Krom on! A Conversation with Cambodian Expat Christopher Minko – Part I
I first became aware of Christopher Minko and the Khmer musicians who make up the band Krom when the lyrics to some of their songs appeared in Phnom Penh Noir (Heaven Lake Press – 2012) edited by Christopher G. Moore. The more you learn about the Minko and Krom story the more you are drawn to it. Christopher Minko was born and raised in the country that rightfully has earned the moniker of, “The Lucky County”, Australia. Music was emphasized at an early age; his mother being a concert pianist. He now lives in what could easily be cast as one of the unluckiest countries, working with people who were not born into fortune but have found ways to make their lives a success, despite enormous obstacles.
I have long been a fan of lyrics as stand alone works of art, so I was perfectly comfortable with the idea of musical lyrics appearing in a book of noir short stories. I was comfortable with the idea, but the actual lyrics created occasional discomfort. It never occurred to me, at the time, that was part of the Krom message and the Minko plan. Christopher Minko screams what few dare to whisper. Because to whisper his messages would be to acknowledge the existence of a dark abyss not occupying a fictional world but a real one. And that gets many of us, including me, out of our comfort zone. Here is an excerpt from the lyrics of one such song, which can be found on the last two pages of Phnom Penh Noir titled, TANGO TRAFFIC TANGO:
The cattle class
Of ancient Men
Are greeted with open arms
Welcome to our daughters
We breed them on our farms
Ripe for human trafficking
We sell their innocent charms
Yea, air traffic
And human trafficking
Where money and sex are king
Yea, human trafficking
Where money and sex are king
So welcome to our daughters
We breed them on our farms
Open up and take them
In your aging sagging arms
Yea, welcome to our daughters
We breed them on our farms
So thank goodness or badness or darkness, or whatever you wish to call it, because somebody or something needs to get us out of our comfort zone more often. One of those people is Christopher Minko, the lead man for the noir band Krom with a Khmer edge, whom I welcome here today for a lengthy two-part interview:
KC: Christopher Minko, welcome to Thailand Footprint. I’m an old basketball junkie. And although my playing days are well behind me, I continue to think it is a great game and see the beauty in it. In basketball you have 5 starters. On the court, they need to get along, to be unselfish, to cooperate, and to acknowledge they are part of something bigger than themselves. After the game is over, they can get along together or not. It doesn’t really matter. At the professional level , these are referred to as a one taxi team or a five taxi team. My question to you is, does the principal apply to bands? Is it necessary to get along with each other after you finish playing or can you play well on stage and then go your separate ways after the gig? Have you played with mostly one taxi bands, five taxi bands or a combination in your career? And finally how would you characterize Krom, on and off the stage?
CM: Kevin – firstly – my appreciation along with thanks from Krom – it’s a great blog site you are maintaining and we are honoured at the interview – You first question – a tough question indeed – I’ve been a professional musician a number of times in this rather twisted life of mine to date – The early 80’s were spent playing with cult Australian Band “The Bachelors from Prague” which was without doubt 5 different cabs combined with the folly of egoistical youth – great band but we split when one half wanted to go Tijuana Brass whilst personally I was along the lines of that gentleman deviant Chet Baker (at that time I played both trumpet and guitar) – the split could be slightly compared to the current state of Thai politics insofar that friendships were certainly shattered (not all) –however a violent breakup it wasn’t.
Now Krom – that’s a very different story – believe it or not –as I am nearing 60 years of age – I am now working in the most professional band I have ever worked with – In one way very much a one taxi band – tight ,well rehearsed, disciplined, cohesive and very professional – there are many that say the live shows are even better than the CD’s (we appreciate that compliment…) however there are some very interesting points about Krom that create the unique signature Krom sound. It’s also important to note that both Sophea Chamroeun (Krom co-founder / songwriter and lead vocals) and Sopheak Chamroeun (lead vocals) have studied Cambodian traditional dance and music under the best of masters since they were 12 through the international acclaimed “Cambodian Living Arts Program” plus both are recent graduates of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh – they both have a very professional work ethic and approach to their work with Krom.
Hey: Can’t forget my good friend and musical colleague, multi-instrumentalist, Jimmy B who is the fourth member of Krom and understands my music better than most.
