jon Swain with yours truly at Raffles Le Royal Hotel recently
MEMORIES FROM THE MEKONG
Reporting from the Vietnam War for The Sunday Times, Jon Swain made the world’s most dangerous boat journey. Forty years on, he returns to the river. Published: Sunday Times, 8 February 2015, courtesy of Jon Swain.

How many times in the course of the past 40 years have I dreamt of being back in Vietnam and Cambodia on the Mekong? Ever since I first saw the mighty and mysterious river while cutting my teeth as a young war reporter, the Mekong has been impossible to forget.
For me and my colleagues, many of whom lost their lives covering the war that defined the 1960s and 1970s, there were moments when its swiftly flowing waters were menacing and dangerous, a place of raw terror, bullets, shrapnel, the dead and wounded.
At other moments, though, most particularly when the sun glittered over its waters at dusk and the fishermen pulled in their nets, the Mekong was still a vision of serenity and calm. Somehow, in my experience, wars nearly always seem to be fought in the most enchanting of countries. Materialism and tourism have inevitably changed Vietnam and Cambodia, but they’re still places of intoxicating beauty.
The Mekong begins its life tamely in the Tibetan Himalayas, then, fed by melting snow and mountain streams, tumbles down through steep-sided gorges in southwestern China, twists through the jungly hills of Laos, descends through a series of rapids into Cambodia, then flows at a more leisurely pace into southern Vietnam to meander peacefully into the South China Sea.
It has enriched my life. But over the years since the Vietnam War, the moment for travelling on it never properly presented itself to me. Perhaps this postponement was because, along with all the good times, the pain of memories of the war endures. Maybe I instinctively kept the idea of returning at arm’s length. No matter. Last month I found myself back in Saigon, the old wartime capital of South Vietnam — I can’t quite bring myself to call it Ho Chi Minh City — for a cruise up the Mekong, all the way to Phnom Penh.
The last time I made this journey was in 1974, when my boat had to run a gauntlet of heavy communist fire as it ploughed upstream towards the Cambodian capital. Phnom Penh was a city under siege. All overland routes were cut. The airport was under rocket attack and the city’s survival depended on convoys bringing ammunition, rice and fuel up the river. Several boats had been sunk, and many men had lost their lives on these runs.
I was on Bonanza Three, a rusty old freighter built in Osaka in 1957, carrying a cargo of rice. The risks were high. Before we weighed anchor, the skipper, a one-eyed, battle-hardened Indonesian, showed me the 67 bullet and rocket holes in its hull from previous Mekong runs, including fist-sized shrapnel holes in the door and wall of the loo. Not a place to linger. The wheelhouse was protected by a thick wall of sandbags. The radio officer had been killed a few weeks before, blasted in his cabin by a rocket, his remains scooped up in a plastic bag.
No such dangers awaited me on the Aqua Mekong, the brand-new luxury riverboat that would be my home for the next four days and nights. At My Tho, a delicate Cambodian woman welcomed me on board with a chilled towel to freshen my face and a glass of bubbly. It was a great start to a memorable journey.
I was shown to my giant cabin, whose sliding doors opened onto a private balcony with a divan where I could relax and watch the river glide by. I’d known I wouldn’t be slumming it, but this was a film-star level of comfort that I never expected. In that respect, there was a huge contrast between the Aqua Mekong and Bonanza Three. But there was a common element: both possessed a magic quality that tied them to their crew, and tied their crew to one another.
The food was gourmet, the wine plentiful and excellent. The boat had a plunge pool, a fitness centre, a cinema and a health spa. I quickly got into the spirit of things with a soothing massage that put me in the mood for a cocktail. The staff, half of them Cambodian, half of them Vietnamese, looked after the 20 passengers on board with a cheerfulness that was so heartfelt and genuine, it was infectious. My fellow passengers were mostly much-travelled couples who, like me, had found the lure of Southeast Asia’s greatest river impossible to resist.
What impressed me most was the golden calm. We were constantly on the move through the rice-rich provinces of the Mekong delta, its network of canals seething with life. But on the boat, it felt as if time stood still. Before falling asleep each night, I thought how privileged I was to be once more on this river.
This was clearly a very different experience to my wartime adventure. Despite all the problems that persist here, peace has given Vietnam and Cambodia freedom at last, and aboard the Aqua Mekong, I could see the countryside pass by with a fresh and contented eye. It was good to think of Vietnam as a country, no longer the name of a terrible war.
Here and there we stopped and made excursions ashore: visiting a floating market brimming over with exotic tropical fruit, listening to village elders poignantly describing their wartime sufferings, riding on bicycles through emerald-green fields. Beauty lay almost everywhere, and most of all in the faces of the children.


