Saturday, December 31, 2011

Up close and personal

Backstage photo with Meas Soksophea before she rushed off to another performance
I headed for Koh Pich tonight to get a flavour of the New Year's Eve celebrations, where two stages had been set up with another, much larger one in close proximity to NagaWorld. The main aim was to catch a performance from my favourite female Khmer singer, Meas Soksophea and I wasn't disappointed. She appeared on time, sang six songs, backed by some less than effective dancers before dashing off to another stage to perform. She had time for a quick hello and chat as she came off stage before she was hurried on her way by her make-up artist. It was lovely to finally say hello in person and she was as nice and accommodating as I thought she would be, under the pressure of appearing on three stages in one evening. I can certainly understand why she's the most popular female singer in the country as she has a great voice and a personality to match. Koh Pich and the road in front of Naga was awash with humanity and the surrounding streets were chock-a-block, as I popped into NagaWorld with Rumnea, who'd never been through the doors before, just to satisfy her curiosity before we headed back to see out the old year.
Meas Soksophea belts out one of her signature tunes
Giving the Koh Pich crowd what they came to see
There was a strong wind blowing across the stage, creating havoc with hairstyles Meas Soksophea is a more restrained mode
The most popular female singer in Cambodia, Meas Soksophea

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Fabio on display

Fabio Cannavaro, he of the short height, bushy eyebrows and tattooed torso, is popping over to Phnom Penh for three days in a little over a week to bring his Italian charm and panache to promoting Cambodian football, and himself of course. Fabio is no ordinary ex-pro footballer, he happens to have a pretty impressive cv that includes lifting the World Cup in 2006 as captain of the winning Italian team, as well as getting the nod over the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho to collect the FIFA World Player of the Year trophy in that same year. Now 38, but with a youthful visage that belies his age, the Italian, described by some as the sexiest man in a pair of football shorts, will be in town for two nights, 8 and 9 January, during which he'll be in high demand. It's expected that he'll don his playing kit for a coaching session with Cambodia's U-21 team on the Olympic Stadium pitch at sometime on 8 January, alongwith a host of television and media photocalls no doubt, personal appearances (no doubt in the high-class fashion boutiques), sponsor's events, a gala dinner perhaps, generally spreading goodwill and his winning smile to all and sundry. In his playing days, he revelled in the bright lights of Parma, Juventus, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, won the European Player of the Year award, a bagful of domestic league and cup titles before finally calling it a day last year due to a persistent knee problem. Certainly not one of the tallest defenders around, his desire to win, his anticipation and his single-mindedness were his key attributes that made him one of the very best defenders on the planet in the last 20 years. He's certainly the biggest name from world football to ever grace these shores and his imminent arrival is already creating quite a buzz.

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Friday, December 30, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 11

It's early, but here's Chapter 11 of the incredible Steel Pulse story. For a long while I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. It never happened but rather than let my notes gather dust, I am publishing each chapter on my blog, on a weekly basis, to give everyone an insight into this incredible music group. Here's the 11th of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 11: Leaving A Legacy

In August 1999, Steel Pulse were back on the road with Donna and Sylvia providing the backing vocals as the band returned to join a second Spirit of Unity Tour. Donna recalls, "David had said he wouldn't do another one because of the problems we'd had. All of a sudden another one came up and an opportunity to recoup some of the money we'd lost on the first one. We did it. On the second tour was Maxi Priest again, Third World, us and Monifah, a really good soul singer. We headlined again most nights, it was then that I really understood how big Steel Pulse were." The group headlined the world TEVA Spirit of Unity tour alongside Third World, Maxi Priest and Culture, visiting no less than 44 cities. To promote the event, they teamed up with Maxi Priest, Ras Shiloh, Joseph Hill and Third World to perform a medley of Bob Marley hits on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. After completing coast to coast gigs in the States, the tour took in Barbados before moving across to Europe for a few concerts.

Pulse joined up with cable tv network BET in America for a series of tv commercials and on 17 August released a second live album, Living Legacy, for the WMD and Tuff Gong labels. The album, recorded at live concerts in France, Holland and Puerto Rico over a three year period, is a collection of their work over the last twenty years and was again nominated for a Grammy, their seventh such nomination. As Hinds expounds, "we deal with positive forces. It means putting aside the guns, the drugs and all of the things that are ailments of society. We're not here to start a physical revolution, we're just here to open everybody's eyes and let them check for themselves." When asked about the band's longevity, Hinds responded, "The secret is not so much the band, it's the concept. It doesn't matter who's in the band; in fact, there's been so many changes from day one til now, what's kept us together is the concept. There's three general backbones to the band - myself, Selwyn Brown and Steve Nisbett. As of late we've been introducing ourselves to a new audience, new as in going to new places, like in Africa. It has given the band a new lease of life, to be honest with you. We've been knocking around in the Western world through all that bureaucracy in the music business. Performing in Africa was more like a relaxing period for us. There was no industry to convince what we were about. It was just the hardcore fans living, eating, drinking, sleeping the music of Steel Pulse." Hinds was forthright in his views on reggae music. "We love Bob Marley, don't get me wrong. I'd say we love him more than most people do, because we toured with him, we spoke with him on his death bed. We lived his music, everything else, but reggae music doesn't stop at Bob Marley. The actual reality of it is, Marley was fortunate to get his foot in the door and there's been no stopping him or his family ever since. It's a shame no one else has looked at other acts in that light, as if Marley was the only one capable of writing lyrics. There's so many good lyric writers that have come through the reggae domain - Dennis Brown in his own kind of way, Jimmy Cliff with Vietnam and Harder They Come. There's other artists that aren't commercially viable, some of the old-timers, not to mention Burning Spear, who played a big part in moulding and inspiring Steel Pulse."

Much of 2000 saw the band touring extensively in the USA with stops in Anchorage, Alaska and two dates in Hawaii during a gruelling 40 date tour in 46 days. They also appeared at the Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, Jamaica for the first time in three years. This included a first-ever visit by Donna to Jamaica, the home of her parents. "We went to play the Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, my first time in Jamaica, with Morgan Heritage and Joe, an RnB singer. It was a two day festival in August. I'd heard all about Jamaica from my family, though I didn't get to see much of it on that trip. I remember that by the time we got on stage, it was nearly 4 o'clock in the morning, we were due on stage about six hours earlier. I know it was then because after we came off and changed, it was light and morning had arrived. The whole atmosphere was just terrific." They also joined the Bob Marley celebrations in Washington DC, at Reggae Sundance in Holland and a flying visit to La Reunion in the Pacific Ocean - touring and live shows remaining an integral part of Steel Pulse's repertoire. 2000 also saw the departure of Sylvia Tella to pursue her own solo career. "Sylvia had finished her own album (Tella Like It Is). We went to Dominica, then at the next rehearsal there was no Sylvia and Sidney told us that she'd gone to do her own stuff and that was that. I panicked even worse then. I realised I was on my own. Sylvia was the main vocalist out of me and her... I followed in her footsteps and at certain parts of the set, David would have her sing, like Blessed Is The Man, as the main vocalist. She hit some high notes that I could never reach, she hit them every night or at least she tried. When she left, David asked me to do it. I was like, 'no way, I can't do it' but he said 'Donna, be yourself, do your own thing.' The doubts returned. It was hard for me. I couldn't do it her way so I did it in my own RnB way, where it related to the youth of today, my age group and younger." It was Selwyn who gave Donna much needed support at that time and who'd taken on the role of mentor and her coach. "It gave me the opportunity to work more closely with Selwyn, who worked really hard with me. He gave up his free time and we did a lot of practicing, rehearsing and moulding that specific song to me, so that it suited me, made me unique in my own RnB way."

