Monday, September 1, 2014


I've been invited to a special screening of the documentary In Search of Camp 32 which will take place in Battambang on Sunday 5 October. Its an invitation-only event for everyone involved in the making of the documentary which investigates the story of a remote camp site where more than 30,000 people were killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. My good friend Sak from Battambang is an integral part of the film, so I will be intrigued to see his involvement, which I understand was quite substantial. Find out more about the film @

On the evening of Saturday 6, at 7 pm, Sophiline Arts Ensemble presents a programme of new and experimental dance, Tompeang Snong Russey. Three original pieces, drawing on the classical tradition, will have their Cambodian premiere. Tickets are 10,000 riels and available at the door. The venue is the Khmer Arts Theater in Takhmao, and a round-trip bus will be running from the city.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Before the Fall

News of a new movie in the making appeared in the Post Weekend edition today. Filmmaker Ian White has been shooting Before the Fall at various locations around Phnom Penh recently, including the crumbling former Police HQ next to the Post Office. The film is set in the chaotic days before the fall of the city to the Khmer Rouge, a noir thriller, with three unknown actors as the lead characters. It focuses on a beautiful singer attempting to escape the capital when her former French lover manages to find her. Their forbidden passion leads to political, financial, and romantic intrigue. The Australian director has also included a soundtrack from the Cambodian Space Project as an integral part of the project. The album, Electric Blue Boogaloo is described by CSP's Julien Poulson as the ''juke box for an imagined GIs RnR bar in pre-apocalyptic Cambodia... It's our best work to date." The film is expected to be completed before the first quarter of next year, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh. Hun Sophy, one of the main characters in The Last Reel, another film that straddles the Khmer Rouge period and is due for its world premiere later this year, also acts in Before the Fall, as he did in Holly and Clash of the Empires before that.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Four sides to every story

Four Faces of Truth is a historical novel by former CIA officer Harriette C Rinaldi about the relentless rise and deadly legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. It was published earlier this year by Fireship Press. Rinaldi spent 27 years in the CIA including a stint in Phnom Penh from 1972-75. The story is told by four fictional narrators who present their own perspective of the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the damage that was done. The timeline stretches from the early 1960s through to the present day, weaving the four stories, much like the famous faces of the Bayon.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

White Crocodile

A new book out this month has been receiving glowing, if not red hot reviews from all quarters. It's a story that evokes the exoticism of Cambodia but also exposes the brutal realities of life here – the legacy of landmines, the Khmer Rouge and the exploitation of its people, according to the PR blurb for K T Medina's thrilling debut novel, White Crocodile. Set in England and Cambodia, the praise for this 384-page Faber and Faber publication is nothing short of remarkable - hence why it should go to the top of your must-read list. To find out more about the back story behind White Crocodile, I suggest you read this interview with the author @ And if you want to know more about K T Medina, here's another interview @

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Black Roots history

Watch this short video to sail through the history of one of my favourite reggae bands, Black Roots. The band are about to release their latest album, Ghetto Feel. More later.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014


Some people go on to do great things with their lives despite hurdles that would defeat lesser mortals. Sokchan is one of those people. Disabled at 11, this is a 14-minute documentary that tells the story of this highly-motivated Cambodian basketball athlete and coach. The film is Unstoppable Me: A film by Heang Sreychea.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Walk on the wild side

Monks in the Areng Valley
The remote Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia have long been considered the final frontier in ecotourism and the Wild KK Project goes deep into the heart of the beautiful Areng Valley. Started as part of a grassroots community-based initiative to save the Areng Valley from a planned dam, the Wild KK Project ( offers unique ecological tours in the Areng area. Trips can be individually tailored to include walking, kayaking, and mountain biking through lush forests, countryside villages and meandering rivers. The Areng Valley boasts incredible scenery, some shy wildlife, and a traditional village culture, adding up to a great place to get off-the-beaten-track.
Groups are small, tours take at least five days and the cost is all-inclusive. The Wild KK Project is linked to the Mother Nature ( environmental pressure group.

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

New LP for Cambodia

The new LP to Cambodia cover

The latest Lonely Planet guidebook to Cambodia is out. Despite having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia’s real treasure is its people, says the introduction to the brand new Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia, that hit bookshops this month. I agree. Siem Reap and Phnom Penh may be the heavyweights, but to some extent they are a bubble, a world away from the Cambodia of the countryside, it continues. Well you can see for yourself by getting a copy, whether its the print edition or online. There are 370 pages of great tips, maps, photos and recommendations that will enhance your visit to Cambodia and here is LP’s Top 10 of what you must not miss:
1 – Siem Reap & Temples of Angkor. 2 – Phnom Penh. 3 – Sihanoukville. 4 – Battambang. 5 – Kampot & Kep. 6 – Mondulkiri. 7 – Ratanakiri. 8 – Kratie. 9 – Prasat Preah Vihear. 10 – Khmer Cuisine.
It’s obvious why Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples made it to the top spot. LP confirms why:  One of the world’s most magnificent sights, the temples of Angkor are so much better than the superlatives. Choose from Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building: Bayon, one of the world’s weirdest, with its immense stone faces: or Ta Prohm, where nature runs amok. Buzzing Siem Reap, with a superb selection of restaurants and bars, is the base for temple exploration. Beyond lie floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake, adrenalin-fuelled activities like quad biking and ziplining, and such cultured pursuits as cooking classes and birdwatching.
Khmer cuisine made it into the Top 10 so its worth hearing why LP included it: Everyone has tried Thai and Vietnamese specialities before they hit the region, but Khmer cuisine remains under the culinary radar. Amok (baked fish with lemongrass, chilli and coconut) is the national dish, but sumptuous seafood and fresh-fish dishes are plentiful, including Kep crab infused with Kampot pepper. It wouldn’t be Asia without street snacks and Cambodia delivers everything from noodles (mee) and congee (bobor; rice porridge) to deep-fried tarantulas and roasted crickets. With subtle spices and delicate herbs , Cambodian food is an unexpected epicurean experience.
LP highlights 5 useful websites for Cambodia and this blog is one of them. How perceptive of them.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Festival of traditions

Malen and me at the Amatak opening tonight
I attended the opening ceremony of this weekend's Amatak Festival to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Cambodian Living Arts this evening. One of the welcoming party was none other than Sang Malen, the star of the acclaimed film Ruin, who is back home after her trip to Australia to promote the film at the Melbourne Film Festival. Her background is in the performing arts, circus to be precise, though she's now in university, taking film studies.

