Srey Channthy grew up in one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia. She left home when she was 18 to try to make a better living in the Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. She went from working in the rice fields to becoming a singer of an international Khmer psychedelic rock band.
Channthy moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, so she could support her family back home in Prey Veng, a rural province in Northern Cambodia.
“When I come to Phnom Penh,” Channthy remembered, “I work clean for house. One month seven dollar fifty, one month.”
$7.50 a month wasn’t enough to make ends meet. So when her roommate told her she could make a lot more money as a massage therapist, she jumped at the opportunity. But when Channthy went to meet her prospective employer, she immediately realized she had been tricked. Two men locked her in a room, tied her to a bed with electrical wires, and told her she was now their sex worker.
“The man say, ‘You stay here. You never go out.’ I say, ‘What happen to me now?’”
A few hours later a woman in building heard Channthy’s cries for help, and came to her rescue. She cut off the electrical wires around Channthy’s wrists with a knife.
“She said, ‘Where you go now?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know.’ She said, ‘Go away, don’t come back.’ And she give me money, two dollar fifty. Two dollar fifty enough money for me, I can go back to my village.”
But instead of going back to her village, Channthy stayed in Phnom Penh and got another job at a construction company. When a co-worker heard her singing to herself one day, he suggested another way to make some extra cash: singing at karaoke bars.
So Channthy starting singing Khmer versions of western rock songs from the 60 and 70s at karaoke bars, bands like Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, and Nancy Sinatra.
Channthy was working at one of these karaoke bars when she met Julien Poulsen, a musician from Tasmania.
Poulsen played Channthy psychedelic rock songs from famous Cambodian singers from the 60s and 70s, like Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, Khmer musicians who were influenced by western music introduced by GI’s during the Vietnam War.
“She was very, very surprised that she had a met a foreigner, a ‘barang,’ who had all this stuff,” Poulsen said. “She was like, “Oh! Oh!” She was very excited.”
Soon after, Poulsen said they decided to put a show together in Phnom Penh, and the Cambodian Space Project formed. That was in 2009. The first release was vinyl, called ‘Knyon Mun Sok Jet Te.’ It means, ‘Unsatisfied.’
The album is a homage to the many Cambodian rock singers who were murdered when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975. Poulsen says even today Cambodia is still trying to recover the art and culture it lost.
“To find a singer like Channthy,” said Poulsen, “is like discovering a young Etta James or Nina Simone. She’s really the barefoot Cambodian diva of the rice fields.”
Cambodian Space Project’s newest album includes famous songs from Cambodian singers who were killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 70s. It also has two songs written by Channthy about her own struggles to make it in Phnom Penh. That includes the title track, “Not Easy Rock and Roll.”
“I never go to school. Not easy for me write song,” Channthy said. “I go outside Cambodia not easy for me some time. Hard for visa. Some time hard for money, some time for food too.”
In the past five years Cambodian Space Project has toured throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, and even at the South By South West festival in Austin, Texas. When the band goes back to Cambodia in between tours, Srey Channthy becomes a bit of celebrity. Especially to young women like herself, who moved to the big city in order to make a living beyond the rice fields.