Kong Nai, master of the Cambodian two-string guitar called the chapei dong veng.
I n the slums of Phnom Penh Master Kong Nai sings the Cambodian Blues. But after he cries out his husky songs and digs deeply on his two-stringed Khmer guitar, he says he's never heard of the Delta Blues - although to anyone weened on Western music the comparison is inescapable.
Of course, this music is a more ancient art - a haunting style once heard within the temple walls of Angkor Wat. According to the tale, this gutsy music called chapei, strums it's lamenting, laughing path back 25 centuries, and all the way to the Buddha himself.
Like the American bluesmen of the poverty stricken Mississipi Delta, the chapei players were rugged, sparse singers - often just a man and his slide guitar roaming the fields, like outcast troubadours. They strummed rough and hard above rowdy crowds, hollering out the pain of their past.
The lone impassioned singer with the hard-hitting riffs and sliding blues-notes belted out on his chapei dong veng ("Long-necked Guitar"), or just chapei. Chapei music seems to resonate with the sadness and poverty left over from Cambodia's recent years of turmoil. Its beginnings were noble, but the chapei now tells the story of slums and rice-fields.
Blind since he was four and a survivor of the murderous Khmer Rouge years, Master Kong Nai can also tell a story.
His humble thatched hut is in Dey Krahorm, a Tonle Bassac squatter community behind the high-rise slum building called Bo Ding, a community of contrast teaming with rats, prostitutes, laughter and love. The place is famous as the home of traditional musicians and dancers. The threat of forced eviction now looms over Master Nai and the other artists
He sits cross-legged on a bamboo platform, beaming rows of grinning teeth from under dark gangster glasses. To the Western eye he resembles a Khmer Ray Charles - only minus the years of heroin abuse; Master Nai is too alert for that.
"My Great Uncle Kong Kith, who taught me chapei, told me this story," said the Master. "The Buddha was formerly a prince. The indra [angels] were worried the prince would die before he became the Buddha, because he had been fasting for such a long time. So they brought him down a chapei. He tuned the string, but too tightly and it snapped. Then he tuned one loosely, and it wouldn't play. Finally he tuned it not too tight, not too loose - and it played. From this the prince learned the "middle path" of Buddhism: not to be too tightly disciplined; or too loose, with too much wine and women."
Nai said the chapei was known by the Sanskrit name pinn before arriving in Cambodia. This was some time before Angkor as there are pictures of chapei carved on the Angkor temples, he told us.
Chapei players sing about any subject, from ancient Hindu and Buddhist epics to bawdy social commentary. Although Nai said he personally shies away from politics, the lightning wit and word-play of the chapei masters is legendary.
"Some songs are serious; others are funny," said Nai. "Whatever people ask for, I can sing about. We can even exaggerate and lie a bit sometimes." He said chapei players do not change ancient texts, but with present-day ones, especially self-composed songs, there is riotous improvization, of both the lyrics and their funky accompaniments.
On a recent day, he took up his chapei and rapped and rhymed an on-the-spot song never before sung, making digs at Post reporters and telling his life story better than any journalist could. The jiving rhythm and subtlety of the word play is lost in English, but it is an astonishing example of this improvised art that can turn everyday events into legends.
A bard's tale
This pockmarked bard hardly dropped a word. Half sage and half clown, his unique Khmer humor soothed the ballad's inherently painful melodies. Nicotine-stained fingers picked away drones and seductive blues-notes on two ragged old strings.
Nai was one of 10 children, born into a family of poor rice farmers in Dawng Village, Kampot province.
When young, Nai's family was too poor to buy him a chapei. For five years he sang and imitated the sounds of the chapei with just his mouth.
"Neighbors began hiring me to play with just my mouth," he said. He also practiced on the almost extinct chapeit teang thnout (children's "palm frond chapei"), which he said children still play in his home town.
When he was 13 his father finally bought him an old chapei. After only two years of lessons with his great uncle, he started giving public performances. He never had another teacher.
When he was 18, Nai met Tat Chhan, his future wife. On this day, Chhan sat patiently watching Nai's face, perhaps mindful that this was a master story-teller speaking. "My wife kept working in the rice fields, because I couldn't," Nai said.
"In those days chapei money was good. I was able to buy a nice house, cows and a rice field." Yet he only played in nearby provinces - a stark contrast to the lot of today's chapei players.
"The only time I didn't play was in the Pol Pot time. At the beginning they let me keep playing - but only Khmer Rouge songs," he said, before breaking lustily into an old KR song, a defiant smile dispelling the evil of the song's originators.
In 1977 Nai was told that was no longer any place for him to sing. He laid his chapei down and joined a group of elderly prisoners charged with pounding palm to make rope.
"Two of my siblings were killed. I didn't think I would survive, especially after I heard that [the great chapei master] Ta Pu Tao Dai was killed. The healthy were given three spoons of rice a day, the sick only got one. I was considered a sick person."
In 1979 Khmer Rouge took Nai, his wife and five of their children into the forest at Phnom Thkou.
Kong Nai, 61, with his wife, Tat Chhan, whom he met when he was 18, "My wife kept working in the rice fields, because I couldn't."
"I cried and begged them not to take us away just yet. But they came again at 3 am, and then I knew they were going to kill us," said Chhan.
For two nights the KR kept them there. But almost miraculously, Vietnamese soldiers stormed through the forest, and saved their lives. All but one of the couple's 10 children are alive today.
"I started playing chapei again on the very first day after liberation," Nai said.
While Chhan worked the fields, Nai won a series of chapei competitions, gaining the national prize in 1991. In 1992 the Ministry of Culture gave him a monthly salary of $19 and some land in Dey Krahorm, along with other chosen artists. They lived in poverty. In his new job he sang at public festivals and election campaigns. One of Master Nai's much-loved songs goes:
I was once an election candidate in the Land of Giants.
But when I failed, I became a chapei player.
"Chapei players like Master Kong Nai are very clever; sometimes they can talk about politics in a sly way," said Song Seng, project coordinator for Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), an NGO that has worked to rescue many of Cambodia's forgotten masters from poverty and anonymity.
In 2003 Nai became a CLA "Master" in a program to support Cambodia's most endangered masters, along with six others from Dey Krahorm. CLA pays Nai $80 a month, boosting his earnings to keep him from poverty. In return he teaches promising young students.
A star discovered
His new status has pushed Nai into a pioneering role as fusion-artist. Recordings are due out from Khmerican rapper Prach Ly, and the band Dengue Fever - both featuring Nai.
"[The music is] really beautiful," Nai said in the singular sing-song chapei way that makes simple words ring deep and true.
Musician Peter Gabriel's groundbreaking ethnic label Realworld has just recorded Nai for an international solo release. Perhaps this philanthropically aimed project will make up for Nai's beautiful 2003 CD release from the French company Inedit, which ran off without paying Nai a solitary riel.
Nai, 61, has performed in Africa and Europe and is recognized - alongside Prach Chhoun and Net Pe - as one of Cambodia's three best chapei players. But living conditions are still grim.
It is the music that continues, after so many years, to bring happiness to this courageous artist.
"I am the only one [playing], but there are many hundreds of people listening. It makes me feel very happy," Nai said.
"When people aren't hiring me, when I get frustrated, I just take out my chapei for half an hour and it calms me down. I miss it even if I don't play for one day."