Monday, May 31, 2010

Improv monster

David Gunn (left) and the rest of the Krom Monster quintet from CLA
The Krom Monster quintet made their debut at the French Cultural Center Monday evening and seemed to get the thumbs up from most of the audience. I must admit the improvisational nature of the music, mixing traditional Khmer instruments with electronic sounds and beats, wasn't my cup of tea though I thought some of it was haunting enough to maintain my interest and the flute worked well for me. But for much of it I was pretty neutral. I find music is a very personal taste and some of it simply doesn't get my juices flowing. David Gunn, who is leading the Neak Ta project on behalf of the London-based arts organisation Incidental, was the man at the computer controls that generated the electronic music whilst four Cambodian Living Arts students provided the Khmer expertise on a number of instruments. For some of the audience the video that was screened behind the group worked well, but not for me. I'm all for new artwork and new sounds but this didn't quite push all my buttons.

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Back for a breather

Belle (left) and Chey Chankethya pose in front of a poster for their August shows in Singapore (pic courtesy of Belle)
Emmanuèle Phuon's Khmeropedies contemporary dance performance comprising the cream of Cambodia's dancers: Belle, Sam Sathya, Chey Chankethya and Phon Sopheap, has just played out in Singapore to rave reviews. The artists are back home for a quick breather before they take off again, to perform Khmeropedies I and II in the States in June in New Haven and at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre in New York. They then head back to Singapore for two more shows on 20 and 21 August. If anyone thought that exposing the world to Cambodian dance is an easy life, think again, these artists literally never stop rehearsing and performing. Of course they love what they do but it can be exhausting all the same.

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Psst...don't tell anyone

You'll hear more about it in the next edition of AsiaLife magazine but so you have the heads up, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes, quiet as a mouse discussions taking place to set up what is being called The Mekong Sessions. The idea is to hold a series of exclusive benefit concerts by very well-known international music artists in support of the Cambodian Red Cross and disabled sport in the kingdom. These music concerts will be at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh but they won't be cheap. And if you thought Dengue Fever were a big name, you ain't seen nothing yet. Chris Minko, the guy who has forged a path for much of the disabled sport in Cambodia, is heavily involved and with a fair wind, we might just see the first of the concerts before the end of this year. I'm sure AsiaLife in their latest edition this week, will reveal the name of the first superstar to book his place in the spotlight. You can catch up with developments at their website here.
For experimental music of a different kind, don't miss Krom Monster's first appearance at the French Cultural Center tonight, starting at 7pm. Expect the unexpected.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Thy tops the House

Srey Thy belting out one of her favourite Pan Ron songs
Srey Thy was on top form last night at the Bong Thom anniversary party at Chinese House, with her distinctive voice belting out some classic Khmer songs from the 60s and 70s, particularly those of her favourite singer, Pan Ron. With an eclectic mix of instruments, her seven Cambodian Space Project colleagues did a good job in reviving memories of the golden era of Khmer music for the mainly expat audience. However that didn't stop some of the Cambodians who were there in getting out front to show off their dancing steps. As with all live gigs, the sound balance was variable with Srey Thy's high pitched voice occasionally lost amongst the band's booming sound but for the most part it shone through and she looks great too. CSP are definitely worth seeing when you get the chance. They've been to Hong Kong recently and are now going even further afield, with a trip to Paris on the cards.
I's time to show some of those unique Khmer dance movesSrey Thy just can't stop dancing
Srey Thy infuses her singing with dancing Khmer-style
The Cambodian Space Project wow the audience at Chinese House last night

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Definitive Story of Steel Pulse


If you live under a stone then you won't know about my love of the music of reggae band Steel Pulse for the last thirty-two years. If you visit my website here then I think you might just get the idea. They've never been the best self-publicists over the years but they've been getting better in recent times. A new feature documentary in the works for example, the Definitive Story, showing the band touring the globe, working in the studio on their new album and reflecting on their decades in making music, should soon be out. Have a look at this trailer from Driftwood Pictures, so you get the idea.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Behind the mask

A scene from the new film Facing Genocide
A new documentary film that follows Khieu Samphan for a year and a half before his arrest in 2007 on crimes against humanity, is aiming to find out what the man is about, his personality, his mindset and his past. It's called Facing Genocide - Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot, a film by David Aronowitsch and Staffan Lindberg. It's an hour and a half long and due to be shown at the Norwegian and Montreal International film festivals later this year. Also appearing in the film are Samphan's lawyer, the mercurial Jacques Verges and Samphan's main opponent in the film, Theary Seng. The trial of the four former Khmer Rouge leaders, currently in detention, including Khieu Samphan, should begin early next year.

