musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Family & Friends in Cambodia

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Cambodia boasts many interesting things to see and do. There are the many spectacular old temples — the magnificent ruins at the Angkor complex being the most famous, but that’s only a fraction of what exists — and beautiful natural wonders, from lakes and rivers to caves and mountains. But the reason I keep going back there so often is because of the people. Much like the qualities that endear me to the people in Myanmar, the Cambodians I know are kind, considerate, and unfailingly polite.

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During my recent trip to Siem Reap, my friend Chamrong met me at the airport and drove me to my guesthouse. He also works at the airport, but he took the day off in order to greet me and take me around, which I greatly appreciated. The four Try brothers took the bus from Kandal province (near Phnom Penh) to see me, and another friend, So Pengthay, managed to meet me a few times during my stay, which wasn’t easy due to his tour guides duties. A big group one day, a couple of more tourists the next day; he was constantly having to go somewhere.

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On the one day that he didn’t have any clients, Thay invited me to the new house he is having built, not far from Psah Leu market. He and his wife just celebrated the birth of their third child the week before, so they are definitely going to need the extra space for the growing family. Plus, it’s getting mighty congested — and noisy — living with the in-laws, so this new home will be most welcome in other ways too.

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The ground floor is already finished, but Thay is waiting until the end of rainy season — as well as another infusion of money from summer tourist business — to finish the second floor of the house. Meanwhile, he’s already installed kitchen appliances and a wide screen TV, so the house is pretty much read to live in. While Thay showed me around the house and talked about the changes in Siem Reap, his young son was busy doing some impromptu “landscaping” with rocks he found in the yard,.

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I’m enormously proud of what Thay has done in the past twelve years. This is a young man who came from a very poor rural village and has made something of himself in Siem Reap. After working for me at my bookshop in Siem Reap, Thay passed an exam and became a licensed tour guide at Angkor, and now he’s busy all year. He’s also been able to travel to other countries; one company invited him to a training conference in the United States a few years ago, and they have also sent him on tour to Thailand several times. He still hasn’t had time to visit my bookshop in Bangkok, but I’m hoping that will happen later this year.

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With the house almost finished, his next goal is getting his children enrolled in international schools, believing that they need to learn English language skills at an early age. Another good idea!

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Eating in Cambodia

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When it comes to cuisine in Southeast Asia, Thai food is probably the best known and favored, although Vietnamese food can make an equally strong case for being the favorite. I’m biased, but I also think that the food from Myanmar, or Burmese cuisine, is very underrated, not to mention very tasty. Malaysia and Indonesia also boast some great dishes, and we can’t forget Thailand’s neighbor to the north; Laos. I used to take trips to Vientiane just for the restaurants! Each of the cuisine in these countries is fairly distinctive, although they do share some common threads, not to mention the influence of Chinese and Indian cuisine.

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Perhaps the least known cuisine in the region is that found in Cambodia. We can perhaps blame the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s for stifling the growth and popularity, but now that the country is at peach and growing again, the kitchens of the country are busy preparing some very tasty dishes. Cambodian food may not have the “wow factor” or culinary hipness of its neighbors, but if you dig deeper through their edible offerings, you will discover some real unique treats — and I won’t even broach the subject of the edible insects that are served in some places!

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In Cambodia you will find fairly simple noodle and rice dishes everywhere, but don’t ignore the savory soups (some of the “samlor” varieties are very good, and just a plain bowl of pumpkin soup with a crunchy baguette will make my day) and spicy salads. For the carnivores, there are plenty of grilled fish, chicken, and beef dishes, including the famous amok fish curry, and my favorite, the beef lork lak. Add some of the tasty sauce (a simple but delightful mixture of lime juice, salt, and pepper) and get ready to polish off your plate!

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Dry Season Blues: the Water is NOT Rising in Kampong Pluk

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The big news this year in Thailand — and in most countries in Southeast Asia — is the current drought. It’s dry out there, the worse in decades, and there are severe water shortages in many areas. Pray for rain? Whatever it takes, but in the meantime thoughts turn to conserving the water that is on hand and in the depleted reservoirs.

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When I was in Cambodia last month some friends and I visited the floating village of Kampong Pluk. It’s one of several such villages on the Tonle Sap Lake that attract tourists who are visiting Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. This year, however, the water level has dropped to dangerously low levels and the boats that ferry tourists to the village and back don’t have as much water to navigate.

