When I first arrived in Cambodia nearly two years ago, I expected to find Phnom Penh full of young Khmers with guitars playing cool rock music. Needless to say, it wasn't like that; where there are young Khmer playing non-traditional music it's usually double-handed microphone grabbing, push-button synthesizers, and perhaps a little miming. But there was a taste of the real thing on Saturday night at Chinese House.
Sai (and friends) was a 6 piece combo of two singing guitarists, bass, drums/percussion, roneat (the zylophone looking one) and tro (the upright skinny one with the two strings and a bow) - a young band that didn't look like there was anyone over 22. While the general expat audience might have been turned off by the early start (7.30 pm on a Saturday?) and the repertoire a little top-heavy with similar-sounding radio-friendly ballads, it was great to be hearing Khmer voices over acoustic guitars and traditional sounds weaving in and out around the melodies. The crowd was about 90 per cent Khmer, and showed no sign of being unhappy with the absence of keyboard and drum machine: this has got to be a good thing in itself.
Once the star left the stage, the parts of the audience invited themselves onto the mic, and it quickly turned into an hour-long jam, and the old songs came out - everything from Arrapia to Dop Pram Moi (I'm 16), and at the very close some members of the Cambodian Space Project joined the ensemble for Knyom Mon Sok Jet Te (I'm unsatisfied) and Au-go-go. It was particularly great to see the traditional instrumentatlists jamming hard and tight to the rock'n'roll.
A glimpse of the future? Maybe someday the riverside will be full of Khmer bands playing Khmer music … without synthesizers or drum machines … to mixed audiences … full credit to Chinese House for hosting.