When bassist Sébastien Adnot first played reggae in front of Jamaican friends, they proved a tough crowd. “When I started learning, they told me they couldn’t dance to what I was playing,” says the founder of Cambodia’s first and only ragamuffin dub band, Dub Addiction. “‘Try to dance with your fingers,’ they said. That’s how they taught me. They don’t know the names of chords or music theory, it’s all about feeling.” Sébastien taps two fingers lightly on his heart then his head.
After ten years of being tutored by his hecklers, Sébastien, originally from France, arrived on Cambodian soil in 2011 to begin a stint as resident bass player at the now-defunct Studio 182. “I came here, and everywhere I go I hear reggae music, but there were no reggae bands or musicians, so I had to teach people to play reggae the same way I had been taught.”
Today, Dub Addiction — poised to release a new album — count among their vocalists DJ Khla, ‘Cambodia’s tightest ragga MC’ and a staple of the local music scene. “One day, I saw this Khmer guy playing keyboard reggae. I said: That’s fantastic! You play reggae. That’s my music. He said: ‘What’s reggae?’ You’ve never heard of Bob Marley? ‘Who’s Bob Marley?’ Never mind. Can you sing? ‘Yeah, sure…’
“So he starts to play a song for me – and I swear it’s pure, 100% ragamuffin. I found out months later that he was an orphan, raised in a pagoda, and he took his ‘reggae’ from the monks’ chanting. And he’s a star here: he’s on TV every few weeks. All the Khmer people know him. I have a star in my band, which is a gift.”
Along with Sonpore, MC Curly, and Professor Kinski, DJ Khla lays an uplifting veneer of Khmer vocals over the bombastic basslines (Seb) and drums (Toma Willen) of Dub Addiction, who played the Sometimes A Great Notion Festival in the US last year. Kae Lhassen adds spooky, spaced-out backing vocals to Sylvie’s keys, and the sound is pinned together by guitar rhythms from Benoit Carre.
“Reggae music is low frequency. We play bass very loud; bass drum very loud, but the guitar is a very small sound so that it doesn’t eat the medium frequencies – the sound of the singer – at all. “That’s why I’m so glad we have these lovely Khmer ladies singing. My music is massive, but if it’s just massive, your spirit will stay on the floor. But with this kind of singing, high frequencies, then your spirit goes into another world. And music is all about telling stories and communicating emotions. If you play reggae, you have to be wicked.”
Not stoned? “No! Exactly the opposite: that’s what I learned from Jamaican people. The first time I performed with a Jamaican, on the day of the concert he didn’t smoke or drink, he went for a swim. He wouldn’t even speak. Before you play reggae, you have to be a warrior.”