In a tiny Phnom Penh studio, US teenagers with musical backgrounds ranging from jazz to punk are collaborating with traditionally trained Cambodian musicians on a unique project.
The four Americans, after studying traditional Khmer instruments for several months here, hatched a plan to record an album with their teachers and friends, blending Western and Khmer instruments, styles and compositions.
"I do think that we are actually for once doing something that no one has done before," says guitarist Eli Carlton-Pearson, 18, who is laying down final tracks before returning to the United States to mix the album.
The trailblazing musical experimentation has yielded some impressive and mature sounds — sultry chords, prowling and sophisticated melodies, an occasional haunting voice and jazzy improvisation.
The record features some 25 instruments, such as the flute-like pipoh and the tse diu, a one-stringed Khmer instrument played over the chest and featured on the bas reliefs of the famed Angkor Wat temples.
"There’s everything from soul instruments playing heartbreaking monophonic melodies, to dozens of instruments playing cacophony," Carlton-Pearson says of the recordings.
Yun Theara, the key Cambodian musician on the album, says he is thrilled by the idea and calls their collaboration "a delicious food that two different nations can eat together."
Yun, 46, was taught to play a range of traditional instruments by his father from the age of eight, including the tror ou, a low-pitched string fiddle.
He had a promising musical career ahead of him until the sweep to power by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 saw him evacuated from Phnom Penh to the countryside.
"I tried to play one time for them to listen, but they said they didn’t need musicians, only workers," he says of the regime held responsible for the deaths of up to two million people during their pursuit of an agrarian utopia.
The Khmer Rouge’s 1975-1979 genocide decimated Cambodian society, including its rich traditional musical heritage, with many musicians killed and others such as Yun losing crucial sections of their artistic knowledge.
By the time peace finally came to Cambodia in 1998, tinny pop and karaoke music imported from Thailand and China had easily usurped traditional music’s place of reverence, with few young people now interested in the older genres.
"They don’t like it, and I’m very sorry about this but I don’t blame them," says Yun, who would nevertheless like to see the new album open up Cambodia’s youth to the potential of their own music.
"We can mix our scales with the foreign scale. We can keep our traditional music and we can change it, too, to use Western ideas," says the musician, a vice dean at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts.
Carlton-Pearson describes the state of traditional music here as "threatened, but still strong".
"You don’t have to look too hard to find amazing Cambodian musicians playing remarkable music," he says.
In particular, the American heaps praise on the accomplished Yun, claiming he "has enough musical knowledge for four minds" and can slide between the two musical spheres with ease.
But even for Yun, the process of collaboration has been trying.
"Foreign music and Khmer music are completely different," he says, explaining that the scales are distinct, which accounts for the dissonance Westerners hear — and sometimes find unpalatable — in Cambodian music.
"We have a different language, different music and even the style of playing is different. It took a long time, we had to try hard before we could just mix it together," Yun says.
"And technically, that room… ," he says, shaking his head as he refers to the recently converted studio covered in ceramic tiles, which proved an acoustic nightmare and was one of an array of challenges the musicians faced.
Parker Barnes, a 19-year-old double bass player, has been instrumental in the cross-cultural fusion project, having studied traditional Khmer music last year in Phnom Penh with some of the aging masters.
Now he’s back, and hoping that the album might help towards getting Cambodia’s under-appreciated master musicians, who have few opportunities to perform, back into work.
"Many musicians who were once the best at what they are doing are now sitting at home and can’t get a job. This is partly an attempt to maybe inspire some Cambodian musicians who have such expertise to keep playing."
But above all, the guitarist Carlton-Pearson says, it’s about the music.
"If people think we’ve made good music, just flat out good music, not in spite of anything … but something that can be appreciated on a purely musical level, that would be cool."