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Tonight, Equinox, Tomorrow, the World: Fanfare Sans Fronteres' Mission to Cambodia

By: Roswell Thomas Posted: February-26-2011 in
8ctopus with their fans on the riverside. Courtesy le blog.
Roswell Thomas

For the last month, 8ctopus’ “French funky world music” has been echoing through the streets of Phnom Penh as the brass band makes its exuberant rounds of the city. Perhaps you’ve heard their songs floating over rush hour traffic by Russian Market, or maybe their horns have already rattled your pint glass at a local bar. If you’re one of the kids at Sok Sabay, a residential shelter for children rescued from abuse, you’ve grown used to hearing this carnival of music every day and playing some yourself. If you live in BKK1, you might have awoken to dopplerized midnight brass chorus as 8ctopus zoomed home from another successful concert last weekend.

“To be a brass band is a very special trick because we can play everywhere,” says Jean-Yves Mougel (guitar). “We do not need a microphone, we can play on the streets.”

“Playing in a tuktuk is different from playing in the subways of Paris,” reflects Clement Mombereau (trombone) on 8ctopus’ dramatic exit from Gasolina last weekend.

“Yes, but the tuk tuk drivers like it,” says Karim El Kanbi (bass drum), who had been squeezed into the very middle of that tuktuk, one of 8ctopus’ more peculiar venues yet on their tour of four countries, playing this music that produces a nearly irresistible urge to dance in even the most conservative Cambodians.

“Matthieu stood on the side of the tuktuk, playing the sousaphone with one hand and holding the tuktuk in the other, I am playing trombone with one hand and holding the tuktuk with the other, and Karim played the bass drum in the middle,” Clement remembers.

Combining two great French traditions of arts and internationalism, Fanfare Sans Fronteres is sending 8ctopus on a tour of four countries, playing in streets and bars by night and doing music outreach for disadvantaged children by day. In Cambodia, 8ctopus is staying with children’s shelter Sok Sabay, teaching music, song, and dance to the students and helping them prepare for their fundraising concert at The 252 next Wednesday (March 2nd).

8ctopus got its start at the engineering school Centrale Paris. Most of its members are taking a year off before completing their studies – the bass drummer will return to France to be a neuroscientist, for instance, and the guy on trombone today will be working on engineering in energy next year.

Playing in a country that has never seen a sousaphone before
8ctopus is becoming popular with Cambodians and Westerners alike, despite initial doubts about their reception. “The French people living here say to us, yeah Cambodian people are not used to see some concert, if you will play no one will care about you,” says Jean-Yves. But for 8ctopus’ first riverside concert, “there were lots of people, they came, they stayed, they listened to us, we were surprised.”

8ctopus was well received by moto drivers at Russian Market during a recent rush hour concert as well, where a traffic jam formed to listen. “There are lots of people on their motorbikes who want to go out? No, they are watching us, and they say oh no, we want to stay,” says Yoann Le Roux (snare drum). “At first they watch, they are kind of shy,” he says, but “then some come to—well, not to dance, but to shake their foot.”

Surprisingly, Cambodian authorities are much more receptive to these street musicians than police force at home. “Back in Paris we used to play a lot but only for one hour at a time, otherwise the cops are coming,” says Yoann. The first time the police showed up to an 8ctopus concert in Phnom Penh, the band expected to have to pack up and leave. “But here, they don’t ask us to leave, they manage the crowd, give us some space. Like our staff,” says Mathias Gesbert (trumpet), laughing.

The day after their riverside debut, “we were all rockstars,” says Clement. “You talk to the children, they know us when we are walking by.” Children mimed his trumpet when they saw him the next day. And of course, “sometimes the tuktuk drivers recognize us – ‘ah, you are the band!’” says Jean-Yves. “Yes, we are the band.”

The Most Stupid Idea We Can Have
International travel is not easy for a brass octet. “Traveling with instruments is the most stupid idea we can have,” says Jean-Yves without hesitation. With a 20 kilogram weight limit on most airlines, “I have 12 kilos of instruments and then the shirts and that’s it.” The sousaphone player had the hardest time checking clothes and other non-instrument items: “the whole thing is 20 kilos,” jokes Yoann, “so he was naked, with his sousaphone.”

When Melissa Callone’s euphonium broke, she had to get creative – “she took it to a jewelry store, it was kind of good,” says Yoann. He was not so lucky with his snare drum, which was turned down for repairs in shop after shop. “They told me no, not in Cambodia, guy, we cannot fix it.” In the end he used some shoelaces and tape.

