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Artists more than able in their minds and spirit

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Kong Nai, the blind Khmer chapei musician who not only plays the blues but lives them.

Cambodia recently showcased the creative talents of disabled individuals from around the region in a thought-provoking arts event at Chenla Theatre

We are encouraging disabled people to be stronger

ON DECEMBER 3, hundreds of people gathered at the park next to Wat Botum for a special ceremony – and to share talents and ideas – in celebration of the 26th International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This happy gathering was different from others in the park – though one could hardly tell at first glance – because most of the participants, who hailed from numerous NGOs, happened to be disabled.

The day has been an international observance promoted by the United Nations since 1992, typically organised by volunteers. In Cambodia this year’s event was co-organised by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organisation [CDPO].

Messages of support from both the King and prime minister were read to the 3,500-strong crowd. A representative from the CDPO, Ngin Saorath, later requested the government ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. After the serious business, however, games and wheelchair races started up, finishing the day on a fun note.

Two days later, on December 5, many of the same people showcased their abilities in the Spotlight 2009 arts performance, co-organised by London-based NGO Epic Arts and the Nippon Foundation. In front of Chenla Theatre, the strains of classical music, played by a group of disabled children near the theatre’s entrance, wafted over the street.

The evening featured performers from Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as Cambodia. According to one of the Khmer performers, Kong Nai, a self-taught master of chapei, a traditional form of improvised songwriting often compared to American Delta blues: “People should have equal rights and values in society, even though they may be ‘disabled’ – because not every person shares the same physical abilities.”

In his song, the musician lyrically bemoaned the hardships of being blind since the age of 4.

As he didn’t expect to be offered other jobs, Kong Nai learnt to play chapei at age 13 and started performing at 15. This is one musician who not only sings the blues, but actually lives them.

At the song’s end, Kong Nai explained how sad handicapped people feel when they are mistreated: “Because I cannot see, I have been tricked into walking into objects to make people laugh.”

This year, Epic Arts, which employs some disabled workers in its Kampot and Phnom Penh offices, is compiling a database of disabled artists in Southeast Asia to facilitate regional collaboration.

“We are trying to connect people to develop their vocational skills on inclusive arts,” said Epic Arts’ project manager Marie de Pibrac. “We are also working to encourage disabled people to be stronger and show their abilities, not disabilities,” she added.

“I hope that after two years of our vocational training program, Epic Arts dancers will become professionals performing in Southeast Asia in 2010.”

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