"David was going to bring in another female vocalist to replace Sylvia. I think his intention was to have three female singers. There was a girl called Monique, we clicked straight away, who joined us for a gig in Barcelona and a couple more in France. She was from Handsworth and had been with the group Black Voices. She also did a memorial with us in Birmingham at the Irish Center in Digbeth. We did three songs, Black & Proud, Black Enough? and Islands Unite. That was a nervous night for me, I was on home territory, people knew me and I was very nervous. A few local artists played. It was my one and only British gig with Steel Pulse." That was at the beginning of 2001 and they were in France and Spain, in June they appeared in Switzerland (Caribana festival), Belgium and France, and at the Montreal and Womad festivals in July. The Womad event in Seattle saw 40 artists from 22 countries take part including Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant and the Neville Brothers. Grizzly Nisbett's final concert with Steel Pulse took place in San Diego in August 2001. He picks up the story, "towards the end of that year I started feeling chest pains on tour, but didn't feel them at home. I went to see a Doctor as they were bothering me. I had tests and he said is was Angina, too much pressure causing the heart to swell and I was told not to tour. I wasn't allowed to tour until they found out exactly what it was, and its been like that since. I was expecting him just to say have a rest, I didn't expect him to say stop touring full stop. The way we tour was too dangerous, rest periods were nil so he wouldn't allow me to tour. That was it. When I got home I cried. I enjoy being on the road, its a hell of a shock not touring. Even now I'm still eager to go back out there, but I'm more chilled now and involved in this whole record business and production and I find I'm enjoying that just as much. The only thing I'm really missing are the friends and contacts I've made out there. I don't miss all the crap that goes with touring, believe me I don't miss that. Stuck in an airport for a couple of days, sweating my balls off, I don't miss that. Its all part of the adventure and the fun. I'm still getting pains if I exert myself and I've got a test coming up soon, then I'll know if I'll need surgery or not."

Grizzly had been on the road, with Steel Pulse and other bands, for thirty-five years and its a career that he's very proud of. "Steel Pulse are very popular around the world. What the band is about, people don't see us as a band in it for the glory, we're a band that believes in what we're doing, believes in what we're saying and the fan knows it, feels it and believes it too. Whether in Paris or New York and points in between, everyone knows and loves Steel Pulse. Its a fact." He pays tribute to the fans of Steel Pulse. "Our fans throughout the world are great. Everybody we've met is like that. Nice people, who want us back and we want to go back. Lots of good, genuine friends, met lots of people, Kings and Presidents you never thought you'd meet. From the richest to the poorest and everybody in between. You learn about life. I would advise anybody to travel, you learn a lot more by travelling, about who you are and what's out there." A visit to Lima in Peru for a reggae festival, "it was freezing cold and I'd taken all my Summer clothes to wear!" brought an end to the first half of their coast to coast Stateside tour, as Donna recalls. "We'd landed back in Britain the day before September 11th after flying out of Newark airport," with the band immediately cancelling the second half of their tour as a mark of respect for the victims of the New York and Washington terrorist attacks. Concerts in Holland & France did take place but they cancelled scheduled visits to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Johannesburg (South Africa) as 2001 drew to a close.

Chapter 12: Brand New Dawn (Equality, Liberty & Justice) - will follow next week.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Spanish dance invasion

On location in Madrid. Ladies LtoR: Sam Sathya, Nam Narim, Belle...with Khon Chansithyka up top
The Fab 4 in Madrid. From 14-29 January for 10 performances, all at the Teatro Real Theatre in Madrid, the capital of Spain, 4 of Cambodia's very best dancers - Belle, Sam Sathya, Nam Narim and Khon Chansithyka - will be showing Europe what they are capable of as part of a unique collaboration with avant-garde director Peter Sellars, who will present Igor Stravinsky's melodrama Persephone for the first time. This is a fabulous opportunity for Cambodia's finest, who've been there for a month already, practicing and enjoying the Spanish lifestyle. Leading the way on stage in the contemporary opera will be acclaimed French actress Dominique Blanc and American tenor Paul Groves. In their absence, 7 January will see a contemporary dance show, at a location in Phnom Penh still to be announced, of a work in progress with an Indonesian director, whilst March will bring a performance after a workshop with an American choreographer.

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Out of the Dark

Sam Keo has a story to tell. Like many Cambodians who survived the Khmer Rouge regime and found a new life in America, his story is one of triumph over adversity. In Dr Keo's case, he has turned his own experiences into helping others, as a clinical psychologist working in Los Angeles, and helping sufferers to deal with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as he himself had to. As a child in the 70s he was sent with other children to work on farms. His father and sister were killed and four of his younger brothers died of starvation and disease before they reached the age of ten. But Sam refused to submit and he made it to the United States to begin his new life. Out of the Dark - Into the Garden of Hope is his story, published by iUniverse this month. 172 pages.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Vanda get it badly wrong

Rumnea puts a brave face on it
I felt gutted for Rumnea this morning. It should have been her big day. Graduating in her accounting BA after 4 tough years studying at the Vanda Institute and receiving her diploma alongwith her proud classmates. Instead, she was dejected and upset that her big day was completely ruined by the ineptitude of the education authorities. With over 3,000 students graduating today, 80% of them women by the way, the hall at the University of Cambodia next to the Independence Monument was woefully inadequate. The main hall, where prime minister Hun Sen handed out a few diplomas, could cater for just a few hundred students, hundreds more sat outside under an awning watching proceedings on a video screen, whilst another 2,000 were milling around, under the hot sun, wearing their graduation cloaks and hats, unable to do either. There was no handing over of diplomas to the majority of the students, only the chosen few inside the main hall. And they were just the ones who had studied during the daytime. If students studied at night, they weren't even allowed in the hall. It was a complete shambles. And incredibly frustrating for Rumnea and the others. Their big day, the day they'd looked forward to for so long, was a wash-out. Rumnea fired off two angry text messages to the principals of the institute. She was red-faced with anger. Her mum had come all the way from Kompong Thom for the big day and was initially refused entry into the school compound by one of Hun Sen's bodyguards. Give someone a uniform and they think they have power over life and death. She eventually got in but there was nothing to see, so she left again after taking a few photographs. The saying, they couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery, was very apt for the education authorities in this instance. Rumnea overcame a lot of obstacles to complete her studies and get good marks, she and the other students deserved much better than this.
Rumnea with her proud mum, sister and friend
I get in on the act as well, with the graduating student
Rumnea was so disappointed that she took off her cloak and hat, but still managed a smile

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ladies talk show

LtoR; Nancy, Soma, Suwanna
I listened to the PUC Radio talk show with the Jar Lady, Suwanna Gauntlett and Soma tonight with interest, especially as Nancy will be flying into the Cardamoms in a few days time to begin what might be her last investigation into the mysterious jar burial sites in the mountainous region, which is under threat from commercial plantations, Chinese-built hydroelectric dams and pretty much anything else you can think of. For those who don't know, the Jar Lady is Dr Nancy Beavan, a good pal of mine, who has spent the last eight years studying these burial jars, which contain the bones and ornaments of highland peoples who died between the 14th and 16th centuries. Suwanna, as the chief of Wildlife Alliance, has been working in the Cardamoms for years on trying to negate these threats and help sustain the wildlife populations and help the locals. She'll be flying Nancy and her team to their next, very remote, fieldwork location by helicopter. The team will be working on a cliff ledge, tied together by ropes for safety, for about eight days. Funding is a problem, so that was mentioned of course. As was the individual who gave her the nickname of Jar Lady - he shall remain nameless. An interesting programme, all three ladies can talk, without a breath, for hours. The final talk show gig of the year, at 7pm on 31 December, will be a re-run of the session I did with Soma. The topics we covered were varied from football to sci-fi, Vann Nath to my book. Tune in if you dare.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 10

