Category Archives: Music

The Last Post

I have a small suitcase of letters from years gone by that I’ve dragged from one house to the next. They’re almost relics, these letters, written by hand and posted, in a letterbox! How quaint. One day I decided to put sentences from the various letters together, just out of curiosity, to see if the people who had written to me would make up a ‘composite friend’.

The resulting letter had its own strange and beautiful logic and although I knew who had written each line, the letter now seemed to have been written by the universe, to itself and to everyone who lived there. So it is with good stories and good art. They seem to have always belonged with you.

A year has passed to the day since I decided to join the world of online scribblers. It’s also the day that I call it a day. I could tizzy up my reasons for stopping but the reality is I’m getting too lazy to want to write it anymore. I figure it’s better to call time rather than post every six months or so like a stalker with chronic fatigue.

Strangely, the year of blogging ended with exactly the same weather conditions as it began. The rain started as I began writing my last post as if it was just popping in for a quick cuppa. Before I knew it, that rain had settled in with its feet up on the sofa and proceeded to turn on the TV. Then it just stayed the night. Unlike last year when the rain was this relentless, this year I was not doggedly (and dumbly) determined to get to a muddy bog of a music festival. Maybe I’ve learned something. But probably not…

Given this is The Last Post, I’m going to do a recap of some ‘Travels in my mind’ posts. It may be nostalgic indulgence but when was it anything else?

I wrote my first post about my annoying and unwelcome habit of needing to go to events that are sold out and difficult. ‘Travels in my mind’ began  with ‘Shine On, you crazy diamond’ in November 2010, when I shared the fab experience of driving to the inaccurately-named ‘Shine On’ festival in driving rain with my friend K. (who thankfully came to her senses and decided we should leave within minutes of our arrival). On the way home, we were attacked by birds.

The weather also played a significant role in ‘Man on plane, I am sorry’, December 2010,  in which I was returning from a visit to my Dad who lives in another state (physically, not metaphorically). I was on a plane which had been delayed due to storms and it was unsurprisingly, a rough flight. At some point during my visit Dad and I had had a conversation about what kind of funerals we would want – we like to keep the conversation light.  That conversation combined with the bumpy flight had made me quite skittish. I got into a weird and awkward conversation with a salesman sitting next to me, causing me to conclude that (a) sometimes I would rather eat my own arms than talk about work and (b) you shouldn’t talk to strangers if you can’t get away from them.

In February I visited Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, better known as MONA, and embraced its underground architecture and Scorpionic themes of sex and death. I loved the intensity and fun, and intense fun of it. But on a second visit not long ago I realised you never get that giddy first date feeling twice. While there were works I didn’t see the first time, some of which I found confronting and some moving, there was little from my first visit that I found compelling on second view. And on a rare sunny day in Hobart, with a wedding party on the grounds and a new admission fee generating the same old gallery demographic, MONA seemed already bereft of its rock ‘n’ roll patina. Possibly I just wasn’t in the mood. I preferred my friend G.‘s exhibition I went to on Saturday. She had made the most delicate drawings of her old Mum and Dad sleeping, drawings that were softly loving and made you ache with the inevitability of old age and its cousin, death.

For Valentine’s Day, I told a love story – a story of my longest first date. I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was one of the most popular posts. Everyone loves a love story. (Or was it the KISS video? I admit, I watched that video a few more times than was healthy and had to get ‘I was made for loving you’ surgically removed.)

A friend asked me the other night what had been the most popular post. Right up there was the one about my visit to the Tutenkhamun exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. But as I explained to L., my blog must appear in search results when people are looking for information about the exhibition. My Tutenkhamun post continued to attract hits long past the date I posted it – and as I said to my friend, I feel a bit bad because my post about ‘What I’d learned from the Tutenkhamun exhibition’ was fairly glib. As King Tut’s family history featured some intensive interbreeding and he had a cleft palate and a club foot, I wrote that one thing I’d learned was not to horizontal folk-dance with the siblings. To all those students and foreign tourists searching for actual information, I can only apologise.

