Phnom Penh’s nightlife has exploded in recent years, with a young band of female DJs bucking a global trend to take to the decks. Marissa Carruthers investigates the beat behind the underground music movement, with photography by Conor Wall.
“Just take a look at what’s going on tonight,” says Eddie Newman, who has been at the centre of Cambodia’s nightlife scene for seven years, while flicking through Facebook. A simple search flags up a punk night together with techno, dub-step, drum ‘n’ bass and rock events. “That’s all in the same night here in Phnom Penh, so yeah, things have changed a lot.”
While the city is still a long way from being coined a clubbing capital, there’s a buzz in the air when it comes to underground music. A gold rush of creative talent willing to steer the music market in a new direction, coupled with new nights offering diverse sounds, has edged Phnom Penh towards the epicentre of Southeast Asia’s music map.
“In the next four to five years, this will definitely be the underground music centre of Asia,” predicts the Scotsman, who helped launch popular venue Pontoon and is now gearing up to open the city’s latest nightclub, Code. “It’s really bubbling and it’s an exciting time.”
In the last year alone, a host of new bars and clubs — from The Village to Slur Bar, Backstage and Show Box — have opened their doors. Add to that a selection of new club nights featuring genres such as drum ‘n’ bass, electro, techno and deep house, and you’ve got the start of something big.
“It used to be that you could only hear R’n’B and hip-hop here, and there were only really a few places you could go,” Newman says. “Now there’s a lot more choice. You have Backstage that just opened and Meta House putting on different nights… then DJs like Kimchi Collective and Java Tech, who are introducing new elements to Phnom Penh.”
A Woman’s World
Helping to push the boom is the fact that the burgeoning scene remains in its infancy, leaving a gap for talented amateur DJs to hone their skills in what can be, in developed countries, a hugely competitive environment. This has led to an explosion of opportunities, with women making a notable mark on the scene and bucking a global trend of men dominating the clubbing market.
Lizzie Johnson, AKA Java Tech, is behind the capital’s Berlin Techno nights and believes that “there seems to be an awakening electro scene” that is growing exponentially. Before moving to Cambodia last year to work with the NGO Transparency International Cambodia, the 26-year-old Englishwoman was immersed in the thriving German underground scene. “My passion for techno grew when I was living in Berlin,” she says. “But there wasn’t much here in the way of it so I decided to put on my own night.”
After learning the tricks of the trade from a local music buff, Johnson launched the Berlin Tropical night with her tutor, Julian Poluda AKA DJ Tonle Dub, and DJs Sequence and Mercy, in conjunction with the popular bar Show Box.
The nights allow scores of devoted clubbers to let loose to banging techno beats and have been held at Show Box, on board a boat and in the grounds of The Governor’s House hotel. There are plans to take the taste of Berlin to the jungle and beach in the future. “It filled a void in Phnom Penh,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to bring an idea that’s fairly new and make it happen. It’s been great having a group of like-minded friends.”
But for Johnson, who is also one half of live techno act Java and Stitch, one of the most inspiring elements of the capital’s nightlife is the number of women making musical magic.
“Phnom Penh is an interesting phenomenon. In the whole time I was in Berlin, I went to many DJ parties and festivals, and during the 18 months only saw three female DJs. More exist but they’re massively under-represented,” she says. “However, there seems to be several prominent female DJs here; definitely more than you’d expect. It’s still male dominated but it’s encouraging to see more women coming forward.”
Mercy Ananeh-Frempong, AKA DJ Mercy, believes that the intimate size and creative vibe of the capital has given women the confidence to dabble in the club scene. “I think females with DJ skills, both established and potential, in Cambodia do not feel the intimidation of a bigger city where men often dominate in a survival-of-the-fittest state,” says the 32-year-old Ghanian, who is a freelance consultant working with grassroots NGOs.
“You had Riverhouse and Heart of Darkness and a few other places but it was fairly limited. To find any other genre of music, you’d have to set up private parties,” says Dan Beck, who is part of Kimchi Collective — an innovative DJ group that launched in the capital last year.
Pontoon was one of the first clubs to attract international DJs to the city with Bert Bevans, of New York’s Studio 54 and London’s Ministry of Sound, playing in 2008.
“He was the biggest thing to happen in Cambodia,” says Newman, who first made a name for himself when running the Mosquito Bar on lakeside.
Pontoon became part of local legend that year when an accidental hitch led the venue, then housed on a boat on the Tonle Sap river, to sink into water with partygoers aboard. Three months later and the club was back in business, welcoming aboard international artists such as Major Lazer and Diplo at a mooring off Koh Pich and then, in 2010, at its current land-locked home on Street 172.