It's Steel Pulse time again - Chapter 10 of their incredible journey. For a long while I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. It never happened but rather than let my notes gather dust, I am publishing each chapter on my blog, on a weekly basis, to give everyone an insight into this incredible music group. Here's the tenth of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 10: Inna Rage

The beginning of 1997 saw the release of Reggatta Mondatta, a reggae tribute to The Police with Pulse contributing Can't Stand Losing You, alongwith tracks from Aswad, Pato Banton and Ziggy Marley. February saw the release of a 30-track compilation, Sound System: The Island Anthology, showcasing their three albums for Island Records and a couple of rare unreleased tracks. Steel Pulse released another Grammy-nominated album, Rage & Fury, in August 1997, recording the 13-tracks at the Dub Factory in their hometown of Birmingham with co-producer Graham Dickson. The quintessential protest album, Steel Pulse recruited some of reggae's most creative rap and dancehall artists and it includes vocal contributions from Ruby Turner, Kevin Batchelor, Michael Franti and DJs Mega Banton, Jukie Ranks and Prezident Brown. It reaffirmed the group's commitment to fighting racial and social injustice and featured Conrad Kelly, a recruit to the Liberation Posse from their home city of Birmingham for the first time. Jamaican-born, Conrad was another former Handsworth Wood pupil who knew the band from their earliest days and joined them after serving his musical apprenticeship with Cornerstone, Ben Okafor, Ijahman Levi, Culture and Freddie McGregor. His first gig, on percussion, was in November 1994. Grizzly remembers the album, and Conrad. "I remember long sessions, lots of changes. We were pleased with the outcome but never really satisfied. After its mixed and finished there's always something that you could've done different, better. Graham Dickson was the producer, he has an ear for any type of music. We wanted a different flavour, that's why he came in. He became a friend of the band. As far as computers, a lot of what I know now as far as sampling, is from him. If someone said, who would you use to do a drum program pattern, I'd say Graham." As for Conrad. "He was in a band called Cornerstone, who used to rehearse across the road from us. He used to come over to see us. We're two drummers, I'm older than him but we've learnt from each other. His style is very similar to mine. We've known each other for years, he grew up with Steel Pulse, almost a member of the band long before he joined us. Came in on percussion to begin with and then we did the two drummer thing, half and half, I'd do one set and then swap over." It's a partnership and friendship that has remained strong since the two first met in the rehearsal basement at Linwood Road.

Their main single release from the Rage album was a bouncy cover version of Van Morrison's Brown Eyed Girl. The album contained another cover, of their own classic protest song Ku Klux Klan, updated for a new generation of listeners. Tunes like House of Love, Spiritualize It and Peace Party were light and danceable. House of Love was about repairing a relationship and finding a deeper love. Spiritualize It, a beautiful, multi-influenced, reggae dance tune, with strong protest lyrics infused with hope and happiness, whilst Peace Party is a call for unity. Songs like Emotional Prisoner, Role Model and The Real Terrorist are more direct about their protest. Emotional Prisoner highlights slavery, describing the emotional chains that still exist even without slavery. Role Model laments the death, murder and falling down of good African American role models that has marred the past decade. Real Terrorist tells us that politicians working within the system, lying to get votes and power are the real terrorists of the world. I-Spy identifies one of the bad apples of society whilst Blame On Me describes the harrowing effects of false accusations. Rage & Fury showcases Steel Pulse's versatility and also includes two tracks that rejoice in black history, culture and identity, namely Black & Proud and Black Enough.

Another single release was their own cover of Dr Hook's When You're In Love With A Beautiful Woman. Extensive touring continued apace and included appearances at fundraising events like MTV's Board-Aid and Los Angeles' environmental Waterman's Ball. They performed in Europe where they hooked up with tour manager Rich Nesin for the first time in Nijmegen in October 1997. Nesin had previously managed artists like Herb Alpert, Kiss, Peter Frampton and Blue Oyster Cult. Kenneth 'Toots' McLean provided backing vocals on the tour. By February 1998, the horn section of Jerry Johnson and Kevin Batchelor had departed to join Big Mountain, to be replaced by vocalists Sylvia Tella and Donna Sterling as the band kicked off the Spirit of Unity tour, alongside Shaggy, Buju Banton and Maxi Priest, playing 34 shows in a 50 day tour of the United States. Handsworth-born Donna Sterling came from a cabaret and RnB background, whilst Sylvia Tella had previous experience with Boney M, Pop Will Eat Itself, The Blow Monkeys and as a successful soloist. Grizzly recalls, "everyone always said why not try female vocals, so we said okay. Sylvia is an artist in her own right. The horns weren't there so the girls gave us a different flavour. It worked well, both are excellent singers, they added another dimension."

Initially it was Donna and a friend, Slim Banton, who'd auditioned at the band's Dean Street, Digbeth studio and had impressed David and Selwyn so much that they were taken on as backing singers for the group's impending three month tour of the United States in March. Up to that point Donna had no real experience of reggae, she was much more into soul and RnB and had not really heard of the band either, let alone being aware of their impressive history in the music business. Problems with his visa meant Slim was not able to take up the offer so a second female singer, Sylvia Tella was called into accompany Donna on vocals and the two met at rehearsals. It was a tough introduction for Donna, who takes over the story, "I was shitting bricks. This was way out of my league, as I'd not done reggae before... Slim, who's a fantastic singer, and I complimented each other so well, we'd been singing together for so long. It was both of us they wanted." As it turned out Slim Banton didn't make the trip but Sylvia Tella did, as Donna's vocal partner. "...I cried a lot of the time, I was homesick, it was hard... I met her at the rehearsal studios for the first time on the third day, we did a lot of rehearsing for a straight week or two, twelve hours a day, in a nice studio in Hockley. At first I thought she was great, I've got no problems, this woman is experienced, she knows what she's doing, she can teach me a lot, as I'm green. I didn't know what the hell I was getting myself into... Selwyn gave me a CD a week after the audition, music and words and everything. I learnt my bit, the words and remembering where I had to come in and not come in. Then I had to learn the nuances of the words and my pitching..."

"It was a hard three months on tour. I'd never experienced anything like it. Never. We're talking day in, day out. You get a break and you sleep. On my day off I'm in bed sleeping as I'm knackered. Rehearsals were in the afternoon, then catch some more sleep, then the buzz on stage and afterwards, from 9pm til probably 6 or 7am the next morning." Donna found the switch from cabaret performer in the Midlands into the harsh spotlight of a nationwide Spirit of Unity Tour with high-profile bands playing to audiences of thousands, very hard at first. "Vocally I was out of my depth, out of my league. Many times at the beginning I wanted to pull out. I said it was too much for me, but I stuck at it. I'd made a huge jump but I'd had so much practice at the stage work, cabaret work had taught me to be professional on stage and to be the person I am today." The tour kicked off in Hawaii with Steel Pulse part of a Spirit of Unity Tour of the States that also included Maxi Priest, Buju Banton, Shaggy and Beres Hammond. Donna already knew the legendary Maxi Priest as a friend of her family, had met him many times before and she felt a little less homesick when they embraced on the pitch at the stadium venue before the opening show in Hawaii. "I remember that Buju played football to relax and had his own cook, and we used to go to his room for food. All the different band members mingled and mixed together, that's a fun part of touring but behind closed doors its very political on a tour like that. Originally the tour was for three months, but everything abruptly stopped after two and a half months as there were money problems with the organisers. David vowed never to do it again." This first taste of the reggae world made a lasting impression on Donna. "It wised me up. It made me grow up. At the time I didn't realise how big Steel Pulse were. I thought Maxi was the main name but then I saw that Steel Pulse headlined the majority of the shows."