The main event, after the speeches, at tonight's opening ceremony of the Amatak Festival was a story called Nary's Journey which paired the Cambodian Living Arts troupe with playwright Jean-Baptiste Phou, who has worked on the Khmer opera Where Elephants Weep and Winds of Angkor. Lots of traditional storylines, music and singing as a city dwelling-daughter came face to face with her mother's rural village life. Watched by a who's who of the arts scene in Phnom Penh including many of the living masters who have helped breathe life back into Khmer arts.

A big part of the performance at the opening of this weekend's Amatak Festival was recreations of typical and traditional rural life scenes, including a marriage ceremony. The Khmer audience lapped it up, as the recreations were very detailed and must've brought back good memories, especially for the old masters from around the country who were specially invited to the ceremony; which was a celebration of 15 years of Cambodian Living Arts. Rarely seen nowadays is the traditional headdress of the bride, you can see in this picture. I thought it and she looked stunning. Definitely a tradition that I would love to see come back into fashion.
The gorgeous wedding headdress

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

After the verdict

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal gave its verdict of guilty and life sentences for the two surviving masterminds behind the Cambodian genocide of the 70s recently and tomorrow (Wednesday) will be a unique opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of Case 002 with some of the leading figures involved in the ECCC trial itself. The Chief Judge said in summing up; "extermination encompassing murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity," as part of the verdict. At Meta House from 7pm, in After The Verdict, the crimes committed by former KR leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan will be up for discussion by Phay Siphan, Helen Jarvis, Lars Olsen, Sour Sotheavy and Victor Koppe, the co-lawyer in Nuon Chea's defense team. A veritable line-up of heavy hitters which should make for an interesting discussion.


Monday, August 11, 2014

CTFF returns

The second annual Cambodia Town Film Festival will happen in Long Beach, California on 4-7 September this year. The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh's acclaimed portrait of his years under the Khmer Rouge, will open the festival which will also include RUIN, City of Ghosts, including a Q&A with Matt Dillon, and Don't Think I've Forgotten. Find out more at their website @

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Amatak Festival

This weekend, Friday 15th, Cambodian Living Arts presents the free Amatak Festival at the Royal University of Fine Arts and the National Museum in Phnom Penh, with a diverse range of performances and workshops.  Runs from Friday evening through to Sunday evening. Find out more, including the full program @

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Still on sale

Dany with a copy of To Cambodia With Love
On the way out of Cambodia en route to Thailand, I popped into the Monument Books shop at the airport and remarkably, they still have copies of To Cambodia With Love on sale. The PPCFC academy manager So Dany kindly acted as my model to show you the evidence. The book is retailing there for $30.

If you weren't aware, To Cambodia With Love, a guidebook with a difference, was published at the end of 2010. I edited the book, with contributions from over sixty fellow lovers of Cambodia, and over 120 stories to get your teeth into. Below is my introduction to the book. I think it says it all.

Andy Brouwer's Introduction to To Cambodia With Love
Excerpted from
To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.

How do I describe my love of Cambodia? I'm not the world's greatest wordsmith, so I'll keep it simple. In 1994 I came to this country for five of the most exhilarating, nerve-jangling, and frightening days of my life-and that was it. I was hooked, completely, by a country and a people who've subsequently enriched my life to a degree I never thought possible. Those five days sparked a passion that grew with each of my annual visits, culminating in my migration here three years ago. I truly feel at home, I belong, I love every day of my life here, and I want to share my passion for this country with everyone. To Cambodia With Love is the perfect vehicle to do just that.

Fortunately, you don't have to read my inadequate prose to understand the essence of Cambodia. I've joined forces with more than sixty contributors who know this country as well as I do-better in many instances-and who I'm convinced will inspire you to come and see for yourself why this beautiful land is so alluring. Whether it's acclaimed memoirist Loung Ung eating chive rice cakes in the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, journalist Karen Coates exploring a bird sanctuary in Preah Vihear Province, pioneering guidebook author Ray Zepp riding a traditional norry along countryside railway tracks, or scholar and Angkor historian Dawn Rooney explaining her favorite time to visit Cambodia's most celebrated temple, there are essays to feed your obsession if you're already hooked, or spark a love that will continue to grow after your Cambodian baptism.

I urge you to discover and unearth Cambodia's secrets, some of which you will find within these pages, others you must find for yourself-and you will, I assure you. Wander amongst the crowded maze of its markets, absorb the slow pace of village life in a rural landscape where few travelers venture, discover the unique lifestyle along the Mekong River, and above all, appreciate a culture and setting that spawned the incredible temples of Angkor, the jewel in Cambodia's crown. Fifteen years ago, I was blessed to see the Angkor temples without the crowds, to experience sunrise over the pineapple towers of Angkor Wat in glorious solitude, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Though the secret of Angkor is now well and truly out in the open-it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world-there are still many opportunities to grasp your own special memories and lock them away forever, as I have ... beginning with a few suggestions in this book.

I know it's a bit of a tired cliché that it's the people of this and that country that make it such a wonderful place, but the truth is, they really do. Cambodia is no different. After weathering decades of bloodshed and civil war, poverty, and instability, the Khmer have proved their incredible resilience, and their smile remains as bewitching as it has throughout time. The friendships I've developed over the years will last forever. No one will leave Cambodia without a large chunk of admiration and fondness for the people they encounter. You have my guarantee.