The dance films ‘Pina’ and ‘The Black Swan’  inspired curiosity about the history of the pointe shoe and ballet, in the case of ‘The Black Swan’ (‘Shall we dance? Or just pointe?’, January) and my return to dance class (‘Minding the pees and queues’, August). Going to a performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater was just a visual feast that reminded me of the variety of permutations possible within human movement and all that is good about watching people move through space (‘An assault on the senses’, July).

There was the post about my sensitivity to people’s voices, inspired by the Southern Gothic baritone of Tony Joe White (‘Tony Joe White’s Sonic Boom’, May), in which I pondered whether a person’s voice is merely a product of anatomy or whether a voice reflects a person’s inner being. A Cat Power gig inspired a conversation about the evolution of stage fright and what it must be like to make music (and a living) while being scrutinised under the spotlight (‘A year of the Cat’, January).

In June, I was preparing to head to Bali and Cambodia.  A simple Google search: ‘music in Cambodia’ led to hours of reading about that country’s music scene now and in its 60s heyday. The contrast between the energetic spirit of contemporary bands in Cambodia with the silencing of musicians under the Khmer Rouge was so compelling that I decided to make a radio documentary while I was on holiday. Returning to Melbourne, I wrote another post about the trip, mostly about the first night of the Kampot River Music Festival and a motorbike ride through the hectic streets of Phnom Penh with Jan, German music producer and ex-soapie star (‘Holiday in Cambodia’, July).

A post about the differing recollections that my friend and I had about how an ex-housemate’s life was saved touched on the elusive nature of memory itself (‘Two of these things are true and one is a lie’, September). Yet the best things about writing ‘Travels in my mind’ has been the triggering of memories, however truthful they may be, and the perennial challenge we all share: trying to communicate something of our experience to someone else.

Thanks for reading; thanks to those who talked back. Your comments and encouragement have been so very welcome.

Yep, that’s all there is.

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That’s (home-made) entertainment

Early this week I woke up surprised to find that my white pillow slip had turned orange overnight. There was further surprise on getting up to discover that I had orange hair and could barely walk. I also had 90s dance floor fillers on constant rotation in my head: Britney Spears’ Toxic, Sing hallelujah! (Sing it! Sing ha-lay-lu-yah. Sing it!). ‘Dear god, please make it stop’ I thought as I hobbled towards the kitchen. Continue reading

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The tears, the ecstasy, the surrender…goodbye Melbourne Festival

Come tomorrow, another Melbourne Festival will be over. And as festival programs go into the recycling bin, all those memories of shows are either stowed away in the minds of those who saw them, or blow away into the ether. Here’s what I’m going to try to hang onto:

1. The strange experience of the Manganyar Seduction – a troupe of moustachioed men from the desert cities of Rajasthan, India, appearing and disappearing from behind the red velvet curtains of their individual boxes, stacked on top of each other four stories high, like the apartment block of a wild dream. Globes surrounding each box, in the way of a backstage mirror, lighting up when it was the inhabitant’s turn to draw aside his curtain and play his instrument or sing. The singers of the troupe sitting cross-legged yet bringing the whole of their bodies to their singing. I remembered a friend who plays Indian classical music telling me that in Indian culture, the voice is foremost in the hierarchy of instruments and all music – the raga repertoire – is taught through singing. When a number of the moustachioed Manganyar musicians sang simultaneously,  their arms imploring the very air to carry their message forth, the effect was…well, it was…let me tell it this way…The performance began simply and quietly with a man playing a lute. Somehow, sometime later, I found myself dabbing at the tears in my eyes, wondering where they had come from and how the music had managed to get past my mind’s defences to take hold of my heart and squeeze it in a way that was divine and kind of excruciating.

Later I discovered this was the normal response to the Manganyar musicians. “I’ve just come from seeing The Manganyar Seduction,” I said to a friend later that night. “Oh, I saw them last night…they made me cry!” she said. There were reports of two other weeping women. They made all the girls cry, apparently. And I thought I was special (sigh). “That’s the power of music,” said a  musician acquaintance when I told him of my experience of the Manganyars. He related going to see the late Pakistani musician, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and weeping the whole way through the performance from the moment the great singer opened his mouth. “I just had to surrender,” he said. With the word ‘surrender’ I had a vision of  floating down a river, with the powerful voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan both the sun on my face and the water beneath, holding me.

