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Astronomy Class

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After finishing up a national tour with The Herd on the back of their 2011 album Future Shade, Shannon Kennedy – better known to most as Ozi Batla – received a peculiar offer for his side project, Astronomy Class. DAVID JAMES YOUNG writes. 

At the time, the collective had not toured or released music in over three years – and yet, an offer from a Cambodian hip hop group called Klap Ya Handz turned out to be too intriguing to refuse.

“We hadn’t really planned on doing anything with Astronomy Class, until that trip to Cambodia near the end of 2012,” explains Kennedy. “We’d been invited to perform at this festival there, and it turned out to be quite fortuitous. We hadn’t even planned to make an album, let alone one that had anything to do with Cambodian music. Still, it had been a few years since we’d put anything out – it felt like the right time and the right place.”

While in the country, Kennedy and his bandmates discovered Khmer – the traditional style of pop music that was prevalent within Cambodian culture from the ’50s to the mid-’70s. It inspired Astronomy Class so much that they began relentlessly crate-digging and looking for tracks and hooks they could sample for what would become their third studio album, Mekong Delta Sunrise.

“There’s quite a big revival movement going on over there for this pre-’75 Cambodian music,” says Kennedy. “It’s still really, really popular – pretty much any cab you could get in there would be playing it. There’s a real sense of pride that comes with it. It’s being driven by the hip hop scene there, who were able to point us in the right direction of quite a lot of the music we were looking for. When we got back to Australia, we were amazingly able to find more through some leads among the Cambodian community in Cabramatta. It’s all come at a good time, given there’s now an international interest in the music of that era. It really fascinated us – it’s so different and often so difficult to find.”

The frontwoman of The Cambodian Space Project, Channthy was the puzzle piece that brought Mekong Delta Sunrise together. She appears on nearly every track on the album, singing in her native tongue and adding a distinct authenticity to the project. Her first appearance with Astronomy Class came at ET15, the two-day shows held in Melbourne and Sydney to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of independent hip hop label Elefant Traks (home to all of Kennedy’s musical projects). She has only performed with the group sporadically since – although Kennedy hopes this will change in the not-too-distant future.

“It’s essentially the four of us,” he says of the current Astronomy Class live show. “We had [Sydney MC] The Tongue on board for many years, but he’s doing his own thing at the moment. It’s me, [Sir] Robbo, Chasm and Johnny Maddox on bass. We’ve been able to do three more shows with Channthy on the Thundamentals tour, which went really well. At the moment, we’re just coming up with a few different variants of the live show – when Channthy’s schedule allows, we’ll get to do more stuff involving her. She’ll be performing with us at the launch show for the album in Melbourne, so naturally the set will be more skewed towards the new album. If we don’t have her there to give the full context, there’s probably only two or three songs off the record that we can work into the set. We’d like to perform with her as much as we can, but of course it can’t always work that way – and I think we’re adapting pretty well.”

Mekong Delta Sunrise is out now through Elefant Traks/Inertia and available online here.