Cambodia's traditional guitar-like instrument, the Chapei, has a longer neck that curves and just two strings to pick, but those who play it often invent their lyrics while they’re playing. The songs are a bit like spoken-word poetry but more spontaneous. They’re usually based on legends or carry a social message, but always sung with humour.
Most famous Chapei singers are blind, and almost all perform in Khmer only. Two weeks ago, however, 29-year-old Neang Sarith broke the language barrier when he performed in English for the first time on National TV.
“I’d already sung in Khmer quite often,” Sarith told 7Days. “So this time, I wanted to do it in English because I want people, beyond Cambodians, to understand about our Chapei.” The song itself may have particular relevance to expats; it’s a cautionary tale urging a heavy drinker to reduce his intake to keep his life from falling apart.
Neang Sarith, who hails from Prey Veng province, was born blind and got the opportunity to attend a school for the blind, deaf and mute in 1999 when his moved to a village in Kandal province that was about 20 kilometres from Phnom Penh.
The school, run by the NGO Krousar Thmey, offered classes in literature, English and computer skills using Braille as well as computer applications for blind people.
Neang Sarith travelled 20km from his home to the school every day, and found that his calling was traditional music.
“In 2009, I was interested in Chapei,” Sarith says. “I knew that nobody had done it in English yet, so I wanted to try in English. I started learning Chapei from Chapei master Neth Pe.”
It took him only 10 days to learn how to pick the strings, but several months to sing from inspiration and in a rhythm.
“Chapei is hard for people to learn,” he says. “Anyone who can perform Chapei is like a scholar because they have to sing the spoken word poem without much preparation. It’s hard to do, but I don’t know why young people in Cambodia don’t like this art form.”
After he mastered Chapei, he started getting hired to perform, mainly by NGOs. His profile rose quickly and he was invited to perform on TV.
He decided to perform his song Drinking in English, even though this broke the rules.
Chapei requires the singers to invent his lyrics as he performs, but Sarith could not do this in English so he composed Cambodia’s first English language Chapei in advance.
“It’s hard for me to sing in English without preparation,” he explains. “So I composed it and memorised it. The rhythms do not work as well sometimes, because we use the Khmer poetic rhythm style. When the poem doesn’t work well, I have to narrate while I play the music, so I can explain to people more.”
He also tested the song on an informal focus group before he performed it. “I used to perform it to foreigners and ask them what they think. They said they could understand it,” he says.
Now, he is learning more poems and the traditional play called Yike at the Royal University of Fine Arts.
When he is free from school, he often travels to Battambang province to work with his NGO, Voice of the Blind Association, which helps others find jobs and runs the radio station Voice of the Blind.
He established the station with other blind music lovers.
Sarith is planning to introduce more topical songs, such as Wish and Laws, in English and will post them on a website, but for now he’s waiting on the reaction to his first foray into English.
Chapei may be losing its appeal among younger Cambodians, but Drinking could gain an audience among foreigners.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at firstname.lastname@example.org