It continues to attract big names such as jungle giant Goldie, hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash, Brit breakbeat group the Freestylers, Akil from American group Jurassic 5 and French drum ‘n’ bass artists Dirtyphonics.
“Pontoon was the first time that Phnom Penh really saw underground music come onto the scene,” says Beck, who was involved with the club in 2008. “Suddenly, there were high-profile names here and that was incredible.”
Present Day Phnom Penh
The introduction of famous DJs and performers to Phnom Penh may have planted the city on the musical map, but a new wave of clubbing — with smaller, independent venues opening their doors — is pushing the scene forward.
Kimchi Collective — made up of expats Beck, Bojan Lisac and Balazs Maar with the help of female DJ Cynthia Herman, AKA CynCity — is at its forefront, unleashing cutting edge sounds via a series of underground nights at Meta House since August 2012.
“We were some of the first people to put on small independent nights away from the nightclubs where we focused on the music. This was partly because we love music and also because no one else was playing what we liked,” says Marr.
“Now there seems to be more people in the city that are passionate about music and what goes into it. There are more small independent places and people are doing it because they love the music,” adds Beck.
The Meta House movement has spawned a surge of alternative nights — such as Bass Session, Tech-Penh and Monsoon Underground, which all take place at the venue monthly — giving budding DJs, including Mercy and Java Tech, the chance to perform.
“It’s an energy that is still growing and not fully formed yet,” says DJ Mercy. “It has to be nurtured with tact; and I believe positive collaborations can bring about the most amazing entertainment energy yet to be seen in Cambodia.”
The trend sees no sign of abating. Earlier this year, Backstage opened on the riverside, contributing to the after-hours offering and playing host to Kimchi Collective and Drop Dead Disco, led by 29-year-old Simon Ventham.
The Londoner decided to launch his own tech and house night at the venue after DJing at Top Banana hostel, the Berlin Tropical boat party and the Eighty8 guesthouse. His first two Drop Dead Disco events were such a hit that Ventham, who goes under the DJ name of Simon C Vent, has plans to take it on tour to Otres in Sihanoukville, Kampot and Siem Reap.
“On any given weekend night people can now go and choose between various nights, rather having only one choice or none at all,” he says. “New places like Show Box and Backstage are really pushing the movement in their own directions.”
And while the underground music scene is booming among expats who are familiar with its beats, clubs are also targeting local customers. When Nova opened its doors 18 months ago, it paved the way for high-end clubbing aimed at Cambodians.
“Foreigners are introducing new music, but we are in Cambodia. Playing a lot of electro is great, because I love it, but a lot of Cambodians aren’t ready for that yet because they are not as educated in music and they’re not used to this genre,” says Marco Anthony, the club’s art director, who was born in Phnom Penh and raised in the south of France.
“I wanted to provide them with a different kind of high-end experience. Changing nightlife isn’t just about changing music, it’s about the experience, the offering and the service,” he says.
The designer club was one of the first local venues to create a dedicated, segregated VIP area and impose a dress code that bans flip-flops and encourages clubbers to dress up for the occasion. “I’m happy with that, it’s more exclusive and elegant and that’s what we wanted,” he adds. “For Cambodian people, I’ve seen since we opened, their style has changed and I’m happy about that.”
Newman, who brought British drum ‘n’ bass legend DJ Hype to Phnom Penh last month, is also introducing a new element to Phnom Penh’s scene in the form of Code. The club is due to open this month after being hit by delays.
Enforcing a semi-strict dress code, the venue will host monthly international and regional DJs and aims to cater to a wider audience by opening as a late night bar from Sunday to Wednesday and as a club the rest of the week.
With a vibrant music scene that has exploded in a short space of time, it’s little wonder there are high hopes that one day, in the not so distant future, Phnom Penh could be an underground party destination.
“I can only see the scene getting bigger and bigger and hopefully soon we will have access to more big name DJs to drop in on their tours of Asia,” says Ventham. “I’d like to think that Phnom Penh can soon stand out as the underground music capital of Southeast Asia.”
Feel the Beat
Berlin Tropical: Electro beats and minimal techno sounds, with the occasional taste of drum ‘n’ bass thrown in for good measure, held at various venues across Phnom Penh.
Drop Dead Disco: Nu disco, house and techno headed by Simon C Vent with support from Chris Rogy. Held monthly at Backstage, 377 Sisowath Quay.
Tech-Penh: Minimal techno, electro and tech-house, held monthly at Meta House at 37 Sothearos Blvd.
Monsoon Underground: Selection of underground sounds, from electro to drum ‘n’ bass, held monthly at Meta House at 37 Sothearos Blvd.
Nova Penthouse: Music from the top clubs of Miami, London and New York at Nova on Street 214, held every other Friday.