It had been a tough introduction for Donna, who recalls, "after the tour ended, I went home and cried my eyes out." Whilst a daunting prospect for the twenty-five year old, she had proved her worth to the band and teamed up again for their own tour of the States before they closed the year with a visit to Africa. It was the band's second visit to the continent after their ill-fated trip to Nigeria in 1982. For Donna it was a momentous occasion. "My first time in Africa, a real culture shock. I'd never seen so many black people in all my life in one place. My first Christmas in Africa, we were in Ghana on Christmas Day, we'd gone to the slave center where they'd shipped the slaves to America. We did a bit of sight-seeing, it was safe to go out by ourselves with no problems at all. We stayed for about two weeks playing in Abidjan in Ivory Coast, Dakar in Senegal, where we met the actor Danny Glover, and Accra in Ghana on Christmas Eve. We had a good crowd reaction. They knew every single word, in French, of our songs." Originally the band were due to play eight dates but reduced it to four as their trip coincided with the religious festival of Ramadan. David Hinds commented on their return to Africa, "it was a tremendous sight to behold and the ecstatic moral boost to our existence was so energising." Their visit to Senegal also included an emotional visit to the slave center at Goree Island.

Chapter 11: Leaving A Legacy - will follow next week.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Festivities

I had a pretty quiet Christmas Day aside from watching the Crown Academy boys playing first thing this morning - they won again, pretty much as they do in every game they play. They really play the game the way I want to see, pass, pass, pass, but they occasionally overdo it and should take the effort on goal when it presents itself, rather than unselfishly pass, again, to another teammate. The futsal pitches being constructed at Crown's Tuol Kork ground should be finished in about a month and will give the youngsters, and the club, an invaluable training facility that will be the envy of every other football team in the country. Rumnea and I then joined the Jar Lady, Nancy, at the Aussie XL pub on Street 51 for a Chrimbo lunch with all the trimmings. I even had a couple of glasses of bubbly but my headache this evening reminded me why I don't drink champagne. That was about it, the rest of the day was spent relaxing. It's back to work tomorrow, no such thing as a public holiday for Christmas in Cambodia, though they have a holiday for pretty much everything else. But if you think Christmas hasn't arrived here, think again. The teenagers and youths have taken the gift-giving and gift-receiving side of Christmas to their bosom in no uncertain terms. The commercial side of the festivity is here to stay.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

A novel thriller

A novel that has just come to my attention, though it was released earlier this year, is Tom Knox's The Lost Goddess, published in March in the UK as Bible of the Dead. It's a gripping thriller that takes the reader from caves in deepest France, to Cambodia and onto the Plain of Jars in Laos, combining history and archeology, politics and neuro surgery, with a series of terrifying murders and the Khmer Rouge at its throbbing heart. The book is the author's third novel and you can read more about London-based Tom Knox (real name Sean Thomas) here. the Lost Goddess is published by Viking in the USA in February 2012. Note: It shouldn't be confused with Trudy Jacobsen's scholarly tome Lost Goddesses: Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Thumbs up for the Doucs

Doucs galore in Mondulkiri
There's good news for wildlife lovers in Cambodia. Two projects are just about to be launched in the north east provinces of Cambodia which will provide visitors with a good chance of getting close to some of the country's rapidly disappearing wild animals. With the forests of Cambodia vanishing faster than you can shake a stick, as plantations and commercial mining demand more and more space, its great news that there are still pockets of wildlife in numbers sufficient to entice conservation groups to set up these programs. In the Seima Protected Forest in Mondulkiri, WCS and Sam Veasna are working with the villagers of Andong Kraleong to set up one, two and three-day treks that will take you amongst the world's largest known population of Black-shanked Doucs (estimated to be around 40,000), while other monkeys such as macaques, yellow-cheeked crested gibbons and langurs, together with larger cattle like Banteng and Gaur, and night-viewing of loris and wild cats are also a possibility. And that's not to mention the elephants and the abundant birdlife including giant hornbills. The project, using villagers as guides, aims to provide the local community with sustainable employment in tourism in return for not hunting the wildlife and for forest conservation. The treks around Andong Kraleong will take visitors through pristine forest and to a series of 20-meter high waterfalls. A second project, this time with Conservation International to the fore, is looking to benefit from the groups of yellow-cheeked gibbons and red-shanked Doucs that inhabit the fringes of the Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri near Voen Sai. They are working with locals to allow limited access to these closely-related cousins of the proboscis monkey a reality. Other animals such as macaques, sun bears and wild dogs are known to inhabit the same area.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

In full swing

Bride Anny and guest Rumnea hog the camera, and rightly so
The Khmer wedding season is in full swing and Anny, my favourite supervisor at Cafe Fresco on St 51 was the center of attention at the Mekong Russey Keo restaurant tonight. Having tied the knot earlier in the day, the party went with a bang including on-stage karaoke from the bride and her bridesmaids later in the evening. They sounded pretty good as well. I hope she and her hubby have a Christmas to remember. I've just had some news that will bring me less grief in 2012 but I'll report on that when it's all done and dusted sometime in the next few months. Let's just say that it gave me many headaches over the course of this year but will be one less tie to my former life back in Blighty.

Fancy getting inspired? Soma Norodom will be giving a hour-long lecture to students and the public at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Department of Media & Communication, on Friday 6 January 2012 (9.30-11am). The lecture will cover her experiences, both professional and personal, back in the USA, as a writer, journo, sports commentator and actress, and now as a talk show host in Cambodia. She currently hosts the PUC Talk Show every evening on 90.0FM from 7pm. Soma is a consummate pro and I speak from experience. She certainly did her homework when she invited me onto her radio talk show back in September and made me very comfortable. I felt we could've chatted for much longer than the show's one and half hours. My appearance on the show will be replayed on 90.0FM from 7pm on New Year's Eve (Saturday 31 December). A nice way to see out 2011.
Anny and hubby in the middle of the food-giving ceremony
The lights are bright as Rumnea and I arrive and are greeted by Anny and her mum

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Vaddey's Shadows

I'm a glutton for new books on or about Cambodia. A new novel, not due out until August next year, comes with much praise before its release by Simon & Schuster. Vaddey Ratner's novel, In The Shadow of the Baynan, about a young girl's experiences in war-torn Cambodia will come from the heart. The author (pictured) was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. After four years, having endured forced labor, starvation, and near execution, she escaped while many of her family members perished. In 1981, she arrived in the US as a refugee not knowing English and, in 1990, went on to graduate as her high school class valedictorian. She is a graduate of Cornell University, where she specialized in Southeast Asian history and literature. In recent years she traveled and lived in Cambodia and SEAsia, writing and researching, which culminated in her debut novel. You can read more about the author and her forthcoming book here.

