• L to R: Singer, Sophea Chamroeun, Chris Minko on guitar and Australian, Jimmy Baeck. (By Amy Fallon)
An Australian-Cambodian blues band, that uses its lyrics to tackle social issues, has been shortlisted for two 2017 Grammy nominations in the World categories: Best World Music Album and Song of the Year.
By
Amy Fallon

6 Dec 2016 - 12:34 PM  UPDATED 6 Dec 2016 - 1:51 PM

More than 20 years after embarking on a humanitarian career in Cambodia, Australian Chris Minko is still here, working on his “best aid project ever”.

It’s not development related in a strict sense, but it could earn him accolades in the music industry’s top awards program next year. 

Minko, 61, is the co-founder, co-singer, guitarist and lyricist of Australian-Cambodian blues band Krom: a Phnom Penh-based band, which has been shortlisted for two Grammy nominations in the world category: Best World Music Album for Mekong Delta Blues and Song of the Year for Lil’ Suzie, a song about prostitution and poverty.

“I call it my best aid and development project ever.”

Minko tells SBS that Krom uses music to tackle topics such as human trafficking and South East Asia’s booming sex industry, in a unique style that's also dubbed the “Mekong Delta Blues”.

"I'm over the moon...One of my core objectives with Krom is, in a way, to be a vehicle for [social messages]," Minko says.

“I call it my best aid and development project ever.”

Krom will find out if they’ve made the final cut when the nominations for the 2017 awards are announced later today in the United States.

Regardless of whether the group receives a nomination or not, Minko says, making the shortlist cut is pretty special as it marks the first time a Cambodian singer or band has also been seriously considered for a Grammy.

“A nomination would mean so much. We’re a self-funded band working under very difficult conditions.”

Minko explains that the band has a limited budget and often faces criticism about the controversial nature of its songs.

“Some people say I shouldn’t be doing it [using lyrics to tackle controversial social issues]. Well, the problem with this [sex] industry is that we all skirt around it. No-one actually really confronts what’s going down here because the powers that be know that it’s pumping enormous amounts of money into the country.”

The musician says he’s also very aware of state censorship. “What I’ll do is I’ll put out a hard hitting anti-sex song and then pretty well straight afterwards come out with a cultural love song, just to create a balance.”

Wrench has described Krom’s music in the local Cambodian press as being “in a class of their own” and mentioned “the originality, the context of the subject matter, the rawness of emotions”.

As a founding member of Melbourne cult band, 'The Bachelors From Prague', Minko held various other roles in Australia. But, he says, he left his home in 1992 frustrated with the “creative entrepreneurs” who he viewed as putting money before the arts, and moved to Thailand. It was there he met his deceased wife.

Minko moved to Cambodia in 1996, where he set up a volleyball program for amputees, and fell in love with the country. 

Before his wife died in 2010, he promised her that he’d write an album in her memory. After he discovered Cambodian female vocalist Sophea Chamroeun, Krom was born.

The band is also made up of Sophea’s sister, Sopheak Chamroeun, Cambodian bassist James “Mao” Sokleap, and Australian guitarist Jimmy Baeck. Song lyrics are usually performed in English and Khmer.

“What we actually managed to achieve was have a 26-year-old Cambodian woman singing about hookers and amphetamine use. And that is a courageous step of Sophea,” says Minko.

Chamroeun says she was often “embarrassed by the social problems that Cambodia faces”.

“Sometimes, I don't want to show the negative side, but often criticism is one way to express shortcoming,” says Chamroeun, who once lived in Phnom Penh’s notorious ‘White Building’, in a slum area.

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The song, The Ying, addresses the relationship between young Asian women and much older white men, says Minko.

“I turn 16 today,

“She tells old white men at play,

“They’re lost in a jukebox of time,

“Years of sagging flesh and grime,

“Breaking oriental hearts.”

He explains that his Thai wife was eight years younger than him, which was “never a huge age gap”. But, Minko admits, “I find the concept of old men and young women quite bizarre”.

The artist says he watched his daughter, now aged 22, struggle from about 14 through to 19 with the “constant assumption by people that she was my young girlfriend”.

“For about three years she wouldn’t go down the riverside with me anymore because she was just so exhausted by people looking at us,” says Minko.

“If you actually strip that assumption away, it boils down to racism.”

He explains this misconception and the psychological impact it has on people, what he viewsas a “secondary impact” of the sex industry, is not typically spoken about.

“Lil’ Suzie” was released in March.

Krom are hoping to tour Australia for the first time in 2017 or 2018.

The 59th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony will be held on February 12, 2017.

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