Talking of documentaries, a short focus on the arts scene in Phnom Penh by French journalist Alexandre Bellity is available on video here and includes a short interview with Belle and some footage of her recent contemporary dance at Chenla. Enjoy...if you can speak French.

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Cry foul

The offending photo in today's 7 Days; sorry if you are eating when reading this!
You'd think that as I work part-time for the Phnom Penh Post that they'd have the decency to let me know if they were going to print what is probably the most unflattering photo of me taken in ages. No such courtesy. In today's 7 Days pull-out magazine, a photo of me taken by Nick Sells (I'll never forgive him) appears in the 'On the Scene' page for all to see. It was taken during last weekend's football games at Olympic Stadium. What was I doing? Don't ask. It's the 2nd time I've been snapped for the picture page and on neither occasion has the photo been taken from my best side :-(

Talking about football, I was surprised, and pleased, to see that a former boss of mine has been elected as acting Chairman of the Football Association in the UK. Roger Burden has come from humble roots to step into the top job in British football. He was a local referee in Cheltenham throughout my playing days and we also worked for the same building society (Cheltenham & Gloucester) for many years, he rose to chief executive, I didn't. He's now the chairman of the Gloucestershire FA and the National Game Board, which governs football below the professional ranks. He was also a leading light in the Cheltenham Sunday League, which I played in for many years and often found myself at the wrong end of Roger's decisions during many games he officiated.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sharing the love

Coming to a bookstore near you at the end of the Summer, especially Monument Books in Phnom Penh, or get it online at Amazon.

Of course it's worth waiting for, but I would say that wouldn't I. With over 60 contributors and more than 125 essays, there will be something for everyone. ThingsAsian Press have already published To Myanmar With Love and To Vietnam With Love. My own To Cambodia With Love is on the way soon, as well as To North India With Love. Books on Nepal, Shanghai and Thailand are in the final stages of production as well.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Anyone for cha cha cha?

Posing between eating and dancing with the adorable Rumnea at tonight's wedding party
Here are a couple of photographs from yesterday when I accompanied some agents on a brief tour of Phnom Penh. I also attended the wedding party of my Hanuman colleague Narith and his lovely wife Davy tonight but was too busy eating and dancing to take any pictures.
Phnom Penh's only working elephant, Sambo, takes his daily walk home past the Post Office
An old steam locomotive stands in the grounds of the city's railway station
The partially-renovated Central Market, with two wings still to be completed. This photo was taken from the top of the Sorya Center.
A closer look at the freshly-painted Central Market entrance where a small aerobics class was in full swing

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Light at the end of a very long tunnel

Comrade Duch in the dock
It has taken more than 30 years to bring the perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge excesses to justice. On Monday 26 July we will at last hear the verdict in the first trial of the ECCC, that of Comrade Duch, head of the infamous Tuol Sleng/S-21 prison. He stands accused of crimes against humanity and much more besides. He's been in detention since 1999 and deserves to remain incarcerated for the rest of his days. The trial itself began in March of last year and ended in November. I attended just once on the day that David Chandler gave his expert testimony. It was clear to me that Duch was enjoying his moment in the spotlight, and though he has freely acknowledged his role as the head of S-21, he didn't tell the whole truth and only revealed what he wanted us to know. His defense focused on the premise that he acted out of fear for his life and whilst that may've been partly true, his culpability as head of the interrogation and extermination center tells a very different story. This man is responsible for at least 12,000 deaths, and probably many more, and deserves whatever the trial judges can throw at him. His remorse is a sham and his guilt is clear, even though his former S-21 colleagues were less than forthcoming in their time on the stand. Nevertheless, the paper trail left by the Khmer Rouge and his own admissions, have sealed his fate. The trial for case 002, four of the leading members of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, is unlikely to begin before the end of this year.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Koh Kong's mangroves

