‘My name is Gne, I’m all alone, no microphone – try thinking. I play Chapey and also think, do you know the meaning? We call [it the] two-string long guitar …”
These lyrics, though in English, belong to a traditional Khmer style of song played on the Chapey Dang Veng. Energetic Gne looking dapper in his white shirt, black trousers and traditional Khmer scarf sings Chapey Dang Veng in a high English tenor.
Many Cambodians know Chapey Dang Veng but shy away from learning to play it, believing the instrument can only be mastered by those who specialise in traditional Khmer music.
But with nothing more than a passion for the instrument, anyone can master Chapey music. Gne, a 24-year-old tourism and hospitality student at the National University of Management from Svay Rieng province, has become something of an aficionado at Chapey Dang Veng.
“I’ve loved Chapey since I was young. I heard the sound of the Chapey in ceremonies in my village, and I usually sang Chapey songs when I tended my buffaloes.”
Gne not only has adapted English language lyrics to his Chapey Dang Veng songs but will even switch between English and Khmer within songs sometimes.
Shortly after Gne graduated from high school in 2010, he moved to Phnom Penh where he met legendary Chapey master Kong Nay in April 2011. Gne’s skill at playing the instrument vastly improved as he learnt from Nay and began spending his weekends taking Chapey classes at the organisation Cambodian Living Arts.
“Although my teacher [Kong Nay] is blind, he can play the Chapey wonderfully and I can understand. I try to play following the sounds that he plays and I look at his fingers to make sure that I tap the right finger on the right part of the Chapey’s body.
The relationship between music played on a Chapey and poetic accompanying lyrics is very important, Gne has found.
“If Chapey players don’t understand about poems, they can’t sing Chapey [music] well,” he said.
“Two commonly used types of poems are four-word poems and seven-word poems.”
Some people give up Chapey because they have difficulty understanding this poetic aspect of it, especially sing poems without drafting them first. Others struggle with stage fright when performing in front of large audiences.
But Gne has devised his own way of dealing with nervousness.
“Don’t’s be shy! We need to have strong self-confidence. I have to imagine that there is only me, on the stage,” he said.
“I have to think of English words that can be used in a seven-word poem,” Gne said, adding that English grammar was difficult. “I know the grammar is not all correct, but it is understandable.”
Because of his ongoing efforts to introduce Chapey Dang Veng to local and foreigners, Gne has been invited to play the instrument at pagodas, on radio and at Cambodian television stations.
Gne has seen a growth in the popularity of the instrument and the proficiency of players.
“When I first attended a class at Cambodian Living Arts there were only three students but now there are 10,” he said.
Outside of his studies as a third year undergraduate student at NUM, Gne teaches Chapey Dang Veng at the Music Arts School. He wants to encourage all Cambodians, but in particular the youth, to value their culture as well as their musical instruments.
“All Khmers have to value Chapey and love it. When we love it, we want to learn how to play it, so that Chapey Dang Veng will continue,” he said.