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Despite the low water level, our trip to Kampong Pluk was still very pleasant. Walking around the very dry village, we passed a wedding reception that was about to start, dropped by the village monastery (where a sign is posted, requesting that tourists “don’t drum” the big old drum on display), and then paid a short visit to the primary school where classes were in session.

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A woman was outside the school selling pencils and notebooks, supposedly for the students to use. The idea was basic; donate money and give the school supplies to the kids. You will be doing a good deed! Yes, that seemed obvious, but I also was wary of a scam. Would the students actually get the stuff that I donated, and if they did, would they really use the stuff?

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My friend Chamrong assured me that the woman’s sales pitch was legit and that the kids could indeed put this stuff to good use. So I ended up buying a few packs of pencils and notebooks, and then we walked up (and up it was: you needed to hike up some steep wooden steps!) to the classroom and asked a teacher for permission to distribute the bounty. She approved the operation, but halfway through the task of dispensing the supplies to the students it became apparent that I hadn’t bought enough for everyone. Luckily, the woman selling the notebooks was perched outside a window and promptly sold me some more! Hmm … that was almost too convenient. Nevertheless, the kids seemed happy with their new notebooks and pencils and I left feeling like my donation wasn’t a total waste of money.

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On the boat trip back, we stopped at an overpriced floating restaurant and had a good meal, although I passed on the crocodile steaks that were on the menu. And yes, that was legit too; they actually had some of the small critters in a cage for diners to ogle. Fine dining in Kampong Pluk!

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Twenty Years Gone: Finding a New Life in Thailand

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This month marks a big anniversary for me: it was exactly twenty years ago, in March of 1996, that I left my home in Orlando, Florida and moved to Bangkok, Thailand. Starting a new life in a new country, surrounded by new sights, sounds, and smells. I’d gone from the plastic environs of Disney World and neighborhoods infested by mosquitoes and churches, to a chaotic but vibrant city packed with Buddhist temples, go-go bars, mangy soi dogs, and 7-Eleven branches on every street (actually, it’s sometimes now three or four of those convenience stores per block in Bangkok). Some people might think that moving halfway around the world to a foreign country where English is not the native language, and where the culture is very different, would be intimidating or uncomfortable, but I’ve found that hasn’t been the case for me at all. I’ve adapted, I’ve learned, and I’ve thrived.

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I was getting my hair cut today by a vivacious Thai woman named Pin. She wasn’t the very first person to cut my hair when I moved to Bangkok, but she was probably the second one, and for nearly the entire twenty years that I’ve lived here I’ve let nobody else cut my receding hairline. Happy Anniversary Pin … and Happy Anniversary Thailand! I have never regretted my decision to leave the relative comforts — not to mention the spiraling crime — of the USA and settle in a so-called “backwards” third world country. Hell, if Thailand is considered backwards, let it drop further! Moving to Thailand has given me a new perspective on life, new inspiration, and additional energy. If I was back in the states, I’d be edging towards retirement age and wondering how I was going to survive for the next decade or two, but over here it feels like I’m just getting started and have a lot of life to look forward to living.

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For most of these past twenty years I’ve lived in Bangkok, subtracting only the two years that I moved to Cambodia and ran a bookshop in Siem Reap. It’s not like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. Thailand is far from a perfect place and I see things on a daily basis that drive me crazy, but when I think about the prospect of moving back to the United States I break out into a cold sweat … nd that’s not a funky James Brown sort of groove filled with positive vibes, but a most definite fear of being thrust back into an increasingly disturbing, dysfunctional, and dangerous society. I just sit back and watch the current political soap opera that is unfolding (imploding?) in the USA and thank my lucky San Miguel bottles that I don’t have to be surrounded by all that American nonsense.

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Okay, it’s not perfect over here either, and I admit that there are things that annoy me greatly about Thailand (don’t get me started about the current political situation!), but putting it all into perspective I’d still MUCH rather be living here in the kooky kingdom than back in the United States of Amnesia. Admittedly, there ARE some things that I miss about the United States and my hometown. I miss seeing some of my friends and I miss certain restaurants (oh, that amazing Cuban food in Florida!), but I don’t miss the family dramas, the high cost of living, or the cruelty ingrained in the culture. And I certainly don’t miss all the creepy Christians or the conservative rednecks who think the Civil War is still being fought and that racist jokes are funny. Uh, no thanks. And yet another thing: since I left Florida I haven’t owned or driven a car (or any motorized vehicle) for the past twenty years. I don’t miss the driving, the parking, the car maintenance, or all those insurance payments either. Honestly, it’s a relief to be free from all of that crap.

