The Mekong Delta Blues | KROM Interview

by tonedefsound

Have you ever wanted to create your own genre of music? Yeah bands label themselves all the time as unable-able. “Our sound is different. It’s unique.” Shut up. You sound like every other four-piece band out there. “Distorted guitar with cool solos? Hell yeah! Pick abusing bassist? Right on! A tight drummer who only needs to restart the song every once in a while? Yeah man! A three-octave range vocalist who occasionally utilizes a megaphone? Nice!” No brah, not nice.

The same can’t be said of Krom, a medley of Australians and Cambodians grooving in the heart of Phnom Penh. Songwriter and guitarist Christopher J. Minko combines chilled, dark folky blues riffs on a Leonard Cohen vibe with native, beautiful and haunting Khmer vocals from Sophea and Sopheak Chamroeun. It’s fusion “gone wild” in the best possible way:

Imagine meandering through the murky waters of the Mekong on a wooden boat passing by the dense flora ripened by the recent monsoons. You have your acoustic guitar in hand, sitting in the shade of the hot, humid evening air while taking in the views and transcribing the beautiful scenery into flowing fingerpicked sounds. Off in the distance you hear a majestic harmony of voices inching closer as your vessel slows to a stop. The reverberating strings and soothing traditional vocals in a language unknown, comes to a crescendo as they intertwine and elope in an intricate, euphoric spontaneous song. This is Krom. The stories told in the song are equally as powerful as you’ll see in the interview.

Christopher spares a few moments to share his love of Cambodia, daring songwriting and his non-profit work with the disabled.

Tell us of the origins of your songwriting story. 

From growing up in Australia to your eventual move to Cambodia. 

Just a humble lad from the OZ bush – born and raised in the OZ Alpine bush town of Myrtleford (population 2800) at the base of Mt Buffalo – the son of German/Ukrainian migrants. Child of a forester father and fortunate to have a mother who was a classical piano music teacher. Studied classical trumpet through to AMEB tertiary degree level as a young ‘un and also started playing open tuned guitar (and banjo) at age 12 after hearing the guitar playing of Taj Mahal and Leo Kottke. Spent the 70’s living in Germany (also playing jazz trumpet and guitar in clubs) so am also heavily influenced by the many genres of Eastern European music and worship J.S. Bach as the master mathematician musician as, after all, music is “the mathematics of emotions” / founding member of Cult OZ Melbourne Band “Bachelors from Prague” (83-86) and now writing songs with Phnom Penh based band KROM since the inception of the band in 2010 (I arrived in Cambodia as an OZ government advisor in 1996) with our 4th album planned for release in late 2020 / proud father of a now 26 year old Eurasian daughter (Thai mother) who is now studying International Relations in Melbourne at RMIT.

Living as an expat for such a long time presents adventure along with challenges. Can you share some insight on your life there?

Woah – very tough question that one, as over the decades I have watched so many foreigners bite the dust and return to their home countries in a jar of ashes or in a coffin as many lose it due to the unconstrained freedoms they experience and the lack of peer group pressures, social constraints and other control mechanisms that exist in their home nations. Many simply lose it on drugs and alcohol, both of which are cheap and easy to access in the SE Asian region and many also forget that they are privileged guests in this landscape as many “barangs” (foreigners) can be arrogant and rude towards the locals which is neither a good nor a smart thing. 

I was lucky – I arrived in Cambodia as an official OZ govt technical advisor with a specific task to do – to assist Cambodia’s then very neglected disabled and that’s what I did as there was much to be done as when I arrived the nation was in a very serious state of chaos and disunity after over 30 years of civil conflict including the genocidal conflict of the Khmer Rouge. Hence, I managed to avoid most of the expat crowd and the usual decadent and exploitive shenanigans of that crowd and have always worked very closely with Khmers on reality-based projects as a result. I live Khmer-style on a rooftop in Phnom Penh overlooking a major park and my second home, filled with many long-term Cambodian friends, is the local Khmer market around the corner, where I drink 3-4 cups of coffee and eat daily. Whilst I will not deny that the early years here were rather wild – given the chaotic circumstances – I have not drunk alcohol in the last 22 years so I steer clear of the boring bar scene and lead a monastic disciplined lifestyle that suits me just fine at this age along with two cats, Nancy and Red, who are my home companions. I continue my social welfare work on a part time basis, which I refer to below in another answer relevant to my social work in Cambodia, as this work also helps a bloke to stay young and motivated with much to do as its an exciting time here in Cambodia (which it always is….). I always say that to survive here as an expat, you need to be well disciplined, know how to stay healthy, exercise daily and make sure you have work – as in genuine employment – hopefully interesting – something proper to focus on – as otherwise people just slowly drift sideways and slide into an eternal bar scene and permeant alcoholic, drug-addled haze usually leading to an early death.

How did you come up with combining delta blues with traditional-style Khmer vocals in your signature “Mekong Delta Blues” sound? 

Firstly, I adhere to two “Golden Rules” laid down by two true legends of the music world (1) Dr. Ralph Stanley – the godfather of bluegrass, who stated, at the age of 84, when asked to give advice about music, answered “Never copy anyone’s sound. Find your own sound and work hard at that sound.” and the words of Pablo Casals – the world’s greatest ever cellist, who at the age of 94 was asked why he continued to practice. He answered, “I think I am making progress”.  Secondly, after decades of picking guitar and also taking lessons by listening to master pickers such as Elizabeth Cotton, John Fahey and Leo Kottke amongst others and after listening to the sound of the Mekong river for over 25 years I finally found “my sound“ (thanks Doc !) which is an individual picking style based on the sound of the Mekong- this was a long term objective set into motion shortly after my arrival in Cambodia in ‘96- the 3 finger syncopated fingerpick style I use, with some clawhammer thrown in here and there and some secret tricks in between…, gives the sound of a slow moving large body of rippling water or at least how I hear the ripples of the mighty Kong-hence the foundation guitar rolling sound of the Mekong Delta Blues noting also that many KROM songs have a dark blues lyrical edge to them. And thirdly and most importantly is what truly makes the sound then the Mekong Delta Blues is the superb voice of KROM lead vocalist Sophea Chamroeun  and the use of Khmer Language lyrics within many KROM songs-This brings in the remarkable Khmer vocal traditions such as swallowing the notes and Khmer language tonal inflections that truly makes what we call the sound of the Mekong Delta Blues. I also acknowledge that I am a hard-core believer in acoustic driven music.

