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, http://www.friends-international.org 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…

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Perfect Day

‘Life’ as those Small Faces so succinctly put it on their classic Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake album, ‘is just a bowl of All-Bran – you wake up every morning and it’s there.’

The life of the lucky expat living in Phnom Penh, however, is more often than not a bowl of All-Bran with added fruit, nuts, yoghurt, honey, a soupcon of prahok and a side order of fried crickets washed down with enough snake wine to whet the appetite of the most jaded. In a nutshell (mmm… another nut reference), it can be funny, friendly, exciting, exhausting, exasperating, alarming, amazing, tragic, terrible, terrific… I could go on and on and on, but I’m certain you get the picture. Life in Phnom Penh, indeed in Cambodia, is never, ever boring.

Being the working parents of an extremely lively 16-month old can, however, put some restrictions on how much that wonderful life going on outside the home can be lived. My eyelids usually start to droop around about the closing minutes of American Idol or the Amazing Race Asia (only quality television in our house), and little O, the child in question, puts the seal on the night by standing at the bottom of the stairs, pointing heavenward and repeating the mantra ‘bat! bat! bat!’ No, we are not infested by flying mice, it’s just his way of saying ‘it’s time for you to take me upstairs so I can drench you with the showerhead and throw plastic ducks repeatedly out of the bath onto the floor to give you some exercise, you lazy old dad, you.’ Staying up past 8.00pm is therefore officially considered a late night, and sadly the only clubbing I experience now is inadvertently delivered by little O as he wallops me with whatever potentially dangerous toy he has at hand. I suppose it’s all our fault for buying him toys that state clearly ‘not suitable for those under 36 months’ on them. I plan to hire a professional scientific film crew to document the moment, waking or sleeping, that little O turns 36. Months, that is. I want to know what happens, if some magical transition occurs that will make his behaviour suddenly change and stop him hammering the living hell out of me with his red wooden replica Bugatti formula one racing car or his Forbidden Planet Robby the Robot… sometimes I wonder who the baby in this family really is. Oh well, only 20 months to go…

So Saturday last we were all in the mood for having a good day. We seemed to be almost fully recovered from the spluttering and sputtering affliction documented in earlier postings, so, in general health terms, all systems appeared to be go. My much better half, A, had unfortunately had a particularly bleak Friday at work and had serious ‘banking issues’ so was in real need of ‘a grand day out’. We had asked our wonderful housekeeper, P, if she would mind staying over to enable us to be dirty stopouts until at least, oh 8.15pm or some other ungodly hour. She jumped at this opportunity. In fact, if there had been a tall building in our neighbourhood she would have leapt it at a single bound. Yes, she is actually a Superwoman. She loves little O, and he loves her back in the completely selfless way that small children (appear) to do. As indeed does his nanny, V, who wasn’t able to help that weekend. Having a dynamic duo like those two around the caring roles get pretty blurred as they both dote on him so much. It also means that his grasp of Khmer is already way beyond my laughingly inept attempts (though I can now confidently say ‘the red foreign ghost is coming’ – remind me to tell you why in some future posting…). I’ve also been known to babble to him in French and Gaelic, and I’m sure mum A sneaks in the odd word in Hindi (in a Liverpudlian accent) so I daresay we’ll pay for it later when he reveals to us as a teenager how traumatized he is from his multi-lingual multi-cultural upbringing. It probably will be water off a plastic ducks back to me by then, as I imagine I shall be inhabiting the same mental landscape as grandpa from ‘The Simpsons’ and blithely bludgeoning my fellow retirement home inmates with Robby the Robot, but those are joys to come… for the moment let us rewind, back to last Saturday…