So – to Kromthings: Firstly – Let me get this one out of the way before I start – I have little to no time for whiteboy bands or musicians trying to play the music of another culture (in this case Cambodian music) –for me the resulting sound of white boys playing Khmer music sounds clichéd and tacky plus locals just do it better – that’s just the way it is – and I have a deep love and respect for Khmer music – therefore, I would never dare, out of respect, to tamper with this remarkable music created by Cambodians – That now said – Krom is, and always will be, a Phnom Penh based bi-lingual band (Khmer and English) playing original compositions – the key to the original music of Krom is the following formula which is not easy to do from a composers viewpoint as you have to have your ego well under control to allow this to happen with your compositions – noting also – once in a while remarkable musical partnerships of unique productivity evolve – such is the relationship between Sophea Chamroeun, the Krom lead vocalist, and I – Sophea seems to just totally understand where I am coming from with the Krom music – however I digress – back to the Krom formula – for 3 years now Kromsongs simply pour out of me (there is a reason for that explained at the end of this answer) – what I do is record the guitar foundations of a Krom song, put it on a memory stick and then hand it to Sophea without saying a word or even humming a suggested melody riff (this is where one puts the ego in a box and closes the lid) – Sophea goes away and totally on her own creates the Khmer lyrics and vocal melody without any influence whatsoever from me – All I can say is that she has never ever let me (or Krom) down in this regard and I am always so surprised (and usually very excited) at what sounds she builds around the delta blues picking of my guitar work and compositions – I use the same principle of respect with our Khmer producer, Sarin Chhuon, who then also adds his own unique Khmer interpretation of the master tapes and at the end you have the rather unique signature sound that is Krom.
I should also mention the social issues that Krom touches on within many of the Krom lyrics with a focus on the ever ongoing tragedy of sexual trafficking and sexually slavery which is prolific in South East Asia along with being nurtured and developed as a major industry by the very corrupt ruling elites of the South East Asian nations who are willing , as I sing in The Kromsong “Tango Traffic Tango” – “to sell their daughters” – sorry – but that’s the harsh brutal (mostly denied) truth about these societies and it needs to be sung about – that’s simply part of what Krom do.
Sophea and Sopheak, in theier own way, are very courageous individuals and represent the first wave of (dare I say) protest singers or singers of songs of social justice, to come out of Cambodia – interesting development indeed.
Something also of great relevance to Krom is the ongoing Noir related themes (Kroms debut 2012 album is suitably titled “Songs from the Noir”)– apart from a rather Noir life led, ouch – there are rather dark sides to the Minko story that should remain unspoken for a variety of reasons…(Ah ain’t no saint…) – all Krom lyrics are very personal and there is a true (and often very dark) story or seven within all Kromsongs. I should also acknowledge renowned Bangkok based Noir author, Christopher G. Moore, and our ongoing friendship which has resulted in me using words from Christopher’s novels in the Krom song, the Ying and other songs. I believe Christopher Moore should be acknowledged for his lead role in the development of the now internationally recognized and growing creative movement known as South East Asia Noir – Many of us involved in the Noir movement ,including the 2ndgeneration of Asian Noir writers such as Tom Vater and other recent newcomers, are deeply indebted to Moore for his decades of effort to promote and develop SE Asian Noir as a recognized creative genre.
And noting your Blog site’s title, Thailand Footprint – allow me to make a personal reference to Thailand: My wife who came from Thailand and the mother of my now 20 year old daughter passed away 3 years ago – as a result of her death and the associated personal grief, I returned to my musical roots – out of something so sad (her passing) came Krom – A remarkable woman from Bangkok who left a unique legacy called Krom…………….
KC: Thanks for being so candid, Christopher. I expected nothing less. Shifting gears for a moment, talk to me about your role in disability awareness and disability sports in Cambodia.
CM: Ah – the Disability work – easy answer to that one: “Keeps a man’s feet firmly on the ground and properly humble” – 18 years have been spent working with rural based Cambodians with a Disability via sports and other small scale socio economic developmental projects based on poverty alleviation –These persons with a Disability are truly inspiring people who put one’s own life very much into a proper less selfish perspective – an ongoing humbling experience whereby I have truly learnt one core rule about life – “we are all disabled” – (after all – who the hell has the ferkin right to define normality ?). Disability sports are still very embryonic in Cambodia however we have reached great heights over the years, despite the odds, including reaching current No 2 in the world in Volleyball (Men’s – beating Australia, Canada, USA, Korea and everyone else,(except for the goddam Germans – that’s yet to happen but it will – rest assured)
At the moment my disability work focuses on assisting women with a more severe disability (women in wheelchairs) through wheelchair basketball – an exceptional program of women successfully rebuilding their lives through a highly disciplined – note the word – discipline – No touchy feely bullshit is allowed in our programs – If you don’t pull your weight – we throw you out – this philosophy / methodology works wonders (much to the horror of the horrid politically correct NGO world and their endless fruitless hugging workshops…)…) and we now have 32 highly committed women, 16 of whom will, for the first time ever, represent Cambodia at the Korea 2014 Asia Para games
Most of all – like I said – keeps a bloke very humble…………….probably keep doing this work part time until I die as its simply remarkable work with very dignified people who have so little – yet have so much – you can see the impact and strength of the women in the photos
In their own odd way, somehow, the disability / social justice work and the music of Krom go beautifully hand in hand
KC: It’s interesting to me how you stated the disability / social justice work you do in Cambodia and the music of Krom go beautifully together. I can understand how that would be the case. That leads to an idea you and I have discussed before and it seems appropriate to discuss here. That is the possibility of a Goodwill wheelchair basketball game being held in Thailand between the Cambodian women’s team and the Thailand women’s team. Let’s talk about why it is such a good idea. Maybe we can get the ball rolling so to speak to make that happen. And of course a Krom gig in Thailand after the game is over would be doubly nice as well. I can think of so many reasons why a game of sport like that makes sense. But right now a lot of things that don’t make much sense to me are happening in Bangkok. Let’s not talk negative politics, for now, tell me your reasons why a wheelchair basketball game held in Thailand, sometime in 2014, would be a win/win for the two countries no matter what the score may read when the actual game is over?
