British Artist Blends Electronica With Ancient Khmer Sounds

Traditional Buddhist chanting and minimalist electronica are mu­sical genres you rarely hear mentioned in the same breath. But when London-based musician Da­vid Gunn landed in Phnom Penh in 2010, he had ambitious plans to unite the two.

Following a successful online crowdsourcing project, Mr. Gunn embarked on a six-week residency with Cambodian Living Arts, where he formed Krom Monster, a five-piece consisting of himself and four Cambodians, fusing traditional Khmer instrumentation with electronic beats.

After two shows in Phnom Penh, the 35-year-old returned to the U.K. and began producing the band’s eponymous first album, which was released in 2013.

Now, he’s back in Cambodia for a trip that will culminate in a show at the National Museum on Sunday.

“The predominant thing on the musical menu in Phnom Penh is either expat bands or hip-hop stuff, which is OK, but for me it isn’t a terribly deep engagement with Khmer musical history,” Mr. Gunn said.

“There’s the ’60s guitar band stuff, which again is interesting, but like anywhere, Cambodia has such a longer, richer musical history. There’s like 500 years of mu­sical history there, so the main aim was: Can we take that and recontextualize it?” he said.

The Cambodian musicians in the band play a variety of ancient instruments, some believed to be pre-Angkorian, including the one-stringed tro sao and ksa diew, and the xylophone-esque roneat aek. The local artists provide the sonic bedrock of the project, Mr. Gunn explained, with the electronics providing a different context for the instruments.

Conceding that this fresh take may not be appreciated by some musical purists, Mr. Gunn said that most masters of the traditional arts had appreciated the dive into un­charted territory.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s taking it away from Khmer tradition. Some of it is quite daring: [In] one of the new songs, we sampled ‘smot,’ which is basically Cambodian fu­neral music to a dance rhythm, so it’s trying to do that in a way that’s in­teresting,” he said.

This view was echoed by band member Lun Sophanith, 25, who learned the ksa diew from his grandfather while growing up in Takeo province.

“My grandfather is a master of classical music. [He] can play a lot of traditional instruments,” Mr. So­phanith said. “For my grandfather, my family and parents, they support me because they want [me] to play so I can play music with oth­er countries and other peoples.”

“My friends, when they see my group Krom Monster—traditional instruments remixed with electronic computer—maybe [they] feel strange, but they say, ‘Oh very good, it’s so nice.’ They’ve never seen like this.”

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