A group photo at the entrance to Boeng Kayak with a couple of community officials thrown in for good measure
It was my first trip back to Koh Kong and its mangrove swamps and wildlife sanctuary at Peam Krasaop since last October when I spent five days in the area with my brother Tim. This time around it was in the company of twenty other travel agents on a fam trip with the Cambodia MSME/USAid program. After an overnight stay in Koh Kong city itself at the mediocre Asean Hotel, we headed by bus to the entrance to the mangrove forests at Boeng Kayak, the location of a 1km concrete mangrove walkway that takes you to a swaying suspension bridge and observation tower that was to be our departure point after a talk with the local community officials. I wasn't overly impressed with the mangroves to be honest, pleasant enough but with no wildlife to speak of, low water levels and more mangroves than you can shake a stick at, it became monotonous very quickly. We then took two boats along the main channel, with mangrove forests either side of us, and headed towards the open sea, stopping on an island that had an isolated white sandy beach and nothing else. Chasing the tiny sand crabs quickly became the sport of choice. Rather than head for the sea as I did on my previous trip, we turned around and paid a visit the the original Peam Krasaop fishing village. This gave us a chance to meet the locals, who were busy sorting out their day's catch of fish, the smaller of which goes to make fish paste, the larger fish get eaten and sold. For me meeting the villagers was the best bit of the day so far. On the way back, we didn't see any dolphins but I did spot a white-bellied sea eagle, or so I told everyone. If it wasn't one, it sure did a good impression of one. Next on the agenda was a visit to the 4 Rivers Floating Lodges for lunch, which will be the subject of a separate post.
These lovely girls await you at the entrance to the mangrove swamps, ready to take your money. Everything is signposted and all prices clearly shown.
Three of my companions standing on the elevated concrete walkway. LtoR: Kelly, Sorphea and Mark.
The mangrove forests as seen from our boat. During the rainy season these roots wouldn't be exposed.
A deserted white sandy beach awaits the sun worshippers
A passing boat heads for the open sea whilst I was stood on the white sandy beach
A young girl joins in the fish sorting process at Peam Krasaop fishing village
These inedible slug-like creatures were called sea potatoes by the locals, but are more likely to be a variety of sea cucumber
These smaller trey riel fish are used for fish paste and prahok
A look down the main water channel that flows through Peam Krasaop village
I take a moment out from chatting to the local villagers with the help of one of my Khmer friends
Most of the women and children are engaged in the fish sorting process. The men are usually found drinking beer.

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Experimental music

The Neak Ta project led by the London-based arts organisation Incidental are putting on their first live event, Krom Monster, in collaboration with Cambodian Living Arts on Monday 31 May in the cinema of the French Cultural Center. Doors open at 6pm, it begins at 7pm and it's free. You can expect to hear from the quintet, traditional Khmer instruments alongside experimental electronics as well as video and photographic artwork. Sounds like something very different as they are experimenting with art and music, as well as involving students from the Royal University of Fine Arts. You can find out more here.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

More from beyond

Sin Aroma caught me listening intently to words of wisdom from Belle in one of the wall mirrors at Monument
I spotted these photos on Facebook from the Beyond the Apsara book launch at Monument Books last Thursday taken by Sin Aroma of Amrita Performing Arts and thought they were worth posting here with her kind permission.
Two of Cambodia's very best, Belle and Sam Sathya, pose for my camera. I'm the fuzzy one on the right.
A group shot of most of the dancers and friends who stopped for a chat after the book launch

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Winds of Angkor celebration

POSTPONED! A fundraiser showcasing the brand new musical Winds of Angkor will [no longer] take place in Long Beach on 6 June. The proceeds raised for the $40 per ticket event - Cambodian food, live entertainment and a video presentation - will go towards local artists in the area so they can attend the Cambodian Youth Arts Festival in Phnom Penh between 1-6 August this year. Find out more about the musical here.