2. Konono No.1 is a band of musicians from Congo, who play electrified likembé (like an mbira or thumb piano), congas and drums made out of found bits and pieces. The electric likembé is slightly distorted, giving it a dirtier sound than the acoustic version. The percussion and bass sound (also provided by a likembé) provide a relentless groove, which voices and the likembés slice into. They sound like this:

There was something just a little bit perfect about a band with such an authentic and homemade groove playing under the fake stars of the Forum Theatre, with its fake Greco-Roman statues striking poses from the sidelines. The capacity crowd drew together an unlikely alliance of African/world music aficionados and people into noise or found sound, who were attracted by Konono No.1’s improvised, junkyard approach to music-making.

The rhythms made themselves at home and soon enough bodies were moving, including my own. As I scanned the crowd and said hellos, I realised that there were many people at the gig who I hadn’t seen for a while and that African music and dance was as much a part of the 90s for me as raves and riot grrrls. It belonged to my starry-eyed youth and the two-year London stint, riding the length of the Northern line of the Tube every Monday night for an African dance and drumming class in Stockwell. The dancing contingent was taught by Norman, whose body in motion, it has to be said, was well worth crossing town for.  For the return journey, even the unsettling light of The Tube couldn’t shake my good mood,  sated as I was, with thighs that felt as solid as tree trunks and polyrhythms clashing amiably in my head.

3. Alwan was not part of the Melbourne Festival but was my third experience of the potential of music to induce ecstatic trance within the festival’s duration. Alwan is a trio playing Middle-Eastern music and they play every Thursday night at Claypots, a bar/restaurant in St Kilda, which for the benefit of non-Melburnians, is on the south-side of the Yarra River and therefore, to me, a north-sider, might as well be on another planet. Take the south-side women, for example. The women who come to this gig are of a more bohemian bent than their other south-side sisters, so rather than having shoulder-length, straightened, blonde hair with honey highlights, they have long, wavy blonde hair with honey highlights. They wear long dresses  and kind of look like Stevie Nicks if she’s just come from the manicurist. They make every north-side girl feel like Virginia Woolf – cerebral, bookish, pallid and depressive.*

My friend, M., plays the darbukka, and the other two musicians between them play oud, accordion, darbukka, tambourine and those crazy horns of snake-charmers that are the hallmark of Middle-Eastern music as “exotic” to Western ears. The bar is fairly small and every time I go there, the gig begins sedately enough, with a few people sitting politely chatting. I always think ‘Tonight it’s going to be a fairly quiet one’ so by the end, I’m always surprised when people young and old, both men and women, are up dancing in the little space available to them, inches away from the musicians, among the spilled wine and the ground glass that has inevitably been swept off a table by the whirling long skirt of a Stevie Nicks lookalike somewhere along the line. The other night, there must have been some special fairy dust in the air because the south-side dancers were really going nuts and the musicians had to lean in close to each other to avoid getting knocked out.

As the drumming reached a crescendo while not one but two of the crazy snake-charmer horns blasted through the night air, one particularly enthusiastic south-side woman shimmied down her boyfriend’s body until her head was level with his groin. The north-side Virginia Woolfs quickly turned away, tssking and tittering nervously. But the couple putting on the soft-porn floorshow were not the only dancers who wouldn’t have been out of place in a Fellini film. There was the young man who comes every week and belly dances. There was an older Turkish man who looked like a philosopher. There was the ubiquitous creepy drunk guy. There was a 50-ish sexy woman (long, blonde wavy hair) in tight jeans and tight facial skin (“Botox?”, the VWs speculated) and her beautiful daughter whose long hair emitted wafts of perfume as she danced. There was the guy on his haunches by the door, who’d spied the oud player’s darbukka and slyly began to join in on the drumming, much to M.’s chagrin. “He’s like the naughty kid who knows he’s meant to be in bed,” was  A.’s laser-accurate comment. After the gig, it was like Cinderella’s coach disappearing at midnight how quickly the ecstatic dancers disappeared, leaving only the musicians to laugh about what had just transpired and the bar staff to sweep up the broken glass. “It’s amazing,” M.’s girlfriend said. “I don’t know how he plays. Every week there’s some woman’s gyrating bum in his face.” Ah yes, the euphoria of music. You do just have to surrender.