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Living in Thailand is only part of the equation. Using Bangkok as the hub, it makes for relatively quick flights (one to two hours) to neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar. I continued tt be dazzled, and comforted, by these amazing places and the kind people who live there. And I still haven’t visited other nearby countries in the regions such as Vietnam, Indonesia (and Bali), Nepal, and the Philippines. Maybe I’ll go to these places someday. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the fascinating culture and friendly hospitality of Thailand and the other countries in the region. I’m here to stay!

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Return To Cambodia: At Long Last … Wat Bo

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It had been over a year — fifteen months to be exact — since I’d last visited Cambodia, the longest stretch I’d ever stayed away from the country since my first visit in 1999. I subsequently moved there in 2002 to open a bookshop in Siem Reap, but returned to Bangkok again in 2004 to — yes, once again — open another bookshop. I still keep telling friends in Mandalay: Watch out, you never what I’ll do next!

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In any case, I still go back once or twice a year, but my main focus in recent years has been visiting Myanmar, so I felt that a return trip to Cambodia — in this case, four days in Siem Reap — was long overdue. Long story short; it was great to see my friends again, but that joy was mixed with depressing sights. Look around Siem Reap and you can’t help but be appalled by the ingrained poverty juxtaposed by the rampant growth (some might call it development, but all I see is more people being forced to move from their comfortable old homes and neighborhoods) — and greed — that you can see around Siem Reap. My head was spinning by the sight of more ugly cookie-cutter hotels, the new-rich driving gaudy SUVs, people of all ages begging, and amputees hobbling down the street. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to leave town.

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I didn’t go to Angkor this trip — too many busloads of tourists to contend with, so no thanks! —- but one thing I did do was visit Wat Bo, an old temple in the middle of town. Surprisingly, this was the very first time that I’d visited Wat Bo. I’ve eaten countless meals at restaurants on Wat Bo Road, and stayed at hotels and guesthouses in the vicinity, but for some odd reason I’d never taken the time to visit the temple that the road was named after.

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So, late one afternoon, I snuck away from my hotel and walked alone to Wat Bo, taking a back road that ran parallel with Wat Bo Road. The temple is like most of the active ones you’ll find in Cambodia and nearby Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. There is main shrine, plenty of Buddha figures, some smaller buildings and stupas, plus living quarters for the monks. Like most temples and monasteries, I found the atmosphere at Wat Bo very peaceful and relaxing. There’s just something about these old Buddhist buildings — or complexes, in this case — that is so blissfully tranquil. In the midst of all this so-called progress, it was comforting to spend time at a peaceful old temple.

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The Migrant Worker’s Plight

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A friend of mine from Texas was visiting Bangkok last month and one night we met for dinner at a Korean restaurant near his hotel. Imagine my surprise — and delight — to discover that all of the waiters at this restaurant were from Myanmar! The food was decent enough but the service from these waiters was outstanding. Of course that fact that I can speak some Burmese no doubt helped to endear me to the staff. Once they discovered that I knew some Myanmar zaga, they became MUCH more conversational. My friend and I were so impressed by the service that we went back the following week, and I’ve returned with other friends on two more occasions. Needless to say, the crew recognizes me now and instead of the usual greeting in Thai, I’ve earned a mingaglaba and lengthy conversations.

The young men (and at least one woman in the kitchen!) at this restaurant are among the millions of citizens from Myanmar who are working overseas, most of them in nearby countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Migrant workers from Myanmar have been in the news again recently, in a very negative way, with wire service reports claiming that workers at some seafood factories in Thailand have to endure slave-like conditions, working 16-hour days with no holiday time off and for paltry wages.

That’s obviously the darkest of the dark side of the migrant worker situation in this part of the world. While there is no denying that some migrant workers have to suffer through horrible working conditions, most of the foreign workers (from countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos) in Thailand are fairly content with their situation. Their salaries are usually lower than what a Thai worker would receive for the same minimum wage job, and they often are not eligible for health care benefits or holiday overtime wages, and yet compared to what they would make at a similar job — if they could find one — in their native country the employment situation in Thailand is much, much better.