This is not a definitive guide to Cambodia. Far from it. It is about inspiration, discovery, sharing, and above all else, a love and a respect for a country that has changed my life forever, as I hope it will change yours.

Andy Brouwer
Editor, To Cambodia With Love

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Monday, August 4, 2014

A moving insight

“This is an inspiring, first-hand account of personal sacrifice to help dying children, an insight into courage, and a vivid portrait of life in rural Cambodia,” says Alan Lightman, who founded the Harpswell Foundation in Cambodia. He's talking about a new book, published this month, by Gail Gutradt who has been a volunteer at the Wat Opot Children’s Community in Cambodia since 2005, where children with or orphaned by HIV/AIDS live. In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot is a 352-page book published by Knopf. Sounds like a must-buy to me.

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Rebuilding lives

Eve Zucker's book, Forest of Struggle: Moralities of Remembrance in Upland Cambodia, was released last year and is an intimate portrait of a village community in the highlands of southwest Cambodia as they struggle to rebuild their lives after nearly thirty years of war and genocide. Recovery is a tenuous process as villagers attempt to shape a future while contending with the terrible rupture of the Pol Pot era. The book tracks the fragile progress of restoring the bonds of community in O’Thmaa and its environs, the site of a Khmer Rouge base and battlefield for nearly three decades between 1970 and 1998. Events had a devastating effect on the social and moral order at the time and continue to impair the remaking of social and civil society today. Particularly relevant with the Khmer Rouge tribunal in full swing and how communities can recover from what they went through. 256 pages and published by University of Hawaii Press.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Damning evidence

A must watch video from filmmaker Kalyanee Mam who has been given a platform by the New York Times to highlight the plight of the Chong people in Cambodia's Areng Valley. Recommended viewing @
A Threat to Cambodia's Sacred Forests highlights the effects of one of the 17 dams the Cambodian government has given the thumbs up to. Mam's debut feature-length documentary, A River Changes Course, won the grand jury prize for world cinema documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tasting success is always sweet

Receiving my winners medal as the PPCFC press officer

Phnom Penh Crown won the Cambodian League Championship on Sunday. Thoroughly deserved. It was their fifth success and the 2nd since I joined them as press officer in 2011. It was nice to get a medal from the Minister of Sport alongwith the players and coaching staff. They deserve it a lot more than me of course, but everyone at the club does their bit to help things along. The pictures have been plastered all over Facebook and the club's website if you want to see more. Here's three for posterity. Thanks to the photographers, Masayori Ishikawa, Pou Neang and Mouen Rasmey. Crown lost only two matches all season and rounded it off with a 2-1 win over our nearest rivals Boeung Ket on Sunday. That left us 7 points clear and beating the Rubbermen on the final day made it all that much sweeter.
Receiving the trophy, I'm trying to get a picture, far left

With the trophy and Adriano Pellegrino, our Australian playmaker


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Into the sticks

Adorable kids in Kompong Speu
Trips out into the Cambodian countryside should be top of everyone's list. The Khmers are so welcoming and are one of the main reasons I decided to up sticks and come to live here all those years ago. This picture is from September 2010 and I'm taking a well-earned breather with a few of my dancing partners including Srey Keo, Longny and Srey Phen (all sitting), in the village of Khlaeng Poar Tboung in Kompong Speu, where I went with the Cambodian Space Project for a village party. In the photo below, I'm at Tonle Bati and was the only visitor, so the flower girls dogged my every move. Channa in pink was adorable and her English was far too good to be selling flowers, she should be translating business documents for a multinational company! Get out into the countryside now, you will be rewarded with great memories and will encounter lovely people.
More adorable flower sellers at Tonle Bati


Friday, July 25, 2014

Comedy cul-de-sac

Comedy night at Equinox this evening was okay, a few guffaws, at least one belly laugh but I get very bored with practically a whole set talking about drugs. Figures suggest 1 in 3 people have taken illicit drugs in their lifetime, so jokes about drugs are leaving two-thirds of the audience cold - unless comedy audiences are more susceptible to drug jokes than your average joe. I suggest comedians select topics that the majority of people will relate to, not the minority. I enjoyed the bill-topping Graham Wooding but he seemed to run out of steam and tailed off, while Devin Monaghan chose drugs as his main vehicle of comedy.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Chonburi interlude

With Dany, the team manager - courtesy of Chonburi FC
Spent Sunday, Monday and Tuesday in Thailand, Chonburi to be precise. No-one bothers with Chonburi, which is an hour plus south of Bangkok, but we did as the Phnom Penh Crown Academy were playing their final match of their Asia U-16 competition. We lost 1-0 to the home team, the competition faves, on Monday night, but we put up a bloody good fight and I am proud of the youngsters for the battling qualities they showed. Especially after Chonburi beat us 8-3 at our place last week. Well treated by our Thai hosts and the AirAsia flights, one of the competition sponsors, were spot on. The Crown Academy have now finished their matches, ending up in third place in a table of five teams, all from different countries. A much better showing than last year and with 4 wins in their 10 games, the boys did particularly well away from home. The picture shows me in a rather concerned looking pose at the manager's meeting before the game.
The boys and staff before we leave for Thailand


Monday, July 21, 2014

Musical troopers

Judging by the pictures and videos I've seen on Facebook, it looks like the return of the prodigal sons, Steel Pulse, to their Handsworth, Birmingham roots on Sunday went down extremely well, though I hear the set had to be cut short due to time restrictions (there were suggestions that the band were late on stage). So they then went onto a local pub and carried on the music. Would've loved to have been there to witness it. Not sure when my next opportunity to see the band play live will happen - I think the last time I saw them in person was way back in late 2005...can that be right? Nearly a decade ago!


Friday, July 18, 2014

Belly laughs required

The Comedy Club Cambodia returns to Equinox on Friday July 25. Thailand-based comedian Graham Wooding from the UK will headline a brilliant line up of top acts for just $3. Starts at 9pm and supporting sets will come from Saigon stalwart Devin Monaghan of the US and pioneering Cambodian comic Vatthina Tola, while Scottish rib-tickler Roddy Fraser will compere. With recent events inside and outside the Kingdom, we will need some cheering up.