*May contain traces of gross generalisation

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Minding the pees and queues

1.      One night last week I was talking to a friend about The Police’s album Zenyatta Mondatta, particularly how much I enjoyed Stewart Copeland’s drumming on that record. The next evening I played some tracks from that album before heading out to a party, the theme of which was ‘Greatest Hits of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.’ As I was waiting in the loo queue I got chatting to a guy dressed as a British bobby. ‘I’ve been trying to work out who you’ve come as,’ I said. ‘I’m The Police,’ he said.  Luckily for me, at that point the loo became vacant but before I could move, a woman shot past us and went in. ‘Damn!’ I exclaimed.  Much to my surprise, the Bobby chased her into the bathroom and escorted the apologetic queue jumper out to take her place in line.  He actually was English and it seems they take their queuing seriously. Despite feeling somewhat responsible for this act of party policing and a little embarrassed, part of me began to fantasize about having my very own Bobby to intervene when people neglect to mind their manners. On the train, when people are talking loudly on their phones as I’m trying to read, my Bobby could say something like: “Excuse me, I’m going to have to ask you to shut it. Would you mind awfully?” Come to think of it, though, I think if the Bobby had seen me – or rather “Nancy Sinatra” – karate kicking at a startled Eminem in a dance floor duel to some metal track later in the evening I might have been called over to ‘have a word’. Incidentally, the Bobby wasn’t the only police to turn up at the party. The real Police also dropped by with the obligatory noise complaint. I hope some wag took the opportunity to say “It’s The Police…I didn’t know they were back together.”

2.      A while back I embarked upon a half-hearted, short-lived and unsurprisingly unsuccessful campaign to make Tuesday night the new Saturday. I was reminded of this on Tuesday as I was putting on a glittery cocktail dress and gloves. How rare and exciting to be getting glammed-up on a Tuesday! My friend S. was making a short film and some friends and I had agreed to be extras in the “masquerade cocktail party” scene. Among other masked party-goers, we had to pretend to chat on the dance floor while swaying to a song by Cat Power. About seven or eight times. Whoever said film-making was dull? I have to say, my friend E. and I did a fine job of looking animated, listening to each other intently and aimlessly swaying, while telling each other about what we’d had for lunch that day, what we’d had for dinner the night before, and other riveting tales of meals of the recent past. All this was backdrop to the masked “heroine” sweeping through the crowd to her be-masked beloved to dance in his arms. I found our friend A.’s mask simultaneously scary and hilarious, so I had to avoid looking at her during filming but generally had no problem fulfilling the extra’s duty of being none-too-noticeable. OK, there was one scene in which the following things happened in quick succession:

a.      The camera knocked me in the back of the head

b.       A., with her scare-larious mask surreptitiously pecked me on the shoulder with her beak

c.       The make-up woman, (who was wearing a spectacular corset and long skirt) tripped over my boots and stumbled into me.

d.      I completely lost it and gave in to the giggles.

The hierarchy intrinsic to film-making does lend itself to comedy and I couldn’t help being reminded of the Ricky Gervais series Extras. One of my favourite scenes from Extras features Patrick Stewart (you may know him better as Captain Jean Luc Picard of Star Trek).

3.      I know that I’ve liked dancing since I was a child because my dear old Dad has often demonstrated (particularly to boyfriends) how I used to dance when I was a little girl. This involves a look of intense focus, a weird clodding gallop and one arm held aloft and kind of stuck to the side of the head. The thing is, even when Dad was bounding around the room making us both look foolish, I could always see the joy in this dance.  There’s a scene in Wim Wenders’ film about Pina Bausch, the seminal figure in modern dance, in which a dancer from Pina’s company Tanztheater Wuppertal, talks about the joy of dancing.  In fact, he talks about how Pina had asked him to come up with a movement to express this joy, or “allegria” in his mother tongue. It’s worth the price of admission alone, seeing him dance this movement and the ensemble choreography that Pina created with his movement at its basis. In recent weeks, I’ve gone back to dance class – and I’m loving it.  It’s a hybrid contemporary/jazz class involving the usual stuff – watching the teacher demonstrate choreography and the brain working to get the body to replicate the steps and shapes. It involves getting into small groups and the suspense of the count-in: “And Five-Six-Seven-Eight…” as you prepare to move with other bodies across the diagonal of the space. If the thought of any of that terrifies you, you’re probably still harbouring trauma from childhood ballet. In which case I recommend as therapy seeing “Pina”, or any of the films containing great dance scenes that I mentioned in a previous post. Or maybe just dance in your loungeroom like me as a kid, galloping along with one arm stuck to the side of your head. Or dancing like this guy:

PS: The soundtrack of ‘Pina’ is incredible. Here’s one track from Jun Miyake to throw yourself around to:

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It’s all in the delivery

In ‘Autoluminescent’, a documentary about the late musician Rowland S. Howard, there’s some great live footage of The Birthday Party, with a young Nick Cave writhing on the ground and Rowland, bent over his guitar with the sweat dripping from his face, sending out enough feedback to beach a pod of whales.

When I watch that scene, I can almost smell the testosterone funk of Australian rock in the 80s.

The more delicate parts of the doco involved Rowland talking about singing and songwriting. It’s interesting the language people use when they talk about singing. People talk about ‘delivery’, as if a singer is a midwife bringing songs into the world.

At only 16 – remarkably – Rowland wrote the song ‘Shivers’ and he says in ‘Autoluminescent’ that he intended it to be a wry commentary on teenage love-angst. Its beginning, ‘I’ve been contemplating suicide but it doesn’t really suit my style” is a pretty strong hint that at the time of writing, Rowland’s tongue was firmly in cheek. Yet the chorus, “And my baby’s so vain, she is almost a mirror and the sound of her name, it sends another shiver, down my spine” is just too sophisticated, tender and anthemic to sit quietly with irony – especially when Nick Cave bears down on it with all the drama of youth. When Rowland sings ‘Shivers’ and when Nick sings it, their delivery is so different the song takes on completely different qualities. So it’s no wonder that Rowland, as the song’s writer, thought that Nick Cave’s rendition was somewhat amiss and that Nick, with the benefit of hindsight, thinks that Rowland should have recorded it.

Here are the two different versions. See what you think.

In ‘Autoluminescent’, Rowland talked about his delight on forming his own band and being able to deliver his own material, rather than write songs for Nick Cave’s voice and sensibility. Warming to the theme of how a song’s intention can get distorted, he mentioned Bryan Ferry’s version of ‘You are my sunshine’ and how Bryan had restored that song’s lyrical intent as a song of mourning. ‘Please don’t take my sunshine away.’ It’s about a person’s lover dying but somehow along the way the song’s sadness had been lost. In the repetition of the word ‘sunshine’ it had acquired a nasty veneer of campfire chirpiness. Here’s the Bryan Ferry version of the song:

And the beautiful version by that master of delivery, Johnny Cash.  If you’re feeling particularly mawkish, search out the YouTube clip of Johnny and June Carter performing the song together.

Rowland’s mention of Bryan Ferry and song delivery made me remember a gem I discovered somehow a while back (let’s face it, I was probably cyber stalking Bryan Ferry). This clip is from a 70s TV show in the days of Bryan’s flirtation with jazz standards. Upon seeing this, I wanted to cover this song with my band, chiefly on account of the way Bryan Ferry sings the line ‘Oh how the ghost of you clings’…but luckily a fellow band member considered the song too sentimental for words and vetoed the idea.

The song, ‘These  Foolish Things’ was written in 1936 by Eric Maschwitz, under his pen name Holt Marvell. Supposedly Eric wrote it over the course of one Sunday morning, when he was pining for his lover, a Chinese-American actress, Anna May Wong, who had gone to England. As my friend S. pointed out, this may well be the only video clip in which an ashtray has a starring role.