Also in the United States, Laura Mam has been making waves with her singing and YouTube videos in Khmer, prompting this story on National Public Radio. Laura is the daughter of Thida Buth Mam, who has featured in the films Out of the Poison Tree and Rain Falls from Earth, as well as being the main character in two books, To Destroy You Is No Loss and Bamboo and Butterflies.

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Radio whore

Someone called me a radio whore yesterday. Maybe I am. On Thursday BBC Radio 5 in the UK interviewed me about Bou Meng's new book. Today, Radio Australia and their Connect Asia program included part of an interview I did with Liam Cochrane about the pitfalls of a football career in Cambodia. You can read a transcript and hear more here. Radio Australia focuses on Asia and the Pacific region and regularly has news items from Cambodia and neighbouring countries. I did a few pieces for them in December last year on the SEA Games. I am available for more whoring (of the non-sexual variety of course) upon request.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Free at last

A quiet moment for Bou Meng at tonight's book launch at Monument
It was a bit of a rush but I made it to Monument Books after spending the afternoon at Olympic Stadium watching Cambodian Premier League football, in time to hear most of the speeches by Huy Vannak and especially Bou Meng, during the launch of the new book from DC-Cam, Bou Meng: A Survivor from Khmer Rouge Prison S-21. It was well attended with the cameras from CTN elbowing for space with a bevy of photographers and radio journos and a good sized audience. Bou Meng, a diminutive figure in his hat, said he felt "free from the past after publishing the book" and was "very happy my story will be told. In the past I am a victim, now I'm a teacher to tell my experience in DK time. This is my goal in publishing the book," through a translator. Huy Vannak, a former researcher with DC-Cam and now news director at CTN, began his work on the book in 2003 after hearing Bou Meng was still a survivor of S-21, and not dead as feared, but had disappeared for the previous 23 years. Bou Meng was happy to sign copies of the book after questions had been fielded from the audience, with a smile and a new sense of freedom.
Bou Meng and Huy Vannak (right) are responsible for the book published by DC-Cam
Bou Meng fields questions from radio and television reporters at tonight's book launch and signing

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Full steam ahead

This is Bakong temple in the Roluos Group, from about 600 feet up - breahtaking!
The opportunity to grab some pictures like this is now open to all with the launch of a new project from Eddie Smith and his partner a couple of kilometres outside of Siem Reap. Eddie has been given the green light to fly his microlite (ultralite or trike) in the Siem Reap area on a regular basis instead of the one-off permissions he had before. His landing strip is a permanent fixture just outside of town and he's ready to take you on an adventure that you won't forget in a hurry, I can assure you. Call him on 092 533 269 to find out more and book your place in the sky. For a view of what you'll be flying in, click here.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Not forgotten

The memorial at Wat Snguon Pech in March 2008
The genocide memorial that was in a dire state of disrepair when I stumbled across it in March 2008 at Wat Snguon Pech, just 500 metres off Route 4 between Phnom Penh and Ang Snuol at the point where the road toll begins, has been moved. A new memorial has now been built with donations from the local community and the remains of the deceased were moved to the new stupa to coincide with yesterday's Day of Anger remembrance of the Khmer Rouge years. I found the original memorial on a moto trip one Sunday to a series of villages and sites west of Phnom Penh. I was searching for some sculpture fragments in the pagoda grounds and instead found a genocide memorial that had a sign saying the structure was dangerous and was in an imminent state of collapse. The pagoda and nearby school had been used as a prison and killing site during the Khmer Rouge years in the late 1970s and around 700 victims had been found in the burial pits and canal nearby. The prison was then known as security center 103 and the pagoda is just 2km down the road from the ECCC, where the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge are now being tried.
The outside of the old genocide memorial in the grounds of the pagoda
The old memorial was in such a bad state of disrepair in 2008
A lot of the remains had been swallowed up by two termite mounds inside the memorial