Deepest sympathies

The loss of life on the Malaysia MH17 yesterday was a devastating tragedy. It crashed on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, in circumstances that are still not clear. It became even more acute when I heard that Lidwina, a colleague of mine at Phnom Penh Crown - she's the team's physio - lost her brother Tallander on the flight. He was coming to Asia to meet his siblings. My deepest sympathies go to Lidwina and her family back in Holland. Losing loved ones is the hardest thing to deal with. I know.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

When We Were Young

Battambang-born singer Jimi Lundy has released his latest single, When We Were Young, today on iTunes @ Top man is Jimi.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

We win again

At the final whistle the celebrations begin
Phnom Penh Crown won the Cambodian League with two games to spare tonight, beating old rivals Naga 1-0. Thoroughly deserved championship success, winning all 9 of our second round matches so far. It was a bit nervy at times tonight but we got our just rewards for doing things the right way. Good guys DO come out on top sometimes. It's the second championship success since I joined the club back in 2011. Hope there will be many more. Above is my pic of the guys celebrating at the final whistle, as well as a few snaps below courtesy of pro snapper Masayori Ishikawa.
Coach Sam Schweingruber leads the celebrations
The Crown players acknowledge their fans
Head coach Sam Schweingruber gets a drenching from his players


Monday, July 7, 2014

Into the wilds of Cambodia

Amir Aczel's new book, Finding Zero
I've mentioned Amir Aczel before. He's been called a pop idol of the science-writing world no less. A lecturer in mathematics and the history of maths and science, and the author of a series of popular books on the same subjects. Seventeen no less. Amir's next book is due out in January and Cambodia will loom large in it, with a reference to me thrown in for good measure. The book is called Finding Zero: A Mathematician's Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers, a 265-page tome that the publisher's blurb describes as follows:
The invention of numerals is perhaps the greatest abstraction the human mind has ever created. Virtually everything in our lives is digital, numerical, or quantified. The story of how and where we got these numerals, which we so depend on, has for thousands of years been shrouded in mystery. Finding Zero is an adventure filled saga of Amir Aczel’s lifelong obsession: to find the original sources of our numerals. Aczel has doggedly crisscrossed the ancient world, scouring dusty, moldy texts, cross examining so-called scholars who offered wildly differing sets of facts, and ultimately penetrating deep into a Cambodian jungle to find a definitive proof. Here, he takes the reader along for the ride. The history begins with the early Babylonian cuneiform numbers, followed by the later Greek and Roman letter numerals. Then Aczel asks the key question: where do the numbers we use today, the so-called Hindu-Arabic numerals, come from? It is this search that leads him to explore uncharted territory, to go on a grand quest into India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and ultimately into the wilds of Cambodia. There he is blown away to find the earliest zero - the keystone of our entire system of numbers - on a crumbling, vine-covered wall of a seventh-century temple adorned with eaten-away erotic sculptures. While on this odyssey, Aczel meets a host of fascinating characters: academics in search of truth, jungle trekkers looking for adventure, surprisingly honest politicians, shameless smugglers, and treacherous archaeological thieves - who finally reveal where our numbers come from.
I think I may come under the jungle trekkers looking for adventure category rather than being a shameless smuggler or treacherous thief. I hope anyway. Can't wait.

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Friday, July 4, 2014

Rainy season edition

yes that's Rumnea under that raincoat
The What's Up magazine for Phnom Penh, which gets better every time I see it, has an interesting cover for their bumper two-month rainy season edition, out this week. Nick Sells of Kampuchea Party Republic took the photo to highlight that its rainy season and coerced Rumnea into being the model, who had to stand in a raincoat and under an umbrella while they poured water over her for the length of the shoot. She tells me it took nearly 4 hours to get it right. And all we get to see are her eyes and nose.

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Beam her up

Savy, in a still from Zero G
It's coming very soon. What? The new video single by Savy, of course. Cambodian babe Savy Som caused a storm with her catchy singalong debut single, About A Boy earlier this year and she's been quick to follow it up with Zero G, which will be out in a matter of days. Think of Barbarella and Star Trek and you are on the right track. Her Sci Fi-inspired new single, much of which was shot precisely where a slew of Star Trek episodes and scenes from the movies were filmed, looks set to continue Savy's rise in the pop world. Clad in a black catsuit and running around Vasquez Rocks (near Los Angeles) in the midday sun was a tough ask, but she manages it particularly well. But I will say no more about Zero G until its released. In the meantime, enjoy About A Boy again.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Open-air, indoor cinema-cum-dining

The exterior of Le Palais des Anges
I visited a new hotel at the end of last week. Thirty rooms are open for guests so far out of 70. The top two floors are not yet finished, which includes the roof-top swimming pool and sky-bar. What is open is the hotel restaurant, called Phkar Romyool which has an unusual feature. The renovated three-storey restaurant used be known as Cine Hawaii, when it was built in the 1930s. It was a cinema. So the Khmer-German owners of the new hotel have decided to make the building double-up as a dine-while-you-watch theatre. The only original feature that remains after renovations is a floral emblem above the space where the screen stood. Tables and chairs face a blank white canvas onto which films are projected after dinner. Everything is open to the sky – an extendable roof can be closed if there’s a threat of rain. Painted yellow on the outside to make it look French colonial in style, Le Palais des Anges is called a boutique hotel, but with seventy rooms that's fifty more than what I would term boutique. I have a bee in my bonnet about the term boutique. The hotel is a cricket-ball throw from Phnom Penh's renovated Central Market, which is also bright yellow, so the two go together. Message to owners of all colonial-era buildings, paint them bright yellow, so we know where they are.
This bathtub will be replaced by a swimming pool fairly soon

