For many, the chapei don veng is a key part of Cambodia’s musical tradition. Will Jackson reports.
When Master Kong Nay walked into the studio it felt like a rock star had entered the room. Students rushed to offer water to the 69-year-old craggy-faced chapei don veng player. Others snapped pictures of him on their phones.
The blind musician sat in the middle of the room at the Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) organisation’s headquarters with the long-necked, two-stringed instrument, feet tucked beneath his body as his fingers danced across the frets. The students watched in awe. Some tentatively strummed their own chapeis alongside him.
As well as an oft-cited resemblance to that other blind music great, Ray Charles, Nay has a unique booming vocal style and a talent for improvisation. He’s toured internationally in the US and Australia, his musical style branded “Mekong Delta blues”, and he counts Peter Gabriel among his fans.
Every chapei player in the room would have cited him as a continuing inspiration. But, perversely, he’s also part of the reason few new students are taking up the instrument.
The chapei – which, according to ethnomusicologist Patrick Kersale is a kind of lute similar to Vietnam’s dan dey and possibly evolved from the “crocodile zither” of Angkorian times – is normally played solo.
Because Nay and a few other famous players are blind, a superstition has arisen in Cambodia that playing the instrument causes blindness.
It’s an idea Nay condemns: “Many chapei players aren’t blind, only me and a couple of others,” he said. “Why would I teach my own son to play the chapei if I thought it would send him blind?
“The people who made up this rumour must not want to preserve the culture of chapei.”
Nay went blind at four years old as a result of smallpox, and at a young age decided that playing the chapei was something he could be good at without needing to see.
His uncle, Kong Tek, who already played the instrument, needed some convincing because he thought it would be difficult to teach a blind person but Nay’s enthusiasm won him over and at the age of 13, his uncle taught him the basics.
Nay spent a year gathering material for his songs, begging everyone he met to read him poems or history books or tell him about the goings-on in the countryside.
Chapei players – who alternate between singing and strumming their instrument – are as much storytellers as musicians.
They are not only expected to be able to play traditional folk standards, but also improvise, incorporating their surroundings and audiences into the songs.
The songs tend to be educational – many these days warn of the dangers of drugs and promiscuity – but usually include humour in the form of amusing descriptions or wordplay.
By the time he was 15, Nay was a professional chapei player and had garnered a reputation as a witty and unique musician.
“The reason I am so well known is because I can sing louder than other chapei players,” Nay said through an interpreter. “But also because I can compose and improvise my songs and not just sing the traditional songs.”
Now at nearly 70 years old and semi-retired, Nay is part of a thinning generation of chapei players that some worry are not being replaced.
Cambodian Living Arts chapei teacher Pich Sarath – who is not visually impaired and was taught by Nay at CLA from 2003 onward – said few young people were interested in playing the chapei because they were scared they would go blind.
“This rumour means that a lot of people don’t want to play chapei,” he said.
Sarath – who is one of only two teachers in Phnom Penh – estimated there were only between 20 and 30 professional chapei players left in Cambodia and said that among his 20 students at CLA, only four took learning the instrument seriously.
He said the superstition was so strong that when one of his students coincidentally started suffering from an eye problem recently she immediately stopped coming to classes and hasn’t come back.
He even admitted that at first he himself didn’t tell his family and friends that he was learning the instrument.
Charismatic and talkative student Nou Samnang, 21, who has been learning to play for a year and is a natural chapei player, said his parents objected when he started going to classes because they thought he would lose his sight.
They decided it was worth the risk after CLA sent him to Singapore in October last year to speak about his experiences and instrument at a music conference hosted by regional music education magazine Music Education Asia.
“My parents didn’t want to let me study chapei class,” he said. “They told me: ‘If we let you study it’s not good because if you study you cannot see’.
“But they stay far away from me [in my village] so I come to study by secret, but when the organisation sent me to Singapore my parents said: ‘Wow you are so good, that is good. Continue to study, no problem’.”
However, he added that the blindness rumours weren’t the only thing preventing more young people from learning to play the chapei.
He said there was a steep learning curve and improvising rhymes was extremely difficult. More young people were interested in playing guitar.
“The guitar is a kind of Western instrument and more people pay attention to the modern music because it’s more popular nowadays,” he said.
“Chapei is very ancient and from the past, so people think it’s old fashioned.”
Nonetheless, Samnang said he would eventually like to become a chapei teacher himself in order to take Cambodia’s cultural heritage into the future.