Little O, A and I (‘May we introduce ourselves? We are the Vowel family. Very pleased to meet you. I’m really sorry, but E and U are busy at the moment.’) began the day by commandeering the good Chairman Mao and his trusty black Tuk-Tuk to take us to the ANZ riverside branch, one of only two open on a Saturday morning, apparently. The Chairman has owned the Chamkarmon Batmobile, as I have affectionately dubbed it, for a few months now, but last Saturday was the first time I had noticed the extremely fetching complementary red spokes on the wheels. I think I’ll definitely need to buy him a couple of ‘Hot Wheels’ racing stripes for Pchum Ben and maybe even a set of bat shaped James Bond style tyre shredders for those hairy moments on Norodom during rush hour. So we arrived at the bank in considerable style, to be greeted by a queue that appeared to be organically snaking out the door and round the block. After a longish wait punctuated by the frequent moans and cries of frustrated foreigners unused to the somewhat random approach to queuing on display we were able to resolve A’s ‘banking issues’ and eventually squeeze back through the waiting throngs to where our carriage awaited. We had to pause to allow O to sign autographs – I’m sorry to be facetious, but being small, very white and golden haired to boot (whither the Indian quarter of his heritage? I know not…) he does attract a great deal of attention, which he really thrives on, and he is now expert at the one-handed scribble followed by the casual wave – before clambering back into the Batmobile. We decided to go somewhere to eat breakfast where O could also run around without causing too much havoc, so Gasolina seemed an obvious choice. However, it has changed ownership recently, and is undergoing a revamp, which meant gamely trying to sip a lime soda as the construction (demolition?) squad busied themselves around, behind, beside and on top of us. The staff were their usual lovely smiley happy selves, completely oblivious to the hammering, sawing, painting, plastering et al going on, but we had also inadvertently stumbled upon the weekly meeting of the Doggie Breakfast Club of Phnom Penh, and felt that the sight of grown barangs on their hands and knees lapping water from bowls and growling at each other might prove too much for O to bear (not to mention the effect it must have on their poor dogs), so we decamped to Comme a la Maison for the chewy part of breakfast. CALM is the perfect acronym for Comme a la Maison, a veritable oasis of the same that even worked its laid back Gallic/Khmer magic on the O and sent us on our happy way back home fed, watered and ever so slightly blissed out…

Several hours later, O and P waved A and I goodbye as we drove off into the hazy afternoon sunshine, promising that we wouldn’t be back too late… first stop was Elsewhere, (where else?) so A could meander around the floaty clothes bit and try things on and I could pretty much doze standing up under the cool breeze from the impressive fans, then, A having bought a couple of new things zoom! off to Ambre to pick up my new white suit (stop laughing at the back – see previous blog for details) and to marvel once again at how Romyda can possibly walk in those heels. If my mum were here she would give her a good telling off… ‘You’ll suffer in later life my dear, you mark my words – it’s not worth it just to be fashionable!’ a quick detour back home to drop off the purchases and to briefly goo over little O soundly asleep in his hammock, then back into the Batmobile and time for some culture. To Reyum Gallery on street 178, and an exhibition of work by young Cambodian artists that was truly amazing in its scope, execution and imagination. Extremely impressive, and a real indication of the strengths apparent in the re-emerging arts scene in Cambodia, in particular those of the young artists. Culturally elated and sated for the moment, it was ‘to the Batmobile!’ and – my goodness! Dinner time already? So where to go?

There is absolutely no dearth of choice in PP, from the delicious roadside chek chean stalls to the finest of haute cuisine, and the number of eateries seems to increase on a daily basis. I felt we should have a bit of a treat, but my offer of $5 worth of banana fritters was given short shrift by A, so we decided to pay a visit to Van’s. I had a vain hope that this new-ish top end restaurant located next to the Post Office would be something like a Hard Rock Café shrine to the grumpy Irish singer Van Morrison (‘now will ya look at that on the wall there – that’s the very drum skin he pushed Bono’s head through at Slaine Castle!’) but t’was not to be. It was, however, equally entertaining, as around 16 young and earnest staff members waited hand, foot, elbow and knee on A and I who happened to be the only two diners in the whole darkly impressive place. I have to say that the food was magnificent, and the service was… well, hilarious, though I do not mean that in any malicious way. There seemed to be some kind of game going on which revolved around us being asked to sit outside, change tables several times, and then watch as the glasses and cutlery were alternately removed and replaced from our table seemingly at random. We were tantalized by breadsticks that were brought to our table, then hastily removed, and then replaced again. I started to peer around looking for any hidden cameras… perhaps we were the hapless victims of an Apsara TV version of Candid Camera? Two huge leather-bound tomes were then presented to us, and I became quite excited as I thought that these might be the rules of the game. No, they were simply his (with prices) and hers (without prices) menus. So we passed them back and forth and ordered. And waited. And waited. The sun had by now set and the night was drawing in, along with its mosquito accompaniment. Patience is a virtue, and we were pretty virtuous by now, but A was more than a little bemused when she was presented with a bowl of steaming lobster soup when she had actually ordered a glass of red wine. The main courses, when they arrived, were extremely impressive, but we had now decided that we would be really decadent and have dessert somewhere else, so we left Van’s with its strange service games and plethora of ever hovering waiters and waitresses, and headed off, off into the night…!