You’re not only opening up the beautiful Cambodian sounds and Khmer language to the world, but bringing awareness of tragedy the country has experienced as well, i.e., human trafficking and sex tourism. How has the response been both domestically and internationally to such uncomfortable issues? 

I am a firm believer in the power of song and lyrics to effect positive social change – always have been –Coming from the generation that was privileged to have grown up with the politically driven music of Dylan, Cash and Woody Guthrie (and the Stones, Pink Floyd, real LSD, Mescaline and all those sorts of things….). Krom, I believe, are the only band in the world at the moment to have written songs around the theme of horror of the international and growing sex trafficking industry- now a multi- billion $ industry. Krom have written 8 songs to date around  this theme:  Here are links to 4 of those songs:

 and reactions have certainly been mixed – many support the harsh and brutal reality of our lyrics as we raise much needed awareness about the international sex-trafficking industry but many have also stated that we shouldn’t be singing songs like this as it makes people feel uncomfortable – I always answer to that line that “the songs are meant to make people feel uncomfortable” and there are those that say, many of the Krom songs are “music to slit your wrists by” (now that’s a compliment hey !..)- regardless, we will continue to write songs around this theme and about other social issues acknowledging also that few people are actually aware that slavery (sexual and labor) is at the highest point ever in the history of humanity and that is nothing short of being a fucking tragedy. An interesting point that kind of puzzles and sadly amuses me in a cynical manner is that often when Krom play live there are “couples” in the audience that tend to be an overweight and bloated potbellied sagging fleshed swollen nosed red faced alcoholic whitey well over 60 years of age and a (purchased) Khmer gal under 20 years of age (a horrid sight indeed- can send pain to both eyelids)- and these people don’t seem to realize that I am actually singing about them….life can be truly odd, lets even say bizarre – ouch. We have also introduced songs with lyrics that refer to poverty issues and the tragedy of drug-methamphetamine abuse on our 2016 released 3rd album “Krom: Mekong Delta Blues”.

However, KROM’s listening audience continues to grow worldwide – albeit slowly and probably by definition “cult”- and the social issue songs are receiving special attention which is excellent – “forwards always as we Krom-along” I tend to say.

Your work starting an NGO to help the disabled and disadvantaged to better their lives must have given you some rewarding experiences. Can you share one or two stories? 

I have been enormously privileged and honored to have spent 20 years working with people with disability of Cambodia (PWD’s) with a focus on developing sports and arts programs for the disabled, along with developing the music of Krom with Sophea Chamroeun since 2010.  The disability work was an exceptionally tough gig, as in the early days Cambodian PWD’s were the most marginalized and poorest of all in Cambodia. And when I arrived, the nation was still in the final throes of conflict with the Khmer Rouge still present in the country’s northern provinces. But with lots of patience and many (often hilarious) ups and downs we slowly built a national sports program for Cambodian PWD’s including establishing a now well-functioning and totally localized National Paralympic Committee and driving a National Volleyball Team to aim for the pinnacle of their sport through participating in WOVD Volleyball World Cups in Greece, Germany, Australia, Canada, Korea and Cambodia with the National Volleyball Team reaching No 2 in the world in 2011 (Germany took gold) after a 10 year long journey of training and participating in international competitions. I also assisted in establishing a Women’s wheelchair basketball ball program in 2012 in cooperation with Red Cross and the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation with the national women’s wheelchair basketball team now winning events on a regional level as they aim for reaching the Paralympic Games. Cambodian athletes with a disability are recognized national sporting heroes in Cambodia and they are making huge inroads on international sporting stages. The PWD’s have been truly inspirational people to work with and we maintain contact to this very day – I am so pleased to see many Cambodian PWD’s have rebuilt their lives through sport and art and they are now disability sector leaders and active and contributing members of their respective communities.

Where do you see yourself in five to ten years? And what do you hope for in regards to the Khmer people? 

At the moment, I continue to do my social welfare work on a part-time basis as an advisor to the Ministry of Social Affairs Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, with my current focus being on assisting the Cambodia response to Covid and assisting the organization of emergency assistance to the poor and vulnerable. Then in the afternoons, the focus is on Krom, the endless picking practice, developing new songs and exploring soundtrack potentials as “Krom On We Shall” – then at some point when I grow older (young man I am…..) I have the dream to write the soundtracks to a couple of movies, release KROM albums when the songs come from the heart and to be a simple farmer in Battambang somewhere on the side of the Sangke River with wooden house on stilts, raising bees, freshwater crays and growing mushrooms and quality lemons plus the required mango trees which are mandatory and as said, I shall Krom-on regardless, as music is life…. For Cambodia- I actually see a great future – there are so many positive potentials emerging from a traumatic and dark past with a new vibrant and well-educated younger generation that have a positive and interesting new vision for Cambodia- in other words – there is a lotta hope! – I have been and still have the privilege to work with many of this new generation – Let’s say “I certainly believe in Cambodia and a very positive future for Cambodia.”

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