The Khmer Fusion Project is a group of four very young Californian musicians who decided, in a karmic way, to pack up and move to Cambodia, at first to learn traditional instruments and music and record them for archival purposes. After being there a while and learning from various masters, they decided to create a fusion of jazz and Cambodian music. With the help of the Silapak Khmer Amatak, an organization created in 1998 by Arn Chorn-Pond to preserve and promote the Khmer arts, each band member studies an instrument with a Cambodian master.
Their motives are totally pure: they hope that their efforts can create some income for the masters, as well as increase interest in Cambodia and its music. Many of the masters died during the purges and destruction brought on by the Khmer Rouge, and the country still has not recovered from that hellish period of the '60s and '70s.
The accompanying literature talks a bit about the difficulties that arise in any attempt to fuse Western and Cambodian music. For one thing, the Eastern scales are different in both construction and actual pitch, making the music sound very strange to Western ears, and basically impossible to reproduce on even-tempered Western instruments. Harmony and polyphony are also treated differently, while improvisation is unknown in the Cambodian tradition. The issue then, is what is possible to fuse from two such disparate systems, especially when jazz values improvisation and Cambodian music ignores it. Yet, the Cambodian masters were open to these Westerners' attempts to mix the two musics.
The results are interesting, to say the least. Most of the tracks involve the band taking a traditional Khmer melody, with or without a master playing at first, and applying to it a Western rhythm and harmony. What comes out can sound strange, especially at first. Yim Seng plays "The Barber on pi poh (reed flute) to a sort of funky rhythm and slinky bass line. Carlton-Pearson then cranks up his distortion and plays an solo that could be from twenty years ago, followed by some electronics. Likewise, Yun Theara starts "Sobay Chant on tro sau (two-string fiddle), but the piece is then taken on an epic jam trip for the next five minutes. The vocals by Savy on "Juno Katah sound very strange to Western ears, especially when backed by almost psychedelic guitar.
Two tracks, however, come at the fusion from the other direction, approaching a well-known jazz tune with Cambodian instruments, plus some standard Western instruments (and electronics) that take over. Wayne Shorter's "Footprints is the more successful of the two; there is something about the ethereal melody that lends it to this treatment. "Take Five is played almost totally with Cambodian instruments, and it would have an almost comical air about it if everyone were not so serious. The 5/4 meter stands out as weird in this 4/4 world.
The cross-pollination does grow on you, and I look forward to the further adventures of the Khmer Fusion Project.
Track Listing: The Barber; Sat Mahaori; Pinn Peat; Footprints; Sobay Chant; Juno Katah; Take Five;
Smaong; Kyal Rompeuypat; What's Happening; Unknown Traditional; A Snapshot.
Personnel: Eli Carlton-Pearson: guitar, bass, roneat, gong, composer; Parker Barnes: bass, roneat,
gong, composer; Beau Sievers: drums, skor dai, shaker, roneats, gong. skor thom,
electronics, composer; Ben Lerer: chapei dong veng, composer; Yim Seng: pi poh; Yun
Theara: tro sau, tro ou, tro khmer; Savy: vocals.