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Enforced rest

It's all gone tits up in the last day or two with access to my Blog. Essentially, a network problem at the office has disrupted my accessibility to the frontpage (signing-in page) of my Blog and we're hastily trying to resolve it. Bottom-line, it may take some time to fix, so please be patient.
Postscript; Panic over (this time around). Access restored.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 9

The 3 core members of Steel Pulse included Steve Grizzly Nisbett on drums, alongside David Hinds and Selwyn Brown
It's Steel Pulse time again - Chapter 9 of their incredible journey. For a long while I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. It never happened but rather than let my notes gather dust, I am publishing each chapter on my blog, on a weekly basis, to give everyone an insight into this incredible music group. Here's the ninth of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 9: Roots Resurrection

Steel Pulse released their tenth album, Vex, which proved to be their last for MCA, in September 1994. Determined to return to their spiritual roots, the album was recorded in Ocho Rios, Jamaica and featured Diana King and deejays Tony Rebel, Macka B and Jukie Ranks. Kevin Batchelor rapped on Better Days and Micah Robinson took over trombone duties. Many of the tracks were mixed by Dennis Thompson, who'd worked with the band at various intervals over the years. Grizzly recalls, "we wanted a different flavour, different producer (Stephen Stewart), different setting, different everything and where else to go to record reggae but Jamaica. Some others helped out like Jukie Ranks and Macka B from Birmingham, who did their vocals over here." He points out, "if a track was not used on one album, it might be used further down the line. There's a cupboard full of unused songs written by David and Selwyn. Putting an album together was like putting a story together or like painting a picture. If some songs didn't fit, they wouldn't be used. In the early days, we'd do a show based on the album and would put in a couple of extra tracks that the audience hadn't heard before. Steel Pulse was and always will be an album band." Selwyn declared, "We reached a stage with the albums where we tried and tried and tried this crossover thing and basically got tired of it. When it didn't work, when it didn't cross over in a big way, we thought, 'this don't make no sense so let's just go back to what we're more accustomed to doing,' which is stuff like we're doing now on the Vex album...all those kind of tracks represent Steel Pulse more." This stance was echoed in the lyrics of the album track, Back To My Roots. 'We took that commercial road/searching for some fame and gold/and gained a whole wide world/and almost lost our souls./Some say we should have led the way/take it over from Bob Marley/got brainwashed by the system/what a heavy price we paid./It's time to go back/the way it was...back to my roots.' In May 1994 they'd appeared on the Late Night Show with Conan O'Brien and performed Let Freedom Ring, a tribute to Martin Luther King. Steel Pulse also spent that Summer headlining the 10th Reggae Sunsplash tour of the US with Maxi Priest, Europe, Japan with Big Mountain, visiting islands like Aruba, Lesser Antilles and Guam and a successful tour of Brazil and Argentina in July and August.

In 1995, a live performance of Blues Dance Raid alongwith another two dozen Reggae Sunsplash artists was captured on the documentary film, 'The Reggae Movie'. In April they played the Cayman Islands and during their end of year Caribbean tour were again refused entry into Dominica. Long-time manager Andy Bowen departed after thirteen years and following a period of reflection and a strategic rethink, David 'Dread' Hinds assumed control of the band's affairs, and alongwith the remaining core members, drummer Steve 'Grizzly' Nisbett and Selwyn 'Bumbo' Brown on keyboards, reactivated the Wise Man Doctrine (WMD) label and upgraded their rehearsal studio in Birmingham to recording premises to lay down their definitive Rastanthology compilation album in 1996. "Rastanthology was tracks that everyone liked. We put out a few feelers about what people would like to hear and that was the result," explains Grizzly. Earlier in the year Pulse toured extensively in the Caribbean and in January appeared at the 7th Hollywood Rock festivals in Brazil, in Sao Paulo (at Pacaembu Stadium on 21 January) and Rio de Janeiro (Apoteose Square on 26 January) alongside Page and Plant, The Cure and Smashing Pumpkins. They also contributed the track Franklin's Tower to the Fire on the Mountain: Reggae celebrates the Grateful Dead album and I-Spy to the film soundtrack, Klash, a romantic thriller set in Jamaica. The group had been invited to play at the Atlanta Centennial Olympic celebrations on 27 July that year but Hinds cried off with a ruptured tendon in his shoulder and they fortunately avoided the deadly bomb blast that killed one and injured dozens as they listened to an open-air music concert in the early hours.

Chapter 10: Inna Rage - will follow next week.

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sak shines, again

Sak and his family in 2007. lLtoR (back row); Theara and Sak; (front row) Chamnap, Holly, Chakrya and Borromey.
I love it when someone I've known for many years gets a thumbs-up from an unlikely source. This time its my pal Sak in Battambang who gets the seal of approval from the New York Times no less. If you are going to impress, then do it with one of the biggest names in the newspaper business I say. One of the paper's writers decided to pop over to Battambang for a looksee and they just happened to encounter Sak, something I've been recommending for years here. Anyway, enough of the build-up, here's the story.

A Pocket of the Past in Battambang - by Naomi Lindt, The New York Times, 15 December 2011.
Under an electric blue sky, with the morning sun already beating down, Som Sangva Sak stood on a narrow, two-lane bridge over the Sangker River and surveyed his hometown, Battambang, in northwestern Cambodia. “When we talk about heritage conservation in Cambodia, people only think about Angkor Wat. But we also have something special here, something we need to preserve,” said Mr. Sak, 41, gesturing toward the river’s banks, which are lined with a stunning variety of historic structures: French colonial shop houses with arched windows and ornate iron balconies; grand, century-old villas with burgundy-tiled roofs; imposing pagodas with intricate bas-reliefs. Chattering schoolchildren in navy blue-and-white uniforms cycled across the bridge, while fishermen in rickety wooden boats occasionally floated by. “These buildings recall the evolution of Khmer civilization — they connect the past to the present,” he continued. “They symbolize our culture and need to be kept for younger generations.”

For the last seven years, Mr. Sak, an adviser to Battambang’s urban planning team and a part-time tour guide, has acted as a liaison between the German government and the local municipality to build awareness of Battambang’s architectural treasures. (Germany has offered the city assistance and expertise in creating new infrastructure, while protecting its old architecture.) Mr. Sak’s task is particularly relevant in today’s climate, as mass development, largely driven by Chinese investment and wealthy officials, transforms Cambodia’s towns, roads and landscapes.

In Battambang, the local government has taken matters into its own hands, with measures like an educational campaign that focuses on cultural heritage. Meanwhile, private financing is responsible for most building restoration, with the goals of attracting tourism and preserving this gem of a town. With a population of 140,000, Battambang is the country’s second-largest city, though few tourists make it here. Those who do are rewarded with one of the country’s greatest collections of historic structures, from decaying Angkorean temples surrounded by lotus ponds to modernist cinemas built during the country’s 1960s construction boom. They also gain access to one of the country’s richest artistic communities: Battambang has produced generations of artists, a legacy that residents are busy building on. “People are starting to feel proud of their city again,” said Mr. Sak.

