The din was typical of a hot, dusty Phnom Penh afternoon: honking horns, screeching children and the clatter of metal poles being unloaded from the back of a motorbike. And in the midst of it all, a voice and the sweet strumming of a guitar, which attracted curious gazes from those on wheel and on foot. Not because of the quality of the singing or playing, but because the music was being played in the back of a tuk-tuk as it bumped along outside Central Market.
This is the Tuk-Tuk Sessions, a candid and whimsical way of showcasing the city and its talent, both homegrown and foreign, by recording videos of musicians playing and singing from the back seat of one of Cambodia’s stalwart methods of transport.
Australians Rory Hunter, who works for the Mekong River Commission, and Allan Soutaris, a Web developer with Friends International, met and began jamming together, sometimes performing at open mic nights. Their shared love of Phnom Penh and music led them to what has now become a weekly project, in which videos of performances are uploaded to a website every Friday.
“We’d seen some clips of the [London] Black Cab Sessions and decided we’d like to do a send-up,” said Mr Soutaris.
“We really wanted to show the city’s sights and sounds not only for our friends and family back home, but also for people who live here and lived here,” said Mr Hunter.
The first take, which featured Mr Hunter and Mr Soutaris singing the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” in a tuk-tuk while driving around the riverside area, was recorded as a joke on a lazy Sunday off from work.
But when it was uploaded to YouTube and Facebook on Feb 22, the requests started pouring in. Some people even asked if they could appear in a video themselves.
With his background in Web design, Mr Soutaris built a website and the pair, with their friend and fellow Melburnian Dustin Barter behind the camera, began recording and stockpiling sessions featuring singer-songwriter and musicians from bands all around Phnom Penh, such as the Cambodian Space Project. One session features a member of Australian band The Transatlantics who was passing through Phnom Penh and agreed to take part.
The site now averages about 100 hits a day, and the first video has garnered more than 1,200 hits alone.
“We’re trying to raise Phnom Penh’s profile,” said Mr Barter, who will often pan away from the artist to take in Phnom Penh’s streets and people going about their business.
“There’s so much going on in this city and the street life is bustling and so engaging.”
Indeed, the original Black Cab Sessions, while featuring internationally renowned artists, are limited by the fact that the transport is enclosed and the windows are often up.
“Here, there’s a kind of interaction between what’s going on inside the tuk-tuk and what’s going on outside it–the looks from people walking or driving by,” Mr Barter added.
A typical Tuk-Tuk Session involves meeting up with the singer or band and deciding which part of the city the session will be filmed in. Mr Barter films the driver saying “Welcome to Tuk-Tuk Sessions Phnom Penh,” and everyone loads into the tuk-tuk. From there, once the destination is reached, the performance can begin. The only rule, and it is one followed rigidly, is that the song can only be done in one take.
“This keeps things more natural,” Mr Barter said. “So even if something happens like a loud noise on the street, it stays in. That’s how we show what Phnom Penh is honestly like.”
In addition to showcasing popular established acts like Cambodian Space Project, who recorded their version of Ros Sereysothea’s “I’m 16,” the three men are also keen to use the site as a medium through which they can support emerging artists. Mr Soutaris has a Khmer colleague currently practicing The Beatles’ “Yesterday” in anticipation of recording a session, and there are plans to record Khmer hip-hop group Tiny Toones over the weekend.
Artists from as far away as Bangkok and Vientiane have also contacted them, indicating that what began as a lark has piqued regional interest.
Melanie Brew, a Phnom Penh-based singer-songwriter who performs solo as well as with a band called Squishy, was approached by the three to record a session on March 8, International Women’s Day.
Ms Brew said the clip of her performing “(I’d Go The) Whole Wide World” by Wreckless Eric has given her friends and family back in the US and in Europe a chance to see what Phnom Penh is like.
“People would have heard me sing before, so that part of it wasn’t new. But it was great for them to be able to see where I live and experience, in some way, what it’s like to be in Phnom Penh.”
Would she record another chapter for the site? “Definitely.”
One couple, Silas and Carolyn Gillespie, used the project as a way to bid goodbye to Phnom Penh before moving back to Melbourne. Others are using it as a tool to get exposure for the music they write and perform themselves.
With a steadily growing archive of recorded material and artists lined up to record more for the site, the project seems to have carved out a niche.
“We’d love to get more Khmer artists singing Khmer songs in the future,” said Mr Hunter. “But ultimately, we’re just really enjoying celebrating Phnom Penh, music…and tuk-tuks.”