A had spent six years in Phnom Penh during the 1990’s, so for sentimental reasons (it had hosted her farewell party in 1998) we took a pit stop at Le Deauville near Wat Phnom for a beer or two. For me this fast became a beer or three, or quite possibly four, as I had by now long given up counting. The French drinking songs being somewhat boisterously murdered by the very drunk men seated at the bar eventually began to wear me down, so we decided to decamp to the literally and figuratively cooler atmosphere of the Art Café. One day, if I ever get to New Zealand, I will strive to personally apologise to Professor Jack Body. The good professor probably hadn’t bargained upon being pinned into a corner and regaled with my drunken Scottish theorizing on folk music, electric guitars and cultural osmosis (‘… do you have a moment? Tuareg ex-rebels Tinariwen are a great example of Alex Harvey’s theory that it is better to face an oncoming army with a guitar and a 30,000 watt Marshall stack than with a machine gun… blah, blah, blah’), when he signed up to deliver a lecture on Maori traditional music and mythology at the Café, but he tolerated my rantings with extremely good grace before he managed to escape my clutches… we were now well past our normal curfew, and if truth be told, heading toward the slightly silly side of tipsy, but I still felt that there was some life left in our tired old frames, so after a slurry goodbye to Anton (incidentally, there is a wonderful exhibition by a young Indonesian printmaker Karina Hariyanto on there until the end of May – Phnom Penh-ites, please check it out) we stumbled outside and persuaded a clearly amused and bemused Chairman that a stop off at Malis restaurant on the way home was just what we needed. An encounter with a surly waitress, a large and not awfully convincing ladyboy (no, I am not making this up), a nightcap for me and a heavenly Pumpkin Crème Brûlée later we could be found trying to break in to our house as somebody (yes, me) had forgotten the keys… much laughter from the Chairman, our guard and P ensued, and we tiptoed heavily upstairs to bed to slumber noisily whilst awaiting our 5.00am alarm call from little O…

We hadn’t drunk Sangria in the park, watched a movie or indeed fed animals in the zoo, but we had left our problems alone and had pretty much a Perfect Day…

Yes, for the lucky expat, life in Phnom Penh can be much, much more than a bowl of All-Bran…

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.

making plans for nigel

– or to be more precise, Otis. We are holding a naming ceremony for the little boss on Saturday, and as usual there has been a great deal of last minute running around and tearing out of what little hair remains in order to ensure a good do. Along the way I have learned many things, including a) you can actually buy a Monk’s Gift Pack. Yes. Don’t snigger. For $5 at the market, containing all those Monkly essentials – Saffron robe, flip-flops, toothpaste and brush, etc, etc. It’s a bit worrying that the likes of me could (and quite possibly will ) stoop to Monk impersonation if the whim takes me… you have been warned. But we have been advised that a six-pack of Asahi and some chewin’ baccy are not entirely suitable thank-you’s for the holy gentlemen who will conduct the formal ceremony, whereas a couple of Monk Gift Packs will go down a treat…

b) musicians are ALL ornery cusses. We’ve had a little trouble in negotiating a musician to perform at the ceremony and party following it – we sent a Khmer friend to do the negotiation and the poor man has been run ragged by the effort of trying to get a straight answer from our second choice (our first choice has gone to the provinces to have his long neck fixed. His chapei (long neck guitar-type thing), that is). We really want this guy, as the chapei tradition is fantastic. It’s an oral tradition, stories passed down for centuries but adapted to give a modern twist or incorporate stories about the person that the musician is playing for, accompanied on a long neck 2-string guitar, the chapei dang weng. It’s a bit like rapping over bluesy licks, spirited and hypnotic. 1st choice, blind master Kung Nai is off getting his axe fixed, so our 2nd choice is one of his younger proteges, master Pe. Not just a master musician our Pe, but a master businessman also… negotiations continue, but hope springs eternal (if not, there’s always Scary Uncle…)

c)don’t do this again – well, no, to tell the truth many people are helping, especially our Khmer and volunteer friends (thank you!), and it is going to be a grand day. We’re having it in a French owned salsa bar called Gasolina this Saturday, so if you happen to be there please be generous to the elderly albino monk with the very hairy legs, spectacles and slight Scottish accent, and don’t tell anyone if you see him swigging from a can of Asahi, as the heat can play funny tricks with your mind…
‘…we only want what’s best for him…’ (XTC)
‘evening all’ (Jack Dixon)