It’s A Mystery

Toyah had it exactly right, didn’t she? ‘It’s a mystery, it’s a mystery…’ Yes, ‘it’ sure is. So, what it exactly is ‘it’? Well it’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s a mystery…

About a month ago I changed jobs. I’ve left behind the world of landmines and UXO and small arms and MANPADS and IED’s and so on and so on to return to the world of children. No, un moment s’il vous plait – I haven’t regressed to my childhood. How could I? I never left it in the first place, just ask my wife and son. However, I am now working with street children in an international context. And no, that doesn’t mean I am the Fagin-like mastermind behind an international street urchin criminal ring, robbing tourists willy-nillly and setting off hue-and-cries in the chic destinations of the world, oh no. I now sport the rather grand title of International Grants Manager for Friends-International, a rather wonderful organization based here in Phnom Penh but with projects running all over the world working with some of the most marginalized members of our societies, the street living and working children and young people. If you want the full story, please go to the Friends International website, where all is revealed in a much more coherent manner than your humble correspondent could possibly manage… and that little burst of Francais above was no mistake either… it’s a French organization. Allons Y!

Last Saturday evening was a bit surreal for me, even by the normally surreal standards of Phnom Penh. It was the Fete de la Musique (French again! Zut alors!), and after getting on down with the Mekong Pirates at Gasolina (and witnessing a truly bizarre performance there from a young woman and her misbehaving backing tapes) yours truly was performing with Khmer/Filipino band ‘Rock X Press’ in the sweaty confines of the funkiest joint in town, the Memphis Club. Exceptional musicians all, which made rehearsals extremely easy. Over the course of those rehearsals during the week I had gotten to know the band really well, so Saturday evening I was one of those in the inner sanctum of band friends and associates and other musicians and found myself chatting to the very amiable uncle of Suk, the drummer. He was an extremely genial chap, somewhere in his 60’s and sporting a discreetly loud (is there such a thing? Je ne sais pas…) Hawaiian shirt and jet black slicked back brilliantined hair. He looked like an extra from an Elvis Presley movie, or indeed the off-duty premier of a tiny Pacific island paradise. But my goodness, he was a guitarist of some considerable ability, and wowed the audience with his take on Les Paul and Carlos Santana songs, getting extremely animated in that eyes-closed grimace-of-pain-lead guitarist way as his set drew to a close. As he returned to his seat I congratulated him, and he pulled me conspiratorially close and whispered into my ear ‘You know, I’m not very good at shooting a gun.’ ‘Oh’ said I, not really knowing where this conversation was going to go. ‘I prefer the guitar. I know how to use that! ‘ He laughed. It turned out that our amiable guitar hero was the Chief of Security at the Ministry of the Interior…

I do know what he means. Alex Harvey once said he would rather face an oncoming army with an electric guitar and a Marshall stack instead of a gun. Rock X Press and I put that to the test as we faced the marauding hordes in the Memphis, and within two songs the mix of drunken expats and wildly enthusiastic Khmers were in thrall to the likes of ‘Born to be Wild’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’… cutting edge stuff, I know, but sometimes you just gotta go with the obvious! I ended the evening with a string of invitations to perform at other venues, jam with other bands, visit recording studios, make jingles… AND a quarter bottle of whisky from the event sponsors… what more could any living walking breathing talking singing leaping cliché of a rock singer want?

O and A are in the UK, enjoying the summer break, so the relatively empty corridors of my house have been reverberating at night to the sound of (bad) guitar playing and the echoing soundtracks of DVD’s. I use some of this ‘alone’ time to catch up on the art house and experimental movies that have passed me by in the last few months, reveling in the avant-garde abstractions of the post modern nouvelle-vague and such like.

Last night it was ‘X-Men origins – Wolverine’.