But in the end it’s worth it. “I will never have the opportunity to do this,” says Clement. “It is always exciting, even if the public is not here and even if we have no food and no drinks. This is why we are doing stupid things like playing in a tuktuk” or traveling to Cambodia, Nepal, Madagascar, and Brazil with eight huge instruments.

To Give the Children Something
Unlike many musicians, 8ctopus members’ real passion is for their day job. “This is the good point of this experience, to live with an NGO, to live with children,” says Yoann Le Roux (snare drum). At Sok Sabay, the format is different “than when we are playing for fun in the streets, but it is the same atmosphere,” he says. Still, “we are a little more strict to give the children something.”

8ctopus spent their first few weeks at Sok Sabay playing music games and exploration – “the goal is to taste, to have their attention and make them wake up, make them want to do some stuff,” explains Jean-Yves.

The students have since split up into different workshops focusing on topics including guitar, singing, bodyrhythms (percussion with one’s hands on one’s body), dance, and instrument creation.

A lot of Sok Sabay’s children come from backgrounds where it is hard to develop musically. “Sok Sabay takes in children who have been victims of abuse and malnutrition. Most of them cannot sing, they do not have very much ear,” explains founder and director Marie Cammal. Sok Sabay provides food, education, and medical care all day, and some children go home to their parents at night. One of the hardest parts of Marie’s work is changing the attitudes of the families, who “do not always understand the concept of their child’s independence and self-esteem.”

It took a little while for the children and 8ctopus to get used to each other. “They are very respectful, very well behaved,” says Yoann. “At first,” he remembers, “they were shy, but then they danced to show us they liked the music,” and they started to bond.

Marie remembers it a bit differently. “For the first two weeks, it was the band that was a bit shy. I mean, they are already very brave,” she is quick to point out, “they are like 22, they're going around the world for six months, I think they are really brave. But it is a culture shock, it takes time to adjust.”

For their part, Sok Sabay’s children seem well at ease with 8ctopus, giving nicknames to most of the band. Yoann they call Justin, “because he doesn’t like Justin Bieber,” said some of the girls at Sok Sabay recently. Clement was a little luckier, dubbed “Jackson,” as in Michael. Trumpet player Matthias Gesbert got “Temin” – “it means really cool, like superstar,” the girls explain.

Some things you didn't imagine before
“When I began the workshop, I just think they don’t know how to play the guitar so I will give them all the basics I can give,” says Jean-Yves, but “you lead a bit, show the way, and then they make some things you didn’t imagine before.” For a recent jam session, “we have a bad guitar, but the children make an amazing drum. Other children played some chords on the good guitars, OK great! Nice!”

After seeing Phnom Penh expat Andy Hawkings’ collaborative songwriting philosophy at Nerd Night last Monday, Clement decided to try writing a song with some of the girls in his workshop. “The philosophy is very powerful,” he says. “The girls wrote some music and sang with us.”

“Introducing anything in art is like a therapy for my children,” says Marie. “I love music and I think any kind of art is adding to their skills and their awareness of beauty. In French we say that music permits the brain to breathe. They forget their daily worry and they are really happy. I see them laughing and that is the best testimony you can have from children.”

In her office the other day, Marie asked some children about the song they had written with 8ctopus. “What is the song?” she quizzed them. “It’s about a flower and a mother and a sister and … a superstar? Oh my God.” The girls clustered around the lyric sheet they had created the day before, and, with confidence uncommon for anyone that age, began to sing – quietly at first, but in good harmony, and with some gusto for the chorus they had composed – “I’m like a butterfly, I’m flying, flying.”

“It was in this brass band we first discovered what is brass band, we discovered it and we fell in love with it,” says Clement. “So when we hear of this we say, gosh! We have to do it!”

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8ctopus (pronounce the 8 like an o) plays at Equinox tonight, Saturday February 26th.

The Sok Sabay/8ctopus fundraiser is this Wednesday, March 2nd, at the 252 (behind Lucky Market), featuring the children of Sok Sabay doing traditional dance and the music they've learned with 8ctopus. Funds raised will go towards building a computer lab at Sok Sabay.

8ctopus will be at Sharky's tomorrow, continuing onto Kep and coming back to Paddy Rice before leaving for Kathmandu in early march. See their myspace page for more details.

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