One day we explored the former Vietcong stronghold at Tam Nong, transformed in peacetime into Vietnam’s largest bird sanctuary. It spans nearly 20,000 acres and is home to a full quarter of the country’s bird population. It is one of the few places to see the sarus crane, at nearly 6ft the tallest flying bird in the world, and increasingly rare.
To get a better view, we climbed an observation platform high above the trees. Instinctively, I gazed down on the great greenness of the countryside. “What do you see?” someone shouted. “Vietcong in black pyjamas,” I joked. There was no one, not even the thread of smoke from a village fire. Just great flocks of tropical birds skimming over waterways and trees in perfect harmony. You could hear their wings beating in the still heat.
By and by, we crossed into Cambodia and soon were passing the first danger point of my wartime trip, at Peam Chor, where the Mekong suddenly curves and narrows to a 500yd channel, an ideal and frequent ambush point. My eyes strained to see again the forlorn relics of sunken ammunition barges. Like the Vietcong in the bird sanctuary, they had vanished long ago.
This section of the Mekong was riddled with memories. We sailed past the ferry town of Neak Leung, where, in a dawn raid in 1973, an American B-52 had prematurely unleashed its 30-ton bomb load, turning the main street into a flattened mess of rubble, killing and wounding 400 people. The tragic error is vividly told in the film The Killing Fields. Now Neak Leung is a bustling town where a mighty bridge spans the Mekong.
It was dark when we passed the place where Bonanza Three was ambushed. I deliberately stayed on deck to remember what it was like: the awful din of battle swirling and eddying around as we took cover in the wheelhouse, the burst of rockets on the hull, the relief and exhilaration at being alive when it was all over and we were safely moored in Phnom Penh. In the present, lost in thought, I went to my cabin and fell asleep.
I awoke at dawn, refreshed, to a vision of peace and beauty. The Aqua Mekong was stationary a few miles from the hurly-burly of Phnom Penh. Kingfishers were darting over the waves and fishermen were casting their nets, as they have done for centuries. The war had destroyed almost everything it touched. But not the Mekong. It was still everything a tropical river should be.
Need to know: Jon Swain was a guest of Aqua Expeditions and Red Savannah, which has a seven-day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia from £4,136pp (01242 787800). The price including Thai Airways flights from Heathrow via Bangkok, transfers, one night at the Caravelle, in Ho Chi Minh City, four nights on the Aqua Mekong (including all meals, most drinks and excursions) and a night at Raffles Le Royal, in Phnom Penh.

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Garrison temple of the Khmer

River Books of Bangkok are publishing, or is it re-publishing, the paperback version of Banteay Chhmar: Garrison Temple of the Khmer Empire at the end of next month, in which Peter Sharrock and others uncover the secrets of this fabulous temple with plans, maps and historical photos, aided by recent pictures from Paisarn Piemmettawat. 200 pages, it's a must-have edition to anyone's library, though I'm never quite sure with River Books if their published dates are correct. Nevertheless, I adore this temple, so the book is on my shopping list for sure.
One of my own photos from Banteay Chhmar

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Friday, January 30, 2015

On the front line

Another book due out, on 1 April from Promontory Press, is Elaine Harvey's Encounters on the Front Line - Cambodia: A Memoir. Canadian-based Harvey worked for the Red Cross in the border camps in 1980 and then came to Cambodia more than 25 years later to work with an orphanage and in a city hospice. Her memoir, 318 pages, will pull at your heartstrings.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Preah Vihear in print

Bookmark 1 May as that's the date that Temple In The Clouds: Faith & Conflict at Preah Vihear by John Burgess, will be hitting bookstores. I loved John's two previous books, Stories In Stone and A Woman of Angkor and with the fuss surrounding Preah Vihear over the centuries, I'm sure his latest book will be well worth the wait. 256 pages from River Books. Here's the book cover just to whet your appetite.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

We will never forget

The entrance gate to Auschwitz concentration camp
Today marked Holocaust Memorial Day as events took place across Europe to commemorate 70 years since the liberation of the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz. I visited this sober place in 2003 and here is the story of my weekend in Poland and our Auschwitz experience @ http://andybrouwer.co.uk/poland.html.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Having fun in Andong

Phearath gets his team stretching
Saturday afternoon was great fun as the Phnom Penh Crown Academy players and coaches went out to the relocation village of Andong, 20kms from Phnom Penh, to hold a mini-football festival with 220+ children, aged 6-13. The girls outnumbered the boys and they all had great fun kicking lumps out of each other as they moved, in a mass, across the small pitches we set up. The unbridled joy on their faces makes these community visits an enormous pleasure. And to see a tiny slip of a girl get knocked over but get back on her feet, dust herself down and sprint barefoot to catch up with the pack is what makes it so worthwhile.
Okay, everyone kick the ball at the same time
Sodavid's all-girl team

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Anlong Veng's history

A History of the Anlong Veng Community
New book coming soon - A History of the Anlong Veng Community: The Final Stronghold of the Khmer Rouge Movement - by DC-Cam and written by Dy Khamboly & Chris Dearing. The Documentation Center spent over 10 years researching and mapping out the Anlong Veng area and over two years interviewing and writing the book, which will be printed in English and Khmer, and comes out at the end of January. Hopefully, everyone's friend (not) Nhem Em doesn't grab the limelight in this publication.