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

One big family

Two of Cambodia's very best dancers, Belle (left) and Sam Sathya (right) with one of their biggest fans savouring the moment
I thought we might be blessed with one or two of the dance stars of Cambodia at the book launch of Beyond the Apsara at Monument Books tonight, but to have so many at one gathering was simply a wonderful indictment of the book and its importance to the dance community. The book is groundbreaking as it contains 25 essays from the artists themselves as well as a series of chapters from other artists and scholars of dance. I haven't seen Sam Savin for a few months so it was great to see her before she is off to Morocco and the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music with forty members of the national dance troupe to perform in northern Africa. Belle, Sam Sathya and Chey Chankethya were there before they jet off to Hong Kong and the United States to perform in Khmeropedies and others like Sin Sakada, Sang Phorsda, Hun Pen and Yon Davy simply graced the event with their elegance and beauty. The book's editors, Fred Frumberg and Stephanie Burridge spoke eloquently, as did contributors Chankethya and Toni Shapiro-Phim before it was time for a drink and a mingle. I walked Yon Davy across Wat Botum park, where she jumped at the chance to join one of the dance exercise groups before making her way home to the White Building, famed for its artistic community and where Davy has lived all her life. It was a great turnout from the dance community reflecting the family atmosphere and supportive nature to be found amongst this fraternity.
Sam Savin popped along to the book launch ahead of her trip to Morocco to dance next week
They don't come any better than these two 'heavyweights' of Cambodian dance, contemporary's best Belle (left) and classical's best Sam Sathya
Part of the assembled throng of dancers and artists at Monument Books this evening
The other half of the assembled dance family that were there to celebrate the book launch

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Live in the wee hours

As it was about 4.40am in the wee hours in the UK, my interview on BBC Radio 5 Live with Up All Night presenter Rhod Sharp this morning probably wasn't heard by too many people. Certainly no-one in Cambodia. The news programme wanted some background input on the release of the new book about Bou Meng, which has been funded by DC-Cam and will be the subject of a book launch at Monument Books this Sunday. I spoke briefly, for about five minutes in all, about Bou Meng, Vann Nath and DC-Cam, ending with the introduction of the new textbook on the Khmer Rouge period into schools this year. If you want to hear the interview, click here and it's located at 3:42 of the 4:00 hour long recording.

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Sad day for Cambodian football

Scott O'Donell being interviewed by the local press in Laos
My exclusive article in the Phnom Penh Post today reveals that Scott O'Donell, the football coach of the Cambodian national team, will be leaving his post at the end of this month. He's decided not to renew his contract after a year in the hot seat and will look elsewhere for his future employment. The main reason for his decision is that he's been working with his hands tied behind his back due to the indecision and lack of support shown by the local football federation. There are important matches coming up later this year, for World Cup qualification and the Suzuki Cup, but the federation have been dragging their feet over the preparations that Scott wanted to begin in January and that made his position untenable. In my view, his departure is a massive step backwards for the Cambodian national team and football here in general. The federation are now seeking a replacement, most likely from South Korea, but they quite simply have missed a trick in not fully utilizing Scott's unique experience in the region and his knowledge of the technical aspects needed to improve the raw talent that he's been working with for the past year. It's a sad day for Cambodia football in my opinion. As for Scott, he will spend the World Cup month in India, working for Indian television as a football pundit. You can find out more here.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Milton's memories

Dr Milton Osborne returned to ACE to regale the audience with his memories of Phnom Penh. He's the one in the white shirt and tie.
Two years after delivering his book about Phnom Penh to an ACE audience, Dr Milton Osborne returned tonight to regale them with his 1960s memories of a city he was posted to as a junior diplomat at the Australian Embassy. He focused on buildings and people of the time as he took the audience through the city on an imaginary cyclopousse journey, pausing at regular intervals to fill in the background on some of the capital's existing structures, and ones that have long since disappeared. He could've gone on for hours, his memory is like a steel trap and his humour made this mini-history lesson a very enjoyable 45 minutes. Dr Osborne has been coming to Phnom Penh for 51 years and his love for the city shows absolutely no sign of diminishing. Long may it continue.
Dr Osborne was happy to answer any questions including one from a group of ACE students

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