Yes, I know. But it was just a little avant-garde, as this was a pre-post-production copy, so much of the special FX magic was there in its basic form – for example, you could see wires attached to actors and bad prosthetics and basic CGI stuff which added immensely to my enjoyment of the movie. Remember what I said about regressing to childhood above? Tonight it’s Star Trek, accompanied by a can of Ginger Beer, a packet of kettle chips and an Almond Magnum. Mmmmm, now guess who’s going to have a sore tummy tomorrow…


Memory of a Free Festival

‘…the sun machine is comin’ down, and we’re gonna have a party…

Elsewhere, Phnom Penh
Friday night in Phnom Penh, a city where the live music scene has yet to show the massive blossoming that the fine arts has over the last few months. But tonight we are in ‘ waiting for a bus’ syndrome land (is this a peculiarly British way of putting this? – please ask if you don’t understand). In a city where one or two gigs a week is the norm, tonight there are at least a dozen going on. It’s the ‘fete de la musique’ , organised by the French Cultural Centre, so around many venues in town the sound of (live ) music will bring the hills alive with songs they have sung for a thousand years.
Mr R and I are intending to sample some of these audio delights, and number one highlight will of course be the punk-indie-mash-up-with-the-ramones-live at Rubies wine bar… but first… to Gasolina…

Gasolina is heaving with a crowd of beautiful people (mainly French) and their beautiful children who are behaving rather like a cross between the Lord of the Flies and the Lost Boys when we arrive. Mr R admonishes one young chap who is attempting to burn the place down by waving leaves through the flames of one of the many decorative torches burning in the grounds – he smiles at us and moves his mayhem elsewhere…
A large-ish PA is set up, and the process of sound-checking is going on. I have to say that my experience of hiring sound systems and engineers in PP has not been good, certainly in the live music arena. Generally the equipment is pretty good, but the ‘engineer’ sent along with it is simply the guy who drives the gear around from venue to venue… and so it is tonight, as we are treated to howls and squeals from the PA as the engineer continues to break so many of the cardinal rules of sound mixing that I begin to think that no, this is actually pretty good, and we are witnessing the early development of Industrial music in Cambodia (eat your hearts out, Throbbing Gristle).
Then the performance starts, and the first act are really pretty amazing. A small group of guys from Mondulkiri who have moved to PP and are camped out opposite the National Assembly to protest at their land being torn from them to make way for apparently government sanctioned ‘commercial development’. They are singing about this injustice accompanying themselves on small gongs, a hypnotic, ancient sound… then they unleash their secret weapon, the youngest member. I don’t quite know how to describe this… his voice was like a cross between a kazoo and a buzzsaw, but delivered with the pitch and tone of a castrati – simply unbelieveable. Mr R commented that Andy Kershaw would have been blown away, as we were.

After that, some Japanese drummers,powerful, physical stuff,who then conducted an impromptu workshop for the kids (saving us from immolation in the process)and also jammed with a French musical collective whose name escapes me but were also pretty good. They carried on playing on their own, bringing to mind Les Negresses Verte. We had listened, drunk and eaten, so now onto elsewhere.
‘Elsewhere’, to be precise, which was deeply surreal. A cocktail lounge jazz/soft rock trio on a huge stage with lights performing ‘no woman no cry’ to a crowd of expats and wealthy Khmer kids loungingaround an illuminated swimming pool… no, I am not making this up. We had arrived near the end of their set, so it was a quick ‘fly me to the moon’ and a ‘your love is king’ where a young woman from the crowd who really, truly, believed she was Sade locked in the body of a much larger person was hauled onstage to deliver her impersonation, just too, too surreal…so off we went in our trusty tuk-tuk to Rubies – Punk rock here we come!
Well, no. Man in pork pie hat programming random tracks from a computer over the sound system here we come. Some very good music, granted, but no thrill, no threat, no Ramones live, no punk, no style… major dissapointment of the night. Sorry.
Tuk-tuk again to the final destination for us, Talkin’ to a Sranger, where we encounter the Blue Geckos. Despite the fact that I was quite beered up by now and had christened them the Grateful Undead I really enjoyed their down-homey backporch take on things and their eclectic musical choice and delivery – anyone who plays ‘tequila’ is alright by me… thumbs up for Blue Geckos.
…and so Mr R and I said our goodbyes and staggered off in opposite directions, with the memories of a pretty good evening of music behind us (no Glastonbury, granted – but warmer, drier, at least as eclectic, and pretty funny in parts), and the promise of a good night’s sleep and a Saturday spent with the hangover from hell in front of us.. just like the old days…

listening to – Tom Petty ‘Wildflowers’ (very quietly)
missing – my wife and baby, very much.