I first visited Battambang in 2006 and fell in love with its crumbling charm and lush, picturesque countryside. Its dark, potholed streets and seedy guesthouses, though, weren’t so lovable. But when I heard that a preservation movement was under way, which included new boutique hotels, art galleries and restaurants, many housed in historic buildings, I decided to go back. The floods that hit Cambodia in the early fall delayed my plans. Though Battambang was mostly spared, several streets in the city were underwater, as were sections of the 180-mile route from Phnom Penh, the capital. (Conditions have since improved.) When I finally arrived in November, I spent my first night swathed in Old World charm at La Villa, a seven-room boutique hotel in a stunning two-story home built by a wealthy local tradesman in the 1930s and restored in 2005. Antique armoires, four-poster beds, richly patterned floor tiles and vintage ceiling lamps fill the space. Each night, the hotel’s restaurant serves tender steaks and fish curries to a mature European crowd seated at candlelit tables shaded by hundred-year-old trees.

The next morning I headed to the other side of the river and explored the Heritage Protection Area, a compact district defined by the municipal government in 2009. It’s populated by about 800 historical buildings, the largest collection in the country. I ducked into a squat, roughly 150-year-old Chinese temple with curved gables; the roof was partly collapsed but it was still active. Since most worshipers come in the afternoon, though, I had it to myself, snapping photos of the tattered red Chinese lanterns and colorful paintings on the walls. Nearby is Psar Nath, the city’s main market, housed in a faded yellow Art Deco edifice with a tiered roof and clock tower built in 1936. Shoppers closely inspect goods from glittering wedding apparel to recently killed chickens.

Peaceful as the town might be today, Battambang’s architectural vestiges bear testament to a tumultuous past. Over the last two centuries it has been ruled by Thailand and France. It enjoyed a brief period of freedom during the heady, post-independence days of the 1950s and ’60s before the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Battambang province was one of the regime’s last strongholds — peace wouldn’t arrive until 1997, when the city began to pick up the pieces. Nevertheless, Battambang has produced some of the country’s most famous artists: the 1960s chanteuse Ros Sereysothea, whose popularity persists decades after her death; the late painter Vann Nath; and Chhom Nimol, the frontwoman of the Los Angeles-based indie rock band Dengue Fever.

“Even during Angkorean times, there was a strong, talented group here who wanted to create their own kingdom,” said Theanly Chov, 26, a painter who manages the nine-month-old Sammaki, one of the new galleries that exhibits young local artists. “The combination of cultures — Cambodian, Chinese, Thai, French — makes the city open-minded to art.” Last year, the local government restored a majestic mansion built for the last Thai governor in 1905. On the city’s narrow streets, private owners are sprucing up 1920s and ’30s shop houses and corner buildings and turning some of them into bars and cafes. And a few of the early 20th-century traditional wooden houses on stilts in and around the city are now open for tours.

In 2001, an Australian-Khmer couple, John and Sinouin Parker, transformed one of those homes into the Riverside Balcony Bar, which features an all-wood, open-air veranda. At sunset, a symphony of crickets mesmerizes, as the fading light bathes the surrounding river and towering palm trees. Anna Milligan, originally from Washington State, runs Café Eden in a renovated riverfront shop house. A year ago, Ms. Milligan opened the boho-chic nonprofit cafe, boutique and art space.

While snacking on French fries and peanut butter bars, visitors can gaze upon works by local artists, many of whom are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts school established in 1994 by a group of young Cambodians who met in a refugee camp during the 1980s. Tourists are welcome on the school grounds, a 10-minute tuk-tuk drive from the city center down a narrow road on the city’s outskirts, where teenagers play traditional Cambodian instruments and sinewy boys and girls practice juggling, tumbling and modern dance moves for the public performances the school hosts several nights a week. Phare has also become renowned for its fine arts program, which has trained many of the country’s rising young painters and sculptors, like Mao Soviet, who opened the Make Maek Gallery with his wife, Phin Sophorn, also an artist, in September. “Many local artists graduate from Phare and produce a lot of work, but then go to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap because there has been no space to show art,” said Mr. Soviet, a 31-year-old with disheveled hair. Make Maek is out to change that, organizing eight shows throughout the year for local and visiting international artists. The gallery has also spawned an artist-in-residency program.

To raise local awareness about the arts and to lure visitors to the gallery, Make Maek holds an event called “Make Light” every Saturday night, distributing sparklers to neighborhood children and curious passers-by for a half-hour street party, raucous by sleepy Battambang standards. (The city’s street lighting still leaves much to be desired). One of the guests at a recent “Make Light” event was Darren Swallow, a 46-year-old Welshman who has lived in Battambang since 2005. An active promoter of the local art scene and a founder of Sammaki, Mr. Swallow has organized several exhibitions of the city’s artists around Cambodia. “There’s still a ways to go here, but there’s such talent and energy,” he said. “It’s not hectic — you can really live for the moment in Battambang. And that moment stretches into a week for a lot of people.”

If you go: Battambang is a four- to five-hour drive from Phnom Penh by private car ($60; arrange through your hotel) or a six- to eight-hour boat ride from Siem Reap, starting at $20. (The U.S. dollar is the de facto currency in Cambodia.) The small, pedestrian- and bike-friendly town is easy to navigate. Note that local drivers generally know the name of a business, not the street address.

Where to stay: La Villa’s spacious rooms ooze history and charm (855-53-730-151; lavilla-battambang.net) and start at $60 per night. The year-old Bambu Battambang Hotel (855-53-953-900; bambuhotel.com), a 10-minute walk from La Villa and a few minutes’ drive from the town center, has a resortlike feel. The 16 rooms, from $80 a night, are spread across four raised wooden houses. At the eco-friendly Sanctuary Villa (Chrey Kong Village; 855-972-167-168; sanctuaryvilla.derlengtours.com), just outside of town, the seven silk-accented bungalows surround a saltwater pool; rates from $86 per night. A mile from the town center, the eco-hotel Au Cabaret Vert (855-53-656-2000; aucabaretvert.fr), opened a year ago, has a restaurant that serves French fare. Doubles, $66.

Where to eat: Khmer Delight (one block south of Psar Nath; 855-12-671-911; entrees from $3) is a reliable spot for cheap, well-made local food, while Pomme d’Amour (63 Street 2.5; 855-12-415-513; entrees from $5) offers creative French-Khmer fusion cuisine. Café Eden (85 Street 1; 855-53-73-1525; entrees from $2.50) serves some of the best comfort food you’ll find in Cambodia. The Riverside Balcony Bar (about a mile south of the town center along the west bank of the Sangker River; 855-53-730-313) is easily Battambang’s most atmospheric spot for dollar drafts.

What to see and do: For a self-guided walking door of Battambang’s buildings, download the two free maps released last year by the nonprofit organization Khmer Architecture Tours. Som Sangva Sak (855-12-599-890) conducts private architectural city tours and trips to outlying temples in the countryside starting at $20 for a half day. The old wooden houses of Wat Kor are three miles outside of town; visitors can tour two homes with the French-speaking owners. English speakers should bring a guide. In January, the village’s first boutique hotel opens, Maisons Wat Kor (855-98-555-377; maisonswatkor.com; doubles from $70). Its eight rooms are in three buildings modeled on their historic neighbors. Check out works by local artists at Sammaki Gallery (87 Street 2.5; 855-17-968-050) and Make Maek Gallery (66 Street 2.5; 855-17-946-108). Visitors are welcome at Phare Ponleu Selpak (Anch Anh Village; 855-53-952-424); hourlong circus performances take place five times a week, starting at 7 p.m.; tickets are $8.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Golden memories

Davy Chou (left) with his main characters, Yvon Hem, Dy Saveth, Ly You Sreang and Ly Bun Yim
It was sad to see that much of the Golden Age of Khmer cinema from the Sixties and Seventies remains only in the memory of a few survivors from that time. But Davy Chou's 90-minute documentary Golden Slumbers shines a light through the window of time onto a fifteen year period where more than 350 films were made, Phnom Penh audiences flocked to thirty cinemas, nearly a dozen film studios flourished and fifteen leading actors were the gods of the silver screen. All that ended with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, actors and directors were executed, cinemas destroyed, and the film prints themselves, mostly lost forever. In this documentary, shown tonight for the first time in Phnom Penh at Legend Cinema as a part of the international film festival, we were privileged to recall those heady days through the testimony of a handful of survivors, three filmmakers and one of the leading ladies. But at times it was a painful experience for the main characters to recall their moments in the limelight, some forty years ago. Their lives forever changed by history.