One of my best friends, Chiet, is from Cambodia and he has been working as a welder at various construction projects in the greater Bangkok area for the past three years. I always ask him if he plans on going back to Cambodia and his answer is always the same: “No, I want to stay here. I can make more money and life is easier.”

Sure, he misses his friends and family, but life is difficult for young people in Cambodia, especially those like him that don’t have much education. And the same goes for people in Myanmar. Despite the great strides in “opening up” the country and holding elections and making cell phones affordable for the masses, the economy is still sputtering, the cost of living is rising, and the wages for basic jobs are very, very low. Thus, many Burmese people like the waiters I know at this Korean restaurant continue to seek employment in Thailand and other countries.

Another friend, Yan Naing Soe, called me earlier tonight. I first met him at a teashop in Mandalay many years ago but he’s been working for a landscaping company in Malaysia for the past two years. A few months ago he moved back to Myanmar and is now working in the town of Muse, on the border with China. Although most people have never heard of Muse, it is a bustling trade center and the country’s main gateway to China (near Yunnan Province). For young men like Yan Naing Soe, if there are job opportunities in places like Muse or Malaysia, that’s what you do and where you go.

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One aspect of the migrant workers that gets mentioned frequently is the so-called problem of underage workers in factories. Frankly, I think that’s something that the authorities should be much more lenient about. The reality of the situation is that many young people in poor Southeast countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos — and even in “wealthy” Thailand — stop going to school in their early to mid teens. Are you telling me that you are going to forbid a 15-year old who is trying to earn money to help support their family from working? What are their options? I mean, let’s be realistic. Sure, in an ideal world they would stay in school until they are 18 years-old, but we don’t live in such an ideal world, and even the definition of what is ideal or proper is not the same in every country or culture. This insistence on employing only those who are 18 or older is sheer nonsense.

When I was in Mandalay last month a friend took me to his father’s shoe shop, a little neighborhood place where they make handmade sandals for men and women. There were several “underage” children working in this shop, but the conditions were not “slave-like” or abysmal whatsoever. Granted, this was a tiny business and most of these kids were either relatives or neighborhood friends who wanted to work, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare their situation to that of a factory worker in Thailand. And yet there are parallels. People need work, they want to work, and they should be able to do that.

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Meanwhile my Cambodian friend Chiet is looking for another job in Thailand. His last employer docked his wages for missing a week of work and he’s not happy about that. But it’s not like Chiet was goofing off or had gone back home without authorization. His leg became infected from some pieces of cut glass at the work site and he had to go to a hospital in Bangkok to get treated. And who paid for this treatment? Me of course! I shudder to think what would have happened to his leg if he had not promptly received proper medical care.

So yeah, the treatment of migrant workers in Thailand and elsewhere could still be a lot, lot better. But don’t forget that for the majority of those working in Thailand, like the waiters at the Korean restaurant, having a job enables them to earn enough money for themselves and to send funds back to their families.

Cambodian Musicians Remembered

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My Cambodian friend Chiet is working a construction job as a welder in nearby Nonthaburi and we’ll get together a couple of times each month for dinner. Last week, back at my apartment after another big meal at Thon Krueng, we were watching one of those ridiculous “professional” wrestling matches on TV (he loves that stuff, while I am merely amused by it all) when I put on a CD that I thought would grab his attention. When the Cambodian language song started, he did one of those surprised neck swivels and sat up straight. “What is that?” he exclaimed. I showed him the CD I was playing: Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.

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That also happens to be the title of a recently released film from Argot Pictures by John Pirozzi. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll is a fascinating tale of Cambodia s vibrant pop music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. The filmmaker assembled rare archival footage, punctuating it with interviews with the handful of musicians who survived the genocide of Pol Pot’s notorious Khmer Rouge. In an interview in the New York Times, Pirozzi said: “I wanted to show that this music would endure beyond everything it had been put through. The music is the one thing that has allowed the Cambodian people to access a time when their life wasn’t about war and genocide.”

