The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll lives on. Ellie Dyer gets ‘All Shook Up’ during a meeting with Cambodia’s own Elvis Fandango. Photography by Charles Fox.
It was a bar in Sihanoukville that first introduced Carlyle Laurent to the powerful charisma of rock legend Elvis Presley. As a video of one of the late superstar’s concerts began to play in the beachside venue, the Welshman sat transfixed by the icon’s magnetic performance.
“I knew the name Elvis, and heard his songs, but he didn’t do anything for me really. But when I saw his concert, I realised who he was, and why he was called the ‘King of Rock and Roll’,” the expat recalls. “I thought, my God, that’s why he was so popular.“
The show sparked something within Laurent, then aged in his 40s. For
the first time since his days in the school choir, the Welshman began to sing, later dedicating hours to learning the lyrics and phrasing of classic Elvis tracks.
Eight years on from that fateful day in Sihanoukville and the performer’s musical career has blossomed in line with his passion for all things Presley. Laurent, who moved to Cambodia in 2003, now regularly performs musical tributes to the King, sometimes singing a mammoth 50 tracks in one night as ‘Elvis Fandango’.
“As long as there’s a crowd, I keep singing,” Laurent says, settling down in a small Phnom Penh café the morning before a recent gig. “I’ve been at it studying, writing down the songs. Every day I’ve got a book in front of me, and I’m learning songs.”
Despite his love of the King – who died aged 42 in 1977 after decades in the music business, during which he performed famous hits such as ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Love Me Tender’ – his stage name was a happy accident.
Having formerly performed jazz and the blues as Carlos Fandango, one night he was announced onto the stage as ‘Elvis Fandango’. “He renamed and reimaged me just like that,” he chuckles.
The move has paid off, with the former steel jewellery trader now fronting Elvis-inspired gigs across the country, including Phnom Penh. The city itself has a rich history of 1960s and 1970s rock, a time when musicians were influenced by the new styles sweeping the world, blending them with traditional Cambodian sounds to craft hypnotic and unique music.
The era has been recently documented in the film Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll, which combines interviews with surviving musicians and unearthed archival film of period performances in the world’s first in-depth look at a critical cultural moment that was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge regime.
And along with modern bands like Dengue Fever and The Cambodian Space Project, Laurent is helping to keep the era’s influences alive.
Back in the café, the affable entertainer digs a heavy retro silver microphone out from his bag. Next comes a wide-cuffed purple shirt – tailor-made for his show – that complements both the elegant necktie loosely knotted around his neck and his impressive mutton-chop sideburns, which echo Elvis’ iconic own.
“When I was 20, people said I looked like Elvis. I thought they were being silly. Well, when I was 17, I had them – everybody had them,” the former businessman says, referring to his facial hair. “They’ve been resurrected through my life. They’ve
come back and forth since I started singing.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Laurent’s act is his voice, demonstrated when he breaks into a version of ‘In The Ghetto.’ The deep, soulful croon has touches of vibrato, and is made all the more impressive when coupled with Laurent’s on-stage moves.
“I jump around like a wild man. Every note I’m moving,” he says, explaining that he is a fan of Elvis’ country hits, such as ‘Green Green Grass of Home’. “I didn’t realise until I saw a video of myself, I just keep moving.”
Laurent, whose own father was a well-known musician in Southern Wales known as the ‘Banjo Player of Trecco Bay’, also identifies with his icon. After being drafted into
the US army in 1957, Presley went on to be based in Germany, much like British army veteran Laurent.
And though the King has passed on, his music lives on – even in Cambodia where Laurent admits he’s probably the only Elvis tribute, for now at least.
“You’re bringing him alive by just doing it,” he says.
For more information on Laurent’s work and upcoming gigs, visit the Elvis Fandango Facebook page.