Subscribe Search

Search form

A meeting of the Chapey masters

Suon San (left) and In Saron (right), with supporters of the chapey masters.
Suon San (left) and In Saron (right), with supporters of the chapey masters. Eliah Lillis

A meeting of the Chapey masters

Once an important musical form and storytelling tool, Chapey Dang Veng is now fighting for survival. Some of its most celebrated players met together last Saturday to celebrate the craft and to discuss its preservation.

They came from all over – four chapey masters converging on the home of the very oldest practitioner of the craft, Prach Chhoun, in Takeo province. Blind since the age of 7, 81-year-old Chhoun is now too ill to travel. So the others made the journey to pay their respects.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Kong Nay performs for the crowd. Eliah Lillis

After decades of playing the long-necked Chapey Dang Veng for the public, the masters find themselves largely ignored today, despite the musical form being recognised by UNESCO last year as an intangible cultural heritage.

But today is meant to be a celebration and a reunion. The youngest of the bunch, 59-year-old Neth Pe begins by telling his story in song. Living in a pagoda and blind since childhood, he picked up the chapey because he loved the sound of the chapey masters on the radio. His style differs from the traditional form; whereas older players like Chhoun stick to scripts inspired by Buddhist texts and religious stories, Pe sings stories about daily life.

Later, over palm fruit soup, they joke together mostly about Neth Pe’s young wife before Chhoun asks about talented young singers who can play chapey. “I am tired and I cannot play chapey properly today,” Chhoun says. He predicts that, today, there are 80 percent fewer chapey players left than there were when he began. “I regret being so weak. I can’t fight my sickness, but things are subject to change in this world,” he says. “Although chapey is gone, the Khmer spirit is still with us”.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A wall of photographs of Prach Chuon. Eliah Lillis

For the five masters, chatting together about their work, chapey singing is an opportunity to discuss a range of issues affecting society – from politics to economics to literature and history. “Being a chapey master is difficult, because we are always preparing to perform for the public,” Chhoun says. “We do expect to get support from the people, not to have them look down on us.”

For Kong Nay, 72, perhaps the most famous chapey player globally, the meeting with the elder Chhoun is special. The two used to perform together in Phnom Penh, mostly at government events, and until Chhoun fell ill, they were on a committee together through the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to support young chapey players.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Kong Nay comforts his friend Prach Chuon. Eliah Lillis

Although the number of professional players has decreased, there are programs available to support the craft. Cambodian Living Arts and Royal University of Fine Arts each promote chapey players. Phoeung Sakona, the minister of culture and fine arts, said that the ministry also plans to make a program to show Chapey Dang Veng to students in different provinces and to subsidise the making of instruments to lower the cost.

“I do believe that Chapey Dang Veng won’t disappear, because … it touches the Cambodian people emotionally, especially in national ceremonies such as rice ceremonies and village ceremonies,” she said. One of the impediments to enlisting new players, Kong Nay says, is the perception that you have to be blind in order to play the instrument – or, even, that doing so can cause blindness.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
In Saron tunes his chapey. Eliah Lillis

Throughout the afternoon, they chat together, smoke cigarettes and laugh – all except Chhoun, who sleeps nearby.

Among them is Suon San, 69, from Takeo. People should respect chapey players, he says, because they are carriers of knowledge.

“In order to play Chapey, you have to be an intellectual: in poems, literature, novels, history, ethics and respect, because this is a way to contribute a good message to the public,” he says.

In Saron, a 73-year-old chapey master from Svay Rieng, sings alongside San about what it means to him to pursue his musical passion.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Sub Chhan (left), with Suon San (centre) and Kong Nay (right). Eliah Lillis

“I was blind, but I committed to do my best in what I loved learning chapey,” he sings. “My family were happy to have me as a chapey master, but they didn’t know that I cried because this career gave me nothing [financially]. Sometimes, I laugh alone and dream of success and support in my favourite career.”

RECOMMENDED STORIES

  • Thy Sovantha threatens new suit

    Social media celebrity and card-carrying CPP member Thy Sovantha yesterday said she will file a lawsuit against wildlife NGO head Suwanna Gauntlett alleging discrimination after the latter allegedly denied her access to an ecotourism program the group is launching today in Koh Kong province. The

  • Police raid Siem Reap party, arrest 10 foreigners over ‘pornographic’ images

    A group of 10 foreign tourists appeared in court today after being arrested for producing “pornographic” photos in Siem Reap town on Thursday, while dozens more were detained temporarily and let go after being lectured on their behaviour, according to authorities. A report posted to the

  • Hun Sen’s in-law removed from RCAF after cockfighting rings raided

    Thai Phany, the nephew-in-law of Prime Minister Hun Sen who is accused of running two large cockfighting rings, has been removed as a general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. Phany, formerly a one-star brigadier general, was removed by royal decree on December 19, according to

  • Government approves plan to relocate Phnom Penh’s airport

    The government has signed off on a proposal to build a new airport to serve Phnom Penh and has earmarked land in Kandal province for the $1.5 billion project. A new international airport to replace the existing Phnom Penh International Airport will be constructed on partially