Dy Saveth is the living embodiment of the glamour and style of those glory days of the Sixties and Seventies. She is the most famous Cambodian actress of all time. After being crowned Miss Cambodia in 1959, she starred in her first film two years later. She collaborated more than ten times with male lead Kong Sam Oeun over a five-year period from 1965 though her greatest roles were perhaps alongside Chea Yuthorn and filmmaker Tea Lim Koun. Dy Saveth made nearly 100 films, including 10 with King Father Norodom Sihanouk and even launched her own film studio producing 17 films, before moving to France in May 1975 and escaping the devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge. She returned to live in Cambodia in 1993 and has made a significant contribution to rebuilding the Cambodian film industry. Joining her in recounting the Golden Age in Davy Chou's film were filmmakers Ly Bun Yim, Yvon Hem and Ly You Sreang.
Dy Saveth recalling her memories of the Golden Age of Khmer film
Director Yvon Hem had his own studio called Dragonfly

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Rub-a-dub

Kosal working the crowd at Equinox tonight
A big crowd gathered at Equinox tonight for the return of Dub Addiction, after a break of about five months since the band last played live. The name says it all as to what the band are about, with Kosal leading from the front with the vocals, taking a break from his day job as a producer and director for Khmer Mekong Films and a freelance music producer. It's good to see his constant progression since I first met him a few years ago. He's a multi-talented individual and played a gangster in the opera, Where Elephants Weep. If you like your dub, and a puff on some wacky-backy, then you'll enjoy Dub Addiction.
I'm off to the Cambodian Film Festival tomorrow night for the premiere of Golden Slumbers at the Legend Cinema. It's a look back at the Golden Age of Khmer film in the 60s and 70s and I'm really looking forward to it. The film starts at 7pm and is free. I hope Dy Saveth, who appears in the documentary, is there as she's the torchbearer for the good old days and is still in remarkable nick. She promised to teach me how to dance the ramvong when we met previously but I never kept her to her word. Such a shame. There's lots of other films being shown over the four-days of the festival which closes on Sunday with a screening of Dancing Across Borders at the French Institute at 3pm.

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hotel madness

Advertising for Sokha Beach Hotel where the Vegas Casino gets top billing
If they can hear the chink of the cash register, then some people have no compunction in turning their prize cash-cow into a dog's dinner. Take Sokha Beach Hotel in Sihanoukville. They have the top 5-star resort on the south coast. Whilst it's not everyone's cup of tea, it attracts the crowds because it's the best on offer in the top range, and they have a private beach. So what do they go and do. They open up a glitzy gaming casino at the front door, guaranteed to turn off and turn away most western guests. The Sokha Vegas Casino proudly offers blackjack, baccarat, roulette and slots in its advertising literature. Someone pass me the sick bucket. I can't think of anything worse. Though I'm sure they are already counting the wads of cash from their Asian market customers. It's the same Sokha group who are building 560 rooms on O’Chheuteal beach in the same city. That's not to mention the 14-hectare Chrouy Changva monstrosity with 798 rooms (and an Irish pub) that is blighting the view across from Phnom Penh's riverfront. Oh and of course, there's their Bokor Hill development project, just outside of Kampot. On the drawing board are a casino resort (12 storeys and 652 rooms), eco-villas, entertainment parks, cable car and 18-36 holes of championship golf designed by Arnold Palmer. And there's supposed to be a conservation plan for wildlife. What wildlife - the construction workers will have gobbled up everything well before they've finished laying the final brick.
Whilst on the subject of bird-brained hotel development, can someone explain to me why Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap needs to close its doors for nine - yes, 9 - months come 1 July 2012? Currently envied by all the other hotel GMs in Siem Reap for their high occupancy and glowing reputation, those in charge have decided to close the doors for a spate of room renovations ahead of a new branding, that will kill off their next high season and beyond. It beggars belief to be honest, and everyone I've spoken to, finds it hard to fathom as well. Why would you close your doors, at the height of your success and fame, to add a lick of paint to your walls and move the bed around the room? I'm sure its more than that, but you get the picture. It's potentially financial and reputational suicide. The new branding, Hyatt, has 450+ properties across the globe. HDLP will be their first in Cambodia. They already have 2 in nearby Vietnam.
The future of Bokor Mountain is this Las Vegas-style 12-storey monstrosity

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The King's Stupa

The King's Stupa surrounded by trees and undergrowth in O'Svay village
A young and distinguished portrait of the then-Prince Sihanouk
In the overgrown garden of a small house in the village of O'Svay, close to the border with Laos and next to the mighty Mekong River, stands a monument to a time long forgotten by most. The locals call it the King's Stupa. In the early 1960s the then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk initiated a project which was called "the colonization of new lands," which aimed to develop rural aresa and reduce poverty in Cambodia's remote provinces like Stung Treng and the northeastern areas. The town of Borey O'Svay was established in the early 1960s close to the border with Laos, reflecting a concern about Lao traders and fishermen encroaching on Cambodian territory. The military were sent to clear the jungle and build an access road, fifty concrete houses, a school, a hospital, a market, a pagoda, a military camp and a sugar cane factory. On 1 January 1964, 300 families of retired military officers and soldiers mainly from Takeo, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Kandal provinces, as well as refugees from Kampuchea Krom, were offered housing, land, cattle, seed and trees to settle there. Prince Sihanouk personally inaugurated Borey O'Svay in 1967. At the time, dense forest was very close to the rice fields and homes and the villagers did not venture into the forest for fear of tigers, elephants and other wild animals. In 1970 Khmer Rouge troops took over O'Svay and in 1972, bombing raids by the United States destroyed much of the town. In 1975 families from Phnom Penh were sent to live in the area and a year later people were forced to leave the village to clear new rice fields some 40kms away. In 1979 the villagers returned and found their homes in ruins. Today five villages make up the O'Svay commune with a total population of 445 families, some 2,340 people. The King's Stupa is still there, if you can find it amongst the undergrowth, with concrete panels showing Prince Sihanouk in all his glory. And if you ask around you can still find one or two of the original inhabitants.
This narrative panel shows the Prince working the land
Another panel on the monument shows the Prince building a house
Here the Prince is stepping out forcibly across a new bridge
Another of the local inhabitants, attached to the stupa, which I spotted just in time

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Bochan debut

If you haven't heard the music of Bochan, she has released her first album today, Full Monday Moon, and you can get a feel for it here. It's an eclectic collection of eleven tracks from this fast-rising Cambodian-American indie-pop solo singer songwriter and includes a remake of the famous 'Chnam Oun 16' track. Born in Cambodia and now living in California, she grew up travelling around the US, singing in her father's Cambodian rock band. Now she's doing her own thing in collaboration with pianist and producer Arlen Hart. Enjoy.