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Another result of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, in which millions of Cambodians lost their lives, was that the thriving music and film industries in Cambodia were also effectively snuffed. Thanks to exhaustive research, and a few lucky breaks, Pirozzi managed to unearth some rare footage of many Cambodia singers and musicians from the pre-Khmer Rouge era. Luckily, for music fans, some of the old recordings were also salvaged.  The 20-track companion CD to the film features famous Cambodian singers such as Sinn Sisamouth, Pen Ran, Ros Serey Sothea, along with a mix of lesser known bands and singers. Listening to these songs, there is a clear nod to Western music styles of the era, but diffused through a distinct Cambodian perspective. Some of this music is, admittedly, an acquired taste, particularly the older more traditional Cambodian songs from the 1950s, before sizzling rock and roll guitars and funky organ riffs became more common in the mix. But even with the older tunes, it’s mighty hard not to be captivated by the spirit and vitality of the recordings, especially considering that most of the artists who sang or performed these songs were killed or disappeared during the Khmer Rouge period.

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Sinn Sisamouth, probably the most beloved of all Cambodia singers, began his career as a crooner in the style of a Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. But once the 1960s arrived, Sinn Sisamouth embraced the changing musical landscape and added guitar-spiced rock songs to his repertoire. He also recorded several duets with Ros Serey Sothea, songs that remain enormously popular throughout Cambodia. Ros Serey Sothea herself was also a music chameleon, singing everything from traditional wedding songs to frenzied rockers. But when it came to spunky, she was no match for the even more vivacious Pen Ran, a singer who, according to the liner notes, “broke the mold of the proper Khmer girl” with her risqué uptempo songs and sexy fashion sense.

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One of the more interesting groups on the CD is Baksey Cham Krong. Their surf-guitar song “B.C.K.” owes a clear debt to the Ventures, while “Full Moon” sounds like something that could have come from Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” soundtrack. Another band, Drakkar, sounds like they were influenced by the harder rock sounds of Cream and Deep Purple. The male singer Yol Aularong, based on the two songs of his that are included on this collection, was an even weirder and wilder singer, sounding like someone that would have embraced voodoo rockabilly. The liner notes say that “he was clearly on the verge of charting a new course in Cambodia’s musical heritage” when he disappeared — like so many of these artists — during the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. All of the songs on the CD are sung in Khmer, except for Baksey Cham Krong’s instrumental and one English language song, a cover version of “You’ve Got a Friend”, performed by female singer Pou Vannary.

In addition to that fascinating compilation, I’ve been listening to a pleasing barrage of other music each and every day. Here are the latest CDs keeping me bopping and hopping:

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Various Artists – Fatback’s Soul Shop

The Diplomats – Greatest Recordings

Funk Inc. – Funk Inc./Chicken Lickin

Ronnie Foster – Love Satellite

Jimmy Holiday – Spread Your Love: The Complete Minit Singles

 

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Toro Y Moi – What For?

Bill Evans – You Must Believe In Spring

Ebony Rhythm Band – Soul Heart Transplant: Lamp Sessions

Various Artists – Listen To the Voices: Sly Stone in the Studio 1965-70

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

 

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Dave Hamilton – Detroit City Grooves

Ebo Taylor – Appia Kwa Bridge

Ray Charles & Milt Jackson – Soul Brothers/Soul Meeting

King Floyd – I Feel Like Dynamite: The Early Chimneyville Singles

Peter Bjorn and John – Writer’s Block

 

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Cornell Campbell – I Shall Not Remove 1975-80

Roy Ayers – Virgin Ubiquity II

The Four Mints – Gently Down the Stream

Gene Harris & the Three Sounds – Live at the It Club, Vol. 2

Graham Parker & the Rumour – Mystery Glue

 

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Lightspeed Champion – Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You

Bob Frank – Bob Frank

Various Artists – Belle and Sebastian: Late Night Tales

Jesse Malin – New York Before the War

Various Artists – More Perfect Harmony: Sweet Soul Groups 1967-1975

 

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Songhoy Blues – Music in Exile

Tame Impala – Currents

Craig Fuller & Eric Kaz – Various Artists –

Marah – Kids in Philly

Various Artists – Super Funk: Soul Emissaries

 

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Robin Gibb – 50 St. Catherine’s Drive

Eddy Giles – Southern Soul Brother

James Taylor – Before This World

The Royals – Pick Up the Pieces

Harvey Mandel – The Best Of

 

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Various Artists – Rhythm ‘n’ Bluesin’ by the Bayou: Mad Dogs, Sweet Daddies & Pretty Babies

The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

The Five Stairsteps – The Best of

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Eddie Floyd – Chronicle Greatest Hits

 

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