Tributes poured in Tuesday for Cambodian Space Project lead singer Kak Channthy, with friends and fans bidding farewell to her vibrant spirit and unforgettable voice after the singer was killed in a traffic accident in the early hours of the morning.
Channthy was 38. She is survived by her 13-year-old son, Makara, and two brothers, whom she helped support throughout her life.
Channthy became internationally renowned as the frontwoman for the Cambodian Space Project, a band formed in 2009 that has toured around the world and rejuvenated the Cambodian rock ’n’ roll sound of the 1960s.
A screengrab from a music video featuring the Cambodian Space Project and Paul Kelly doing a cover of the Nancy Sinatra song Summer Wine. Supplied/Cambodian Space Project
Admirers on Tuesday mourned the loss of “Srey Thy”, who overcame poverty and hardship and whose peerless voice carried her from humble beginnings in Prey Veng to the international stage.
Channthy was travelling in an auto-rickshaw with a British friend near the intersection of Street 163 and Mao Tse Toung Boulevard in Phnom Penh when they were struck by the 21-year-old driver of a Toyota Prius on Tuesday.
Born in Prey Veng province in 1980, Channthy entered a world in which Cambodian artists, intellectuals and singers had been forced into exile or killed under the Khmer Rouge regime, which held the country in chains from 1975 until 1979.
“To find a singer like Channthy is like discovering a young Etta James or Nina Simone. She’s really the barefoot Cambodian diva of the rice fields”
From a very young age she had to work to support her impoverished family. She began farming rice before moving on to work in rubber plantations as a child, often alone, at a time when there were “still many bandits around”, as she recalled in a previous interview.
After moving to Phnom Penh as a teenager, she laboured on building sites and, according to one interview, cleaned homes for $7.50 per month.
During her working life before the Cambodian Space Project, she recalled a terrifying moment.
“Once I was tricked by the owner of a beauty salon, kidnapped and tied up to a bed in a room where no-one could hear me scream but I kept yelling out and later a woman came, I still don’t know who she is, and helped me escape,” Channthy said, in an interview published on the band’s website.
Later, she was offered work as a karaoke singer in a beer garden. “I got $2 a day and felt lucky about this,” she said.
It was here that she met Julien Poulson, an Australian musician. Although she spoke little English and he spoke little Khmer, a creative and romantic partnership blossomed. In 2009 the pair founded the Cambodian Space Project and later they married.
The Cambodian Space Project covered the songs of Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron, melding a sense of nostalgia with their own unique psychedelic rock.
They have worked with the likes of Paul Kelly and Dennis Coffey and have performed in Hong Kong, Texas, Melbourne, London and Berlin, as well as in rural villages dotted across Cambodia. Most recently, the band has been part of a compilation project of covers of the legendary rocker Iggy Pop featuring Cambodian acts.
Channthy branched out further in recent years, launching her own band in late 2016, Channthy Cha Cha, collaborating with Australian poet and musician Scott Bywater. Her story has also been the subject of the 2015 documentary feature film, The Cambodian Space Project: Not Easy Rock ‘N’ Roll.
“To find a singer like Channthy,” Poulson told Public Radio International in 2013, “is like discovering a young Etta James or Nina Simone. She’s really the barefoot Cambodian diva of the rice fields.”
He has also likened her to a “Southeast Asian Amy Winehouse”.
Poulson, who since separated from Channthy, on Tuesday described her as “a love of my life”.
“She was equally at ease with duchesses and waitresses, Cambodian and barang, and took the attention that was lavished upon her with a pinch of salt and a cheeky grin”
“Channthy lived a life that has touched so many and is sadly gone,” he said in an email.
“She was a beautiful soul and spirit who touched all who knew her and she will always be loved and remembered for this, my heart is broken but my memories are filled with joy of having shared a life with her and I will never forget her.”
Guitarist Jason Shaw said he and other members of the Cambodian Space Project were crushed by the loss of “a true superstar”.
“We are all devastated; Channthy was our world. She represented hope for all Cambodian women and we loved her deeply,” he said.
Cambodian singer Mealea Lay, who sings under the stage name Miss Sarawan in the sixties style, said Channthy gave her the inspiration and courage to pursue her own dream of singing, and she was shocked and saddened by her death.
“I saw her performance and I really liked her style,” Lay said, describing an effervescent stage presence that made her dance long into the night.
“I have the same feeling like her and I wished to be on the stage some day.”
Members of The Cambodian Space Project perform in New York in September 2017. All images by Steve Porte
Fellow musician Bywater said that he was privileged to share the stage with her across many projects.
“She was and will continue to be an inspiration. We played together, toured together, went through the ups and the downs and the twists and turns of life together,” he said.
“She was equally at ease with duchesses and waitresses, Cambodian and barang, and took the attention that was lavished upon her with a pinch of salt and a cheeky grin.”
“She will be missed by many a music fan, many a lover of Cambodia, and by the multitudes that she made feel special with her gracious presence, as a singer and songwriter or just as a sparkling flash of light that made a whole room feel blessed.”
Young Cambodian musician Vartey Ganiva said she had met Channthy recently to organise a concert with the goal of empowering women.
“It’s just unbelievable,” she said. “She’s a role model for young performers, she’s really talented … she’s got a good message to the Khmer people too, because in Cambodia, women are not seen as strong. She is always strong.
“My heart was breaking because we lose her. I hope she can have a good life in the next life and I am sending love to her family, especially her son.”
Chak Sopheap, of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, remembered Channthy as “a strong and inspirational woman who will be dearly missed by many”, and who was a supporter of human rights and equality.
“Her journey and achievements can inspire many, especially young Cambodian women,” she said. “Channthy also made a great contribution to Cambodian arts and culture, by re-imagining old Khmer classics and bringing them to the international arena, as well as by producing many original hits which took inspiration from Khmer style.”
Kak Channthy in Prey Veng, her home province, in January 2017. Image: Steve Porte
Cambodian-Australian woman Kong Suntary worked as Channthy’s translator for around five years since 2010. She recalled a woman who was initially too shy to show her written lyrics to anyone. As she was largely illiterate in Khmer and English, her penned notes were in a language only she could understand.
Suntary and her husband bought books in both languages and Channthy’s reading, writing and English improved drastically.
“Channthy had a beautiful voice, harking back to the 1960s,” Suntary said. She remembered Channthy’s joy at discovering she could eat prahok and traditional Khmer food at Suntary’s home during a stint in Australia.
“Channthy has done a lot for her family, and we feel so much pity for her son and how he will handle life without his mother,” she said.
Her quick mastery of words stunned those who worked with her, including Bywater, who recalls her writing the final verse and melody to their song River in about 10 minutes.
“Don’t trouble yourself with too much thinking / let your mind be strong,” she wrote. “The wind will blow thoughts / one way or another / we cannot know everything / the river stays while the water / travels on and is gone.”
In an interview that appeared on the Cambodian Space Project’s website last year, Channthy said she loved Cambodia deeply, but lamented the “many social problems”, which she put down to “poverty and the gap between rich and poor”.
“I don’t know if music or art can really help in the short term but for me, music has always been a solace, bringing hope and love and helping to overcome hard times,” she said.
“When I’m singing, I feel like I’m flying,” she says in the documentary Not Easy Rock ‘N’ Roll.
“These old songs can awaken the love we had back then and wash away our sorrow.”
Lead image: Steve Porte. Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the fatal accident took place near Phnom Penh's Sun and Moon Hotel. In fact, it took place at the intersection of Street 163 and Mao Tse Toung Boulevard. A previous version of this article also misstated the source of remarks by Julien Poulson. They were provided in an email, not a Facebook post.