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Clapperboard at the ready

On location at Phnom Krom with Om Tuk
On the subject of capturing images on film... the Hanuman Films team have been a busy bunch recently. Kulikar Sotho was Executive Director on a c0-production with an Australian movie project, filmed in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for a future Festival-bound film called Om Tuk. It's a love story between two Cambodian teenagers. The style of film-making allows a lot of invention as the story unfolds. That was followed by a high-end New York men's fashion photo-shoot with two well-known photographers in Siem Reap and the capital, a BBC Scotland production of a blessing ceremony at one of the lesser Angkor temples and a 3D Discovery Channel shoot. There are four more projects lined-up for the early part of 2012 as the variety of filming projects in Cambodia continues unabated. One of the films Hanuman completed work on earlier this year, Wish You Were Here, makes its debut at the prestigious Sundance Festival in the States next month.

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Ultimate Angkor

My happy snapper friend, Eric de Vries, Siem Reap resident and ace photographer, has just published the third in a trilogy of new photographic books, titled Ultimate Angkor, from his aptly named series The Works of Eric de Vries. The book contains 250 pictures of temple sites from Angkor, in black and white, colour and sepia. Some of the photos will be shown in an exhibition next year in the capital (at the Intercontinental Hotel in March) and in Siem Reap. You can purchase the book from LuLu as a printed book or e-book, or find out more at Eric's website www.ericdevries.nl. Print versions of the books are $60, e-books are $8. The first and second books in the trilogy were entitled Street and Series. He's also just published a 2012 calendar called All Eyes on Cambodia.

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Steel Pulse - Chapter 8

Steel Pulse 1991 vintage - one of the last times Phonso Martin was pictured with the band (front row far right)
It's Steel Pulse time again - Chapter 8 of their incredible story. For a long while I had planned to author a biography of the world's best reggae band, Steel Pulse. It never happened but rather than let my notes gather dust, I am publishing each chapter on my blog, on a weekly basis, to give everyone an insight into this incredible music group. Here's the eighth of thirteen chapters.

STEEL PULSE - A Lifetime of Revolution

Chapter 8: Victims of the System

Steel Pulse toured the States alongwith Special Beat at the same time as their latest album Victims was released in June 1991, with contributions from Stevie Wonder (harmonica solo on Can't Get You) and Pato Banton (We Can Do It). Assisting on keyboards was fellow co-producer Paul Horton, Jimmy Haynes and Melvin Brown shared lead guitar duties and the horn section came courtesy of Paul Simm (trumpet), John Battrum (sax) and Frank Mysan (trombone). Soul of My Soul was released as a single from the album. "I recall a lot of re-writing and re-arrangements for Victims. David has very good ears. They're spot on. If he says something's wrong, he's right. It may be the timing, the groove, the feeling or the tuning is not right. He's a perfectionist, he hears things you don't and when he points it out to you, he's always right. You can't argue with him. We spent long hours in the studio, but its ours so we could come and go when we liked, sometimes 10am til 6am the next morning. Co-producing with the band was Paul Horton from Birmingham, who'd been a good friend of the band for a long-time. A musician who plays guitar, we knew he had studio skills and had his own studio no less," recalls Grizzly. The album was nominated for the Reggae Grammy award, which eventually went to Shabba Ranks.

In the same year, the group said goodbye to vocalist and percussionist Phonso Martin after fourteen years with the band. Grizzly believes, "he became business-headed. He'd always liked dabbling on the business-side of things, he went into a managment company and wanted to concentrate on that. I think he had a record label, a management company as well a boutique in London. Once he left the band he spent most of his time in the States but came to see us at a few shows." Meanwhile, Hinds took the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission to court for discrimination against black citizens and penned the single Taxi Driver as a permanent reminder. The $1 million lawsuit spawned a popular video at the time that included cameo appearances from Rev. Al Sharpton, Jay Leno, Branford Marsalis, C Thomas Howell, film-maker Robert Townsend and Sunsplash founder, Tony Johnson. Grizzly explains, "David tried to get a cab one day, something happened and he said I'll sue you guys. We did the whole Taxi thing and it took off. Everybody got involved, Al Sharpton, Jay Leno, everyone. No one had gone that far with the Taxi Commission in New York. It happens all the time, so we'd decided to do something about it. It was in the papers and on the tv, everything." Behind the publicity juggernaut that broke the story nationwide, that evetually saw the band playing at the White House, were publicity agents Lobeline, the company who also promoted the Reggae Sunsplash festivals.

Speaking in 1991 about the reasons for their success, David Hinds told High Times, 'If you go back into the '70s and count all the reggae bands that existed then and still exist today as reggae bands - and I don't mean artists with a reggae backing band - you can probably count them on one hand. As opposed to following the trend, we've been a trendsetter. We've always had our own type of groove. We've worked upon it over the years and also adapted different styles along the way. So we've had a strong following and been respected as a group that's been around for some time saying something.' Hinds continues, 'Obviously subject matter is going to differ because of where one originates. One can only speak of one's environment and peers within that environment. Also, British reggae artists tend to feature a lot more instrumentation, especially around the mid-range, where there are more keyboard and guitar fills and a lot of harmony stacks. Where Jamaica leans more towards rhythm, English reggae tends to lean more towards melody and harmonies. Jamaican reggae is drum, bass, probably one countermelody and a skank with a lead vocal that very rarely has harmony added to it.'

Still under pressure from their record company to produce more commercially-acceptable crossover music, the band continued to tour extensively in the USA, the Caribbean including Reggae Sunsplash in August and the French Caribbean, a second visit to Japan, a first time trip to Australia (where in New Caledonia their equipment was confiscated and auctioned by customs) and Europe and produced a live album, Rastafari Centennial, recorded over three nights in Paris in January 1992, for which they received a third Grammy nomination on its release in September 1992. Lead guitarist Cliff 'Moonie' Pusey, with experience with Paula Abdul, The Family Stand, Aftershock and Maxi Priest, made his debut appearance on the album, having first joined the band in 1989, alongwith the horn section of Kevin Batchelor (trumpet), Jerry Johnson (sax) and Clark Gayton (trombone), who toured with the group at that time. Here's Grizzly's take on it. "Loony Moonie - we needed a guitarist. We'd seen a video of him play and we wanted a guitarist who was different. Sidney introduced him, he came along, showed us what he could do and we said yes. But we found out what he could really do when he got on stage. That's when Moonie really comes into his own. Kevin and Jerry are a good horn section. They'd been together for a long while. We used horns in the studio but not live. It made it more dynamic, a whole new range to the show, a new melody, new rhythm section and was an added attraction on stage. It took the show to a new level. Musically, it added so much to us, they were performing, playing, they were singing. Kevin sings, raps, dances, he does everything."

In October 1992, Pulse guested on NBC's The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, performing Taxi Driver. They then appeared at US President Bill Clinton's inauguration party on 20 January 1993, the first reggae band to attend such a prestigious event, alongside Barbara Streisand, George Clinton and Salt 'n' Pepa. Grizzly explains, "Steel Pulse and Salt 'n' Pepa were in Washington next door to the White House. [Bill] Clinton was trying to get back for our show but was held up. We played for him on the way to and from the inauguration. Al Gore was there though." The day before they were invited to the Jamaican Embassy in recognition of their fundraising efforts on behalf of the Hurricane Gilbert Appeal. Recording for their new album took place in Ocho Rios, Jamaica in September 1993. It was during their time in Jamaica where they met the Prime Minister P J Patterson.

Chapter 9: Roots Resurrection - will follow next week.

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