Founded in 2010 by violinist Matthias Wagner, a German “with 6% Italian blood”, the Phnom Penh Orchestra of Hippies plays traditional folk music, some of which dates more than 800 years. “A merry crew of musical gypsies,” the orchestra plays melodic tribute to the “make love not war” movement. They perform throughout Phnom Penh, including the popular Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) along the Tonlé Sap River boardwalk.
“In the Khmer language, the term barang has come to mean a foreigner, particularly one of European ancestry. It’s not a demeaning word, but some Khmer speakers might use it in a bad context. The term is becoming more popular now among travelers. It’s even used by some expatriates living in Cambodia themselves.”
In its purest form, the word “gypsy” – which refers to Europe’s Romani people with origins back to the Indian subcontinent – evokes an intoxicating blend of mystery and romanticism.
“Peace through music,” the orchestra’s philosophy, is a metaphor, explains Matthias, who has played classical music since the age of six.
“As their cultural migration – and later evolution – continues, one constant remains: Romani music, the distinctive sound of which has influenced everything from the classical compositions of Franz Liszt to the genres of jazz, bolero, and flamenco.
Central to this rich musical tapestry is the nomadic spirit associated with gypsies of all hues – and it is this spirit that the Phnom Penh Hippie Orchestra aims to encapsulate.”
The group draws on musicians from the UK, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Russia, Australian, Italy, Sweden, and France. It presents world music with genuinely global credentials.
“These wandering entertainers – on guitar, bass, violins, cello, mandolin, balalaika, flute, clarinet, trombone, accordion, percussion, and drums – conjure up a rousing chorus of high-energy Eastern-European, Arabian, Jewish, and American songs that can breathe life into the most jaded of souls.”
“The common ground is the gypsy spirit behind the music,” said Matthias. Inherent to that spirit is the extraordinary multitude of influences absorbed by the Romani as they traveled the globe, adding layers of Greek, Arabic, Turkish, and Spanish musical forms to the sound of their Indian roots. “Our spirit is having songs from different angles of the world.”
Boasting as many as 12 members, the orchestra’s make-up is constantly shifting. “There is always a good mixture of instruments, but people rotate in and out. We are always on the road. Our sound changes, but the songs can be played by different musicians – it’s always open.”
“It is common sense that music calms people down and can bring people together. This nod to unity is far from token: genuine Romani people may be conspicuously absent, but among the orchestra’s members are a Cherokee Indian born in New Orleans and a New Zealander of German extraction. It’s this inclusive attitude, as much as the orchestra’s musical finesse, which distinguishes these most sophisticated of gypsy spirits.”