Compare Bryan Ferry’s delivery with that of Billie Holiday. With the softly swinging instrumentation, I think Lady Day manages to make this song sound like she’s missing her lover while enjoying taking up every inch of the bed she finally has all to herself:

And one last comparison to shed some light on the fine art of song delivery. It’s another big, melancholic love song sung by two of my favourite musicians. Which do I prefer? Don’t make me choose between the children.  Oh, alright then, I prefer the more restrained and rhythmic instrumentation of the David Bowie version. I give you Nina Simone and David Bowie singing ‘Wild is the Wind’. (Ironically, if Nina Simone sang ‘Don’t you know you’re life itself?’ to you directly, it might just kill you.)

David Bowie:

Nina Simone:

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Holiday in Cambodia

Back in Melbourne, I’ve got a cold and the heater is up to 11. Three nights ago, I was sweating under a mosquito net, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of pre-dawn in a rural village in Cambodia. A monk broadcasting from a dodgy PA system; roosters crowing; the chuckling of geckos and the sounds of sleepers nearby, their rustling and snoring carrying through thatched walls.

I’m listening to the dance mix of a song by Srey Thy of  The Cambodian Space Project and it’s reminding me of one of the favourite journeys of my holiday in Cambodia. (Am only just getting that Dead Kennedys song out of my system, by the way.) Among the forms of transport I took on my travels – a speedboat, horse and cart, plane, bus, car, tuk tuk and truck, my favourite by far was a motorbike driven by Jan Muller, AKA Professor Kinski, German ex-soapie star, music producer and long-time resident of Phnom Penh.

“I don’t have helmets or lights but don’t worry – I’m a good driver,” he said, as we headed into the peak hour traffic of the Cambodian capital. He was right. He was a good driver – which was handy, as I was juggling a backpack of recording equipment, a handbag and soon enough, a six-pack of beer. Later, as he steered us expertly past tuk tuks, other motorbikes and the bruising four-wheel-drives of the Cambodian nouveau riche and foreign NGO workers, I asked him about his earlier television career. ‘I forgot to ask you about the character you played,’ I said over his shoulder. Jan took a sip from his can of beer while making a left turn into oncoming traffic, which only served to increase my confidence in his driving ability. ‘Oh you know, I was in the soapie for seven years, so everything that could happen to a character in a soapie happened. I went blind. I turned gay. I was arrested for punching a Nazi in the shoulder…’ ‘Punching a Nazi in the shoulder’? Imagine that sentence in a German accent. Then imagine me trying not to giggle too much, so I didn’t have to explain that accident at the hospital. ‘I was OK with the beer and the bags and the no lights and the no helmets but the ‘punching ze Nartsi on ze shoulder’ made me fall helpless to the road…’

I’d first chatted with Jan by email before heading to Cambodia and had called him the day before at 11am to arrange a meeting. ‘Stephanie! Why are you calling me in the middle of the night?’ I was confused. ‘Are you in Germany?’ ‘No, I’m in my mezzanine bed in Phnom Pehn.’ ‘Are you a vampire?’ I asked. ‘No. We made a big party last night.’ This would be a Tuesday. His band Dub Addiction played the first night of the first music festival in Cambodia – which was held at the south-western riverside town of Kampot. K., J. and I flew in to Phnom Penh from Kuala Lumpur, meeting H., who’d been in Vietnam, at the airport. K. and J. went off to spend the night in Phnom Penh, while H. and I were picked up by our Kampot guesthouse host and driven straight there, which was supposedly a three to four hour trip but our driver, with hand stuck to horn and pedal to metal, made it there in two. The festival had ominous beginnings, with a bunch of older expats snap-frozen in the 60s playing overly loud blues and rock covers featuring the solos of eternity.  It was like Buddhist training, except you could buy jugs of gin and tonic.

The venue, another guesthouse on the Kampot River, was full of young expats, all flirting furiously, fuelled by cheap beer and the jugs of spirits. By the time Dub Addiction finally laid down a bassline, the place was literally heaving with bodies and the humid air was weighty with hormones and the promise of sex in a foreign land. I remembered that I was there partly to record the music for a radio doco and had been sending emails for weeks in order to arrive at precisely this place at precisely this time. H. and I finally gave up the papasan chairs we’d been coveting all night to join the throng on the dance floor. Have a listen to Dub Addiction’s Out in the Streets:

The whole scene reminded me of Darwin in the late 80s, when two entrepreneurial musician arts administrators put together the Northern Territory’s first Indigenous rock festival. The organization was kind of patchy, as was the sound quality. Yet the enterprise had a refreshing rawness and the diamonds in the rough shone that much brighter. It was huge fun.