The indoor restaurant which doubles as a cinema


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reggae in PP

Tippa Irie in Phnom Penh
Tippa Irie rolled back the years at Slur Bar on Friday night to bring his own brand of fast-talking reggae-raggamuffin style to Phnom Penh - the biggest name in British and world reggae to appear here. Hats off to Slur Bar and the organisers for getting such a heavyweight on stage in the capital and hope its the start of many. He belted out some of his best numbers, including Hello Darling, and was supported by local reggaesters (new word) Dub Addiction. A great night.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Steel Pulse - Chapter 2

An early press photo from Island Records: LtoR: David Hinds, Selwyn Brown, Michael Riley, Steve Nisbett, Phonso Martin, Ronnie McQueen, Basil Gabbidon.
It's time for the second chapter of my Steel Pulse story.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 2: Single Success
In March 1976 and closer to home, Steel Pulse entered and won a prestigious talent competition at the Santa Rosa club in Handsworth promoted by record shop owner and entrepreneur Cecil Morris, who ran Rising Star Records and managed top reggae band Matumbi. Jamaican-born, Morris had a penchant for discovering and nurturing local talent and known as the 'Music Master' he later went onto play a leading role in founding local pirate radio stations, Radio Star and PCRL. For the groups' talent contest, bands playing all sorts of music took part over a six-week period before a semi-final and final competition in which Steel Pulse were adjudged the winners by a panel that included members of Matumbi and the JALN Band. Amongst their winning songs were Handsworth Revolution and Nyah Luv, tunes written by David and which beat off the rest of the competition for the prize that included a sum of money and free time in a recording studio. Morris recalls, "it was no competition, I'd never seen anything like it, something big was taking place." The competition's chief judge was Dennis 'Blackbeard' Bovell, the man behind the band Matumbi and a leading light in black music circles in Britain at that time. He remembers, "there seemed dozens of them, they were quite a big band and then they started playing this song about Handsworth. Of course, local boys singing about a local place and how they're going to revolutionise it, suddenly the crowd just erupted." With his encouragement, boosted by the cash windfall and feeling confident with all the hard work they'd put into perfecting their musical style, they went into the Holick & Taylor studios in Grosvenor Road, Handsworth to record Handsworth Revolution though the track was never released as a single. Instead the band decided to record their first single, the moody Kibudu-Mansatta-Abuku at the Bristol Street studios in the city centre. Written by Ronnie and with Selwyn singing the main vocals, 1,000 copies of the story of three African slaves were pressed and distributed by a small reggae label in London called Concrete Jungle, a subsidiary of Dip Records. It was intended as a statement of the Steel Pulse sound, it received an excellent review in Black Echoes and played in clubs, at sound system sessions and on pirate radio stations, it took the band onto a new level of their development. Not one to miss an opportunity, Bovell went onto produce tracks with both Thelma May and Tabby Cat Kelly, the winners of the solo singing competitions, the latter collaboration producing the popular single, Don't Call Us Immigrants.

The success of their public appearances inspired Steel Pulse to expand their horizons. "The money from our gigs went back into the pot, back into the band, to pay for more equipment and travel," recalls Basil. Their live performances began to spread far wider than the immediate locality of Birmingham. Michael Riley remembers, "we were playing pubs and clubs doing stuff like soul and watered down reggae to over 30's cabaret-type audiences. You had to do that type of stuff just to be able to play." Playing to mostly black audiences up and down the country, they were regularly seen in venues such as working men's clubs in Wolverhampton and Wednesbury and the more upmarket Bamboo club in Bristol, the Venn Street Social club in Huddersfield, various clubs in and around London and the International clubs in Leeds and Manchester. They always took a loyal following to these gigs and Colin fondly remembers, "seeing a long line of car headlights following us to our gigs along the then-empty motorways. Petrol was cheap and we had a lot of followers." After initially using their father's mini van to transport the band's equipment, Lee Allen purchased a large green Bedford transit van which David's cousin, Keith Ebanks, would drive around the country. As with all fledgling bands on the road they broke down a few times and had to miss the odd gig, but a handful of appearances they did make, across the Midlands, was as the backing band for popular Jamaican singer Ken Boothe, who'd had a number one chart hit two years before with Everything I Own.

By November 1976 Colin Gabbidon had reached a defining point in his music career. Along with Basil and David, he'd been there at the creation of something special and had played a significant part in the band's early success. However, amongst the band members there was some discord with Colin's style of drumming that meant rather than allow the disharmony to affect the band, Colin agreed to leave. It was a hard decision for him to take as he'd been proud of what they'd achieved so far and like the others he wanted to see how far it could go. However, as he recalls, "for things to move on, it's best for there to be harmony, so if other people are uncomfortable and you're not comfortable, it's best to split and to go your own separate way." And that's what happened. Colin said his goodbyes but remained their staunchest supporter. Replacing Colin in the band for a few months at the start of 1977 was another former Handsworth Wood pupil, Donovan Shaw. In May that year, Pulse played to one of the biggest all-black crowds ever gathered in Britain during the African Liberation Day protest and music event in Handsworth Park. Celebrated photographer Vanley Burke captured the day for posterity.

Towards the end of 1976 the band were introduced to Pete King through the Shoop Shoop disco he ran with Mike Horseman at the Golden Eagle pub in Hill Street. A fellow Brummie, Pete had run discos since he was thirteen and had been brought up on a diet of bluebeat, rocksteady and hardcore dub. He went to see the band rehearse at Linwood Road and both parties were impressed. "I was accepted pretty quickly by the band after meeting them. They respected my opinion on music and another thing that surprised them was that I understood patois, as I'd grown up with it. One of the nicest things ever said to me was by the band, 'you're the only white guy we know that can play a chop on a guitar like a black guy.' That was part of the acceptance. I had a voice in the band and I had musical input. I didn't write the songs of course but they knew I knew the music. I'd got a sense of rhythm which they didn't normally associate with a white guy." Pete remained close to the band throughout 1977 and beyond, effectively managing them whilst they were on the road. At the same time he was quietly working behind the scenes to secure the band a record deal.