CM: Both Krom and the Women’s Wheelchair Project are linked to social justice / poverty alleviation, and a very interesting note: sexual trafficking + sexual abuse are also a common theme – few realize that sexual abuse against Cambodian women with a Disability is 7 times higher than with non disabled women – they are easier to exploit – many of the CNVLD women are survivors of this form of abuse.
Your question / Query is perfect timing
We all know that Sport can be a powerful vehicle when it comes to fostering healing goodwill and harmony amongst nations( and often within a nation for that matter…) one only has to refer to Mr Mandela and his use of sports a as mechanism to heal wounds between black and white south Africans as an excellent example of this . All of us recognize the long and ever ongoing animosity between Thailand and Cambodia so what better way to start the ball rolling than to organize that the Cambodian Women’s wheelchair basketball team go to Thailand – back to the perfect timing of your question – right now I have Cambodia’s first ever National Women’s Wheelchair Basketball team in place (recently selected by international experts) – they have had three coaching tenures under foreign coaches (from OZ and USA)over the past 2 years as part their development however they have never played on an international standard indoor court (polished wood or high tech sports floor surface) – As you know the CNVLD is supported by the ICRC and we do have the funds in place for transporting the team to Thailand and back to Cambodia – what we are looking for is an organization / and – or – individuals who could host such a visit – 15 persons in total – 12 of whom are women with a disability – and host this group for 4-7 days including identifying and organizing a proper sports venue to train and what would be even better – Is there a Thai Women’s Wheelchair basketball that would like to compete against our team? – we are ready to come – just need to find reliable partners at the Thai end who can assist with the organization / hosting – and it doesn’t matter where in Thailand ! – note – Its essential that the Cambodian team practice on an international standard court before they compete internationally, for the first time ever, at the Korea Asia Para Games – Oct 2014. Such a project would be as you say, definite win-win for both nations and one would hope that this would lead to an annual exchange between Thai and Cambodian athletes with a disability including Thai athletes also coming over to Battambang for training and competition sessions with CNVLD athletes– I’ve long wanted this to happen also given my long term and close relationship to both Thailand and Cambodia – 2 nations, that , from all aspects – economically, socially, and culturally –urgently need to start working closer on a positive level with each other –I’d truly appreciate any assistance your readers may be able to offer with such a potential goodwill visit and value that you have raised this issue – as said – we are ready to roll ! ( ……….and win…)
And – YES –off course, for many personal, historical and other reasons, I would love to see Krom performing in Bangkok – after all many of the Kromsongs emanate from this truly remarkable city and we are honoured that Christopher G Moore has already agreed to MC the historic debut of “Krom in Bangkok” when we get there (hopefully soon)
KC: A wheelchair basketball game between the two countries with some Krom music afterwards would sure beat the games being played in Bangkok presently and the noise being made, which is not music to anybody’s ears I know. I’ll make a few phone calls this month myself. We’re going to call it a day here. Part 2 of Thailand Footprint’s Christopher Minko interview will run tomorrow and deal heavily with social justice issues in Cambodia and the region, particularly human trafficking. Christopher Minko doesn’t pull any punches. You may not agree with everything he says, but you better have your facts in order if you plan to disagree. Stay tuned. But until then you can check out Minko and Krom at the links below. To fully appreciate them, they must be listened to. So have a listen to Mango Madness, Monsoon Sadness by Krom on one of their YouTube videos:
Krom albums: Neon Dark / Songs from the Noir are available via ITUNES / CD Baby / AMAZON / SPOTIFY
Krom on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/user/themekongsessions/videos
Krom on Face book: https://www.facebook.com/KromSong
@Kromsong on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/kromsong
Official website: http://www.themekongsessions.com/
This interview may also be seen at Chiang Mai City News by clicking the above banner
One Response to “Krom on! A Conversation with Cambodian Expat Christopher Minko – Part I”
I must check them out