After the gig, we dragged ourselves away to our waiting tuk tuk driver who motored us along the muddy, potholed road back to our guesthouse on the other side of the river, with barely any light but the half-moon and an eerie green neon in his tuk tuk to guide him. We drove past houses on stilts and rice paddies, still with the driving rhythms and Khmer rapping of Dub Addiction’s MC Curly in our ears. K. and J. would be joining us the next day for the longest day of the festival, which was being held in the grounds of our guesthouse. It was late,  so I tipped our driver generously, inadvertently guaranteeing his availability at any hour of the day for the rest of the weekend.

Kampot River Music Festival could have been sub-titled The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. At least on Saturday, we four had home advantage. If a band pushed rudely past the boundaries of good taste (and I’m not naming names), we could retreat to the verandah of our bungalow or take a swim in the river. Many of the bands were fusion bands of Khmer and ‘barang’ (foreigners), playing intriguing hybrid forms of old Cambodian songs. A few were just your average cover bands made up entirely of expats. People could buy tickets for Friday night separately but weekend tickets were $30, which excluded most Cambodians and – so we were told – foreigners earning local wages. The number of tickets was capped at 100, for capacity reasons. There were some mutterings about the cost from several musicians but the organizer assured me that this was a first-time arrangement. Next year the festival would be bigger, allowing the economy of scale to kick in.

The highlight was the headlining Cambodian Space Project, with the charismatic Srey Thy at the helm. A song about the ‘kangaroo’, which I think was  written by Thy for her Australian partner, Julien Poulson, was dedicated to the four Australians who’d come all the way to Kampot, Cambodia, for the festival. Not being particularly nationalistic, we danced kind of self-consciously and were startled as a non-Australian guest came confidently bounding past us onto the dance floor from stage left, paws held aloft.

We got talking to some of the many French band members at the festival and to Mark and Chris, from Yorkshire and San Diego respectively, now living in Kampot and playing music with two talented locals in a band called Kampot Playboys. We saw them play the final gig of the festival the next afternoon, at a nearby guesthouse which had a pool. Listening to their peculiarly hypnotic brand of homespun Khmer folk mixed with Americana, while floating in the pool in a rubber tyre, was definitely another festival highlight.

Later, we met up with the band at singer/guitarist Chiet’s bar in Kampot before moving on to the bar Art Bar Craze (ABC), a cute French-run place. H. and I had come across Ann, who runs the bar with her husband Johann, the previous day, as we were looking for somewhere to have lunch. Ann was sitting outside the bar, enjoying a plate of gratin dauphinois and green salad. ‘We are not open until later. I was just finishing the last of the gratin dauphinois for my lunch. It is so delicious,’ Ann said, in an outrageous French accent. ‘That was kind of cruel,’ I said. ‘But we’re definitely coming here for dinner after the festival tomorrow.’

I wondered how we would get home from the ABC. I didn’t fancy a dark stumble along the long, muddy road home. Somehow, it was nearly 4am on Monday morning and Kampot’s not the kind of place where you can call a cab. As we rolled out of the bar, Ngo, the driver from Friday night, emerged, smiling and sleepy-eyed, from his tuk tuk, where he’d been napping, awaiting our departure. So the final night of the Kampot River Music Festival ended pretty much like the first, bouncing through the potholes past rice paddies and wooden houses on stilts, our faces lit like a B-movie, in leery green neon.

Spooky!

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Bali and Cambodia, here I come

The best ideas soon take on a life of their own and my, they are sociable creatures. As soon as they leave your head, good ideas are off gallivanting. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of something sparkly as your good idea disappears around a corner and makes its way into a welcoming world. So it is that a conversation with my friend K. at last year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival has evolved into 40 or so people descending upon Ubud, Indonesia, this week to celebrate K.’s 40th birthday. Continue reading

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Filed under Music, Travel