By the middle of 1977 the band numbers had swelled with the addition of vocalist Alphonso Martin, a tool-setter by day, and experienced drummer Stephen 'Grizzly' Nisbett. Both were introduced to the group by Hinds. Michael Riley explains, "Alphonso was an occasional roadie with the band and an old junior school friend of David, when he joined in late 1976. He was already familiar with the material and provided sweet mid-range harmonies that sat between myself and Selwyn, who up until this point were the main supporting voices behind David. I was then responsible for working Alphonso's voice into the set, as well as finding a character for him in the line up." Grizzly took over the drums, initially for the session to record their next single, midway through the year after the departure of Colin Gabbidon and a brief stint by Donovan Shaw. Up to that point his involvement in reggae had been limited. "I explained I'd never played reggae before. I'd listened and enjoyed it but never really played it. They had an idea and knew what they wanted to do. I had to mould myself into the band's style. There were a lot of styles coming together at the same time with me coming from a rock and soul-funk background. I formulated an idea in my head and they said to play what I felt, which I did. I also felt like a learner again. The guys were very patient. I created my own identity, my own style, my own drum patterns, my own ideas. I didn't play a typical reggae beat."

Grizzly had first encountered Pulse at the Santa Rosa competition a year before. "The first time I heard them, I liked them. Not because they were a reggae band, but of all the bands around, they had a different sound. They were not the typical reggae band. They were radical. I liked what they did and how they did it and of course, David's voice was unique." He talked to Colin Gabbidon and the rest of the band, who soon after came to watch his band Force rehearse in Smethwick. Pulse also borrowed some of Force's equipment for a gig at Gloucester's Jamaican club. Grizzly's own involvement in reggae to that point had been pretty limited. Force included one Matumbi track in their set-list and like most of his contemporaries, he'd been enthused by Bob Marley's Catch A Fire album, which he'd heard blasting out from a record shop on Soho Road. "It was melodic, nice, it was really sweet and that's the way I imagined reggae to feel and sound. Bob Marley was what turned me onto reggae." Grizzly was older than the rest of the band and arrived with substantial experience having played a variety of musical styles with Penny Black, Rebel, Ray Gee & The Stax Explosion and Force. Born on Nevis, a tiny Caribbean island, in March 1948, Stephen Vincent Nisbett moved to Birmingham at the age of nine and fell into music almost by accident after his schooling in Saltley and Erdington. His parents had bought him his first set of drums, after constant nagging by the teenager, and following a brief flirtation with factory work, Grizzly took up music and the drums full-time when he joined the band Penny Black.

Their introduction to Dennis Bovell was also an introduction to his management company, called TJM. Headed by John Francis, they liked the sound of the band and took them to London to record the sprightly Nyah Luv at Strawberry Studios with Bovell in charge of production. He recalls, "the first time we were in the studio together, they were bristling with energy and signs of being great, they were determined and had that determination. Anytime I said, 'listen lads, go for it one more time,' it was always with the same kind of energy to try and really make it, they were serious about it." 5,000 copies were pressed, the single was released in September 1977 on the Anchor label by Tempus Records and quickly went to the top of the UK's reggae chart. "That was the first song I actually wrote, I give that track a lot of credit. Matumbi was very much an influence on the band especially visually so it was great that (their leader) Dennis Bovell produced Nyah Luv," explains Hinds. Basil Gabbidon recalls, "We'd done a lot of gigs, we enjoyed lots of influences and turned them into our own songs with a ska kinda feel to them. I was into heavy bass-lines, David put lyrics to the tunes and Selwyn would add the melodies. We were different from bands like Matumbi and Aswad, we were harder and more cheeky. We had a few songs at that time like Handsworth Revolution, Soldiers, Bad Man and Sound Check." Michael Riley describes their situation at that time. "The places we were playing didn't change but our audiences did. We were getting a following of young people and our gigs were getting jam packed. The problem was, that we couldn't get a record deal, so it becomes a dead end circuit. You could carry on doing it but nobody would know about you."

The man responsible for putting the finishing touches to Nyah Luv, known as mastering, was someone who would maintain close links with the band right up to the present day. John Dent was the engineer at Trident Studios who took the mixed version and produced the final master copy for production. As the in-house disc cutting engineer under Island Record's Sound Clinic banner, he continued to work with Steel Pulse throughout their Island period and subsequent releases under their own Wise Man Doctrine label, and in recent years has mastered their latest studio output, Rage & Fury and African Holocaust, from his own Loud Mastering studio in Taunton. Dent's tenure at Trident, Island, Exchange and Loud has put him at the top of his profession and he's mastered records for a who's who of the music industry's heavyweights ranging from Bob Marley, through the Police, Dire Straits, U2 and Kylie Minogue.

Their single success complemented the next exciting stage of the band's development and exposure. The explosion of punk was taking place across the UK and London was the place to be. The collaboration between punk and reggae bands was in its infancy and Steel Pulse were in the middle of it. They were the first reggae band to play a white punk club when they appeared on the same bill as Billy Idol's Generation X at the newly-opened Vortex club in Wardour Street on 1 August 1977. Admission cost £1 and Vivien Goldman from the music weekly Sounds described their performance, 'The punks went wild with good reason. Steel Pulse are the hardest new roots band I've seen, and they score heavily on their percussive rhythm section, dub effects jingling just behind the sound all the time, and their three-man-vocal, spreading the load and also broadening the frontal attack. Harmony hits hard.' Also on the bill that night were Art Attacks and the Lurkers. They followed that two nights later, playing with The Slits at Clouds in Brixton and then back to the Vortex with The Adverts and Lurkers on 16 August, the night Elvis Presley died. A week later they supported XTC at the Nashville Rooms, where Robin Banks saluted their performance for Zigzag magazine. 'Steel Pulse manage to maintain a standard of musicianship that is enviable... The music is reggae with a subtlety and a power I've rarely experienced before and all the songs are original material written joint effort style by the band. The numbers have titles like Prodigal, Bad Man, Nyah Luv, Bun Dem and Prediction. But the ace up their collective sleeve is an unforgettable number entitled Ku Klux Klan... The lyrics are sung to a tune that you simply can't get out of your brain, and for me this song is the highlight of the set. You have got to hear this song to have any idea how powerful it is. The lyrics on their own can't possibly convey the anger, frustration and exasperation that the words and music combined communicate so effortlessly. Another number that deserves to be singled out is Sound Check.'