Renowned journalist Thierry Cruvellier takes us into the dark heart of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge with his book "The Master of Confessions - the Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer", an account of Comrade Duch, the commandant of S-21 and his trial. The author will be talking about his book at Meta House from 8pm tomorrow (Tuesday 20 Jan). The book, hardback, will be on sale at $17.

Our very own world-gigging Cambodian Space Project will be pausing in their homeland to celebrate their 5th Birthday and have let slip the following gigs so far, but with more to come:
Fri 6 Feb at Equinox
Sun 8 Feb at Otres Market, Sihanoukville
Sat 14 Feb at The Exchange (Valentine's Day).
More gigs to be announced.

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Namby-pamby

PPCFC footballers in full yoga pose, courtesy of Khmer Times
The Khmer Times takes up the story of Phnom Penh Crown and their weekly yoga sessions for the first-team squad and Academy teams. Luckily the press officer (me) is not included in the sessions - my poor old back couldn't cope! Head coach Sam Schweingruber said: “I don’t think that the improvement will be immediately visible on the field, but I hope we can reduce injuries and that might be something we could even measure. Players will become more flexible and that will step by step improve quality. They learn to focus better and having a better awareness of their body will help in various ways. As with many things in football, we hope to get a small advantage from trying something additional, finding the edge.”
Read the full article @ http://www.khmertimeskh.com/news/8034/footballers-stretch-for-success/.
In my day, we'd have been called a bunch of namby-pamby cissies for this sort of thing, and rightly so. Mind you my day was back in the 70s!

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Great company

Jon and myself in the Elephant Bar
Enjoyed a great night of chat and food with one of Britain's foremost journalists and foreign correspondents, Jon Swain. Where else but in the Raffles Hotel Le Royal of course, where Jon was holed up with the rest of the press corps just before the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975. Some wonderful anecdotes and stories from the man who was awarded the British Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Cambodia and who was featured in The Killing Fields, which formed the backdrop for his bestselling memoir, River of Time - a book loved by everyone who has read it, including me. A staffer with The Sunday Times for 35 years, his career has taken him to most of the world’s wars and hot spots. So we only really scratched the surface during mouthfuls in Restaurant Le Royal, though we managed to cover his stint in the Foreign Legion to his brush with death in East Timor and more in between. A really fascinating evening and thanks to Cyrille at Raffles for being a gracious host.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Grubby individual

I mentioned recently that the infamous Khmer Rouge photographer at Tuol Sleng S-21, Nhem En, is publishing a book about his experiences as a cadre at the prison - and now I'm told he's set up a stall outside the front gates. Presumably to sell his memoir. Or maybe Pol Pot's rubber sandals, or his toilet seat. Nothing would surprise me from this individual. Has he no shame, for the part he played in the murder of thousands of people at S-21? Of course not, any chance to make a buck and he'll be there, grasping little hands fully extended. When he gave evidence at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 2007, showing no remorse, he said this: "Calling me an artist is kind of correct. As a photographer you try to make it look good," he said, before complaining: "My photos are famous around the world but no-one ever thinks of my copyrights." How about sparing a thought for the murder of the thousands of people you photographed, you little .... I hope he gets moved on for causing an obstruction, both on the sidewalk and in my throat. He stuck with the Khmer Rouge after they were ousted from Phnom Penh, finally changing sides - for cash no doubt - in the mid 90s, since when he's been one of the party faithful in Anlong Veng, threatening to open up a Khmer Rouge museum and other such grubby little enterprises. Now he's brought his little road-show to the capital.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Boycott Nhem's book

The infamous Khmer Rouge photographer at Tuol Sleng/S-21, Nhem En, is publishing a book about his experiences as a cadre at the prison next month, co-written with Dara Duong. If he were to donate all proceeds to KR victims/survivors then I would promote it - that is about as likely as me flying to the moon. His previous track record suggests this is purely a money-making venture, as have been his myriad schemes (including selling Pol Pot's shoes) in the past. If you want to buy books about what happened at S-21, I recommend the ones written by the survivors, Vann Nath, Bou Meng and Chum Mey. The latter two gentlemen can be found in person, selling their books at S-21 most days. They are the ones who should reap some benefit.

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