Grizzly paints the scene. "At the time, punk wasn't fashonable when it started. It was punk that took reggae from A to B. They got into the whole consciousness of reggae music like Bob Marley and Burning Spear and they took reggae music as part of their whole curriculum. Everyone else seemed to diss reggae music but it was the punks who took it up. What society didn't want, the punks did. I see the marriage between punk and reggae as a good thing. If it wasn't for punk, a lot of reggae musicians, bands, singles and albums would never have happened nationally and internationally, or as quickly as it did." He also heaped praise on one individual in particular. "The punks and John Peel did a lot for Steel Pulse and reggae music. The first time anyone heard Steel Pulse on the radio was on John Peel's show. He'd heard a demo tape played at the Virgin record store in Marble Arch in London and played it on his programme." Pete King recalls, "Radio One DJ John Peel was very passionate about the band. A friend of mine, Fanny Feeney worked at Virgin Records and gave Peel a tape of the band I'd given her. Out of that we got a live session, recorded at Maida Vale and a lot of street cred." Recording of the live session took place on 31 August 1977, it went out on 29 September 1977 and contained Prodigal Son, Ku Klux Klan, Prediction and Bad Man. An integral but unsung part of the band's live performances was the road crew. Their live sound engineer was another Handsworth school pal Horace Ward, who started out as a vocalist before taking over the band's sound duties. He maintained close links with the group, as their soundman and production manager until 1989, subsequently working with a wide array of artists both live and in the studio after moving to New York. Max Prozelski was in charge of lighting, repairman Steve Keyes on PA, Andy Bowen was the driver and Nick Edmunds and Steve Smith, also known as Billy Whizz, completed the usual crew.

With the floodgates now open, the band went onto share the stage with a series of punk acts like The Clash, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Toyah, The Sex Pistols and Generation X again, at key London venues like the 100 Club, Dingwalls and the Marquee, whilst continuing to perform independently in student union halls and clubs up and down the country. They also played support to The Stranglers on some of their 40-date UK tour beginning in October, "Our first gig with them was in Leicester [De Montfort Hall on 3 October], a big hall, 4,000 people, we were booed off stage with lit matchsticks, cigarette butts and spitting. We pursued the first number and started the second and were just about to stop when Jet Black, the drummer, came on and berated the audience, who turned and suddenly they were well into us. We played, did an encore and everything - it was great, but it's the first time we realised how much power an artist has when the fans are really into him. They completely changed their tune." Pete King gives credit to the team that supported the band, off-stage. "We had great support in the form of our agents Alec Leslie who got the gigs, whilst TJM had introduced them to a great PR company with Keith Altham in charge and a French woman called Claudine Martinet, who looked after the band. Altham had worked for the NME and did PR for the Rolling Stones amongst others. It was very successful as we were always in the newspapers. We milked it for all it was worth, the whole Rock Against Racism thing, the link with punk, the Clash and Sex Pistols came to our gigs." He also paid tribute to other unsung friends of the band. "When in London we used to crash out on the floor of Dave Derby's flat near the Nashville Rooms or Peter and Linda's place in Primrose Hill. Our unofficial photographer and my girlfriend was an art student called Molly Dineen, who later became one of Britian's most celebrated documentary film-makers. I used to rope in as many people as I knew to help out. They included Martin Fuller, a graphic designer friend of mine who designed the logo that we used on the merchandise. We printed loads of t-shirts and very distinctive metal badges, hundreds of them." Fuller, a graduate of the Birmingham College of Art & Design, was a graphic designer for a jewellery manufacturer called Cherish, and designed the logo initially for a silver pendant for one of the band members. It was so well received that the design was then used to produce metal badges and adopted by the band for their single, Ku Klux Klan and their first album, Handsworth Revolution. Fuller recalls, "I was very pleased with it at the time, and so were the band. I don't recall any cash changing hands but I did get a credit on the album! I wasn't aware it was still being used today." He still lives in B'ham and deserves a lot of credit for designing a timeless logo that still captures the energy and character of the band today.

The punk-reggae collaboration had initially kicked off when Aswad toured with Eddie & The Hot Rods a year earlier and it subsequently became part of the Rock Against Racism campaign - aimed at promoting racial harmony through music - that swept the country for the next few years. Grizzly maintains, "It was natural that they'd ask us to join the movement. It was what we stood for. Everything we did was against racism. Particularly when we played Ku Klux Klan and wore the hoods on stage, it became so popular." In a September 1977 article titled 'Jah Punk - the black new wave,' Vivien Goldman from Sounds wrote, 'Steel Pulse are exciting to watch. They've got a nifty line in strongly rhythmic and tuneful original songs, and they're adept at getting people to sing along and dance to stuff they've never heard before - especially punks. I've never seen a band so remarkably in tune with a new wave audience. Pulse send out a message of youth and hardcore jollies, they're forthright and have a stylish flair for tough showmanship that adds the element of tough excitement to polished playing.' On 1 October, Manchester's top venue, the Electric Circus, opened its doors for the last time. Steel Pulse headlined alongside an array of punk bands like The Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division and John Cooper Clarke. As a result, the track Macka Splaff appeared on a compilation album released on Virgin the following June called Live at the Electric Circus. The band were certainly making a name for themselves.

It was a frenetic time for Steel Pulse and in an important change from their punk liaisons, they were invited to back Winston Rodney, better known as Burning Spear, the legendary roots singer, for two nights at The Rainbow Theatre in London on 25 and 26 October 1977 with far-reaching results. Pete King recalls, "The Burning Spear coalition was arranged through Island Records. Because of my contacts I felt I could get them a deal with Island, which was the best place for them to go at the time. They'd tried at least three times before to get into Island but hadn't got past the reception desk. However, I could go straight to Chris Blackwell's assistant Denise Mills, one of the loveliest people I've ever met in the music business, who's sadly no longer with us. As far as I know Chris Blackwell didn't want to sign the band, he couldn't see it, but because Denise Mills believed in them, it happened. The Spear gig was the clincher. It was like showcasing the band. It was a very important development in them getting the record deal." And the night of the second Rainbow performance was the night that they signed to Island Records. They were happy to join Island, home to bands like Bob Marley & The Wailers, Black Uhuru, Third World and their fellow British reggae pioneers Aswad, as they believed they would retain some artistic control, which they felt they wouldn't with other labels. Initially they'd been turned down by Island, as well as by Virgin and others when Ronnie and David had taken the band's demo tapes around a handful of record companies but without success. The demo tapes had been produced from rehearsals in Hinds' cellar at Linwood Road and it was King, who later became the band's manager, who broke the deadlock when his powers of persuasion finally convinced Island to give the group the chance to perform alongside Burning Spear.

The band declined to back Spear, but did agree to appear as a support act, with Aswad taking over the backing band duties (the live performance by Burning Spear was later released on an album). The Rainbow gigs themselves turned out to be a significant milestone for the band and they followed it up by accompanying Spear, one of the band's earliest influences, on his memorable but short British tour with further dates in Bristol (Colston Hall), Manchester (New Century Hall), Birmingham (Hippodrome) and Nottingham (Palais). "The Burning Spear gig was a turning point. Pulse were not a backing band at that time. The only person we backed was Ken Boothe in the very early days during his tour of the Midlands. We bought his popular album, learnt the tracks and he'd turn up ten minutes before we went on stage. He never came to rehearsals. So we wouldn't back even Burning Spear," explains Grizzly. He continues, "playing with Burning Spear, oh man, that was an experience. Seeing someone you admire and respect, we never imagined we'd be that close, you'd listen to his albums, you love what he's doing. You're young and upcoming musicians, still learning your trade and you're doing a show with Burning was really an experience. We couldn't wait to get off stage to watch his show. It was a real turning point and opened us up to a different audience." David Hinds emphasized the importance of his influence, "With acts like Burning Spear and activists like Marcus Garvey, we decided to cling onto those words. At that time, blacks in Britain were in a serious identification crisis and the words of Burning Spear, even more than Marley at that particular time, was what we had to hang onto to pave our way throughout the British system." He continues, "I would say Burning Spear was responsible for the birth of Rastafari in England," This was the break the band had been longing for.

The recording contract with Island was crucial to Steel Pulse's development but it came with strings as Pete King, instrumental in the deal, reveals. "There was one proviso with the deal. My real interest was in producing the band. All I wanted to do was produce and make records. I thought I could make it happen and bring the best out of them. I had strong opinions on the music. Island said the deal would only happen if I managed them. The only way for it to work was for me to manage and co-ordinate them. They wouldn't let me produce, 'we've got to have a name producer, it's a purely commercial consideration,' they said, so I was made executive producer as part of the deal. The deal itself was a 5-album deal worth around £250,000 (although Island only exercised three options) and it was written in that I'd be the executive producer. The publishing rights went to Blue Mountain Music which was great as that was a very special part of the Island organisation, usually reserved for Blackwell's favourites. The deal meant that Island would provide the wherewithal for the album and would promote, publicise and produce the album. The band then had to repay the direct costs of the album's production. However, I missed out on the division of the publishing rights and it took nearly a year until I had my own contract as well. I was very disappointed by that as I'd worked very hard to get them a deal, I'd managed to sell a British reggae band to Island Records afterall, a hell of an achievement I thought." In addition, Island were forced to take TJM, the band's former management company, to the High Court to obtain their release from their contract. The New Musical Express paper publicised the band's signing to Island with the record company's managing director Tim Clarke saying: "We are delighted to sign Steel Pulse, who are established as one of Britain's finest reggae bands." Pete King said: "The reason we signed with Island was that we were so impressed with the way they handled Burning Spear when they came to Britain."

As the year drew to a close, they were featured on ITV's The London Weekend Show and in Jeremy Marre's film, British Reggae, and completed a ten-date tour in December as their momentum and influence continued to gather pace. They'd also developed their own highly original visual stage persona, as Basil recalls, "Michael (Riley) got the idea for our costumes, he was big on presentation, a show-man. When we appeared on stage at the Rainbow, the whole place went crazy. I wore African robes, Ronnie dressed up as a sultan, David wore a convict costume with arrows and everything and Michael looked like a preacher with a wide-rimmed quaker hat. We looked very different and that helped." It was a unique visual diversion from the norm that captured the mood of the time as band members adopted an array of symbolic stage costumes and Riley and Martin donned the famous white Klan hoods. Basil continues, "You go and see some bands and they just stand there and play, the music may be good, but because they just stand there it is boring. We work hard on our act to bring energy and excitement to the audience. They may not understand what we are singing about, but they enjoy the music because of the approach." As Neil Spencer remarked in an NME feature, 'Once seen, Pulse are hard to forget. Sartorially they range through African robes to militant chic to Great Gatsby to tail coats to priest vestments and most points between. They're a seven-piece; two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, two harmonicas, percussion beyond counting, six hats, several beards, five excellent voices and seven pairs of shades... Musically and lyrically, they're skilled and inventive. For one thing, there's a lot of them; they're young (average age early twenties); they write their own material; they're musically skilled and rhythmically compelling, and are totally captivating live. Their line-up also allows numerous permutations in sound and texture during the show. They can sing glorious five-part acapella harmony, play hard-hitting rockers, improvise in-number dubs, throw in some fine instrumental solos, and generally put on a show that knows how to grab an audience and tighten its grip.' Steel Pulse were making their mark.
Chapter 3: A Reggae Revolution to follow. Originally published November 2011.

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