On a recent day, deep in the Cambodian heartland, some homespun Khmer magic was happening.
Officials in Phnom Penh wouldn't have heard about it, but the frenzied festival bursting
from the rice paddies of Kampong Trach district in Kampot province on January 31
was a kind of Khmer miracle. The villagers saw two epic days of revelry and religion,
with hard-core crooning and clowning stretching deep into the spirit-swirling night.
It was the Bon Jomroeun Ayu - Ceremony of Advancing Age - for one of Cambodia's greatest
and most-adored musicians. Sage, clown, and rugged string-strumming bard - it was
the birthday of the grinning blind chapei master, Kong Nai.
"In Cambodia it's up to the children when they hold a Bon Jomroeun Ayu,"
said 21-year-old Boran, Nai's youngest child.
There to celebrate with him in Dong (Coconut) Village, Kong Nai's birthplace, were
his 10 children, 27 of his 29 grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren - along
with a couple of thousand others all helping to warm those strangely chilly nights.
The converted rice fields teemed with chanting monks smoking 555s, food-sellers,
fortune-tellers, gamblers, beaming children, drunken dancers, and a troupe of the
L'khaon Bassac theatre, which performed late into the Bon's second night.
The highlight was a star-studded jam session of 11 chapei-ists, belting out their
lamenting, laughing "Mekong Delta blues." Only eight made it to the stage,
but the planet had probably not witnessed such a stupendous chapei event since the
Buddha himself supposedly introduced the 2-stringed chapei to the world, 2500 years
"I've never heard of so many great chapei players performing together before,"
said Song Seng, project coordinator of Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). Recently international
tributes have been pouring in for Kong Nai and his gutsy chapei.
Last year rock-legend Peter Gabriel's label Realworld recorded Nai for an upcoming
solo release. Nai also recorded for Khmerican band Dengue Fever.
"And now it's 95 percent certain Kong Nai will be playing at the WOMAD festival
outside Bath in June," CLA director Charley Todd told the Post. This is a coup
for the 61-year-old, known for the infectious wit of his improvising, as well as
the soulfulness of his tobacco-charged voice.
Despite Nai's increasing world-fame, everyday Cambodians have always respected the
dignity and loyalty with which this disabled but joyous man always returns to the
Khmer roots and rice-fields of his youth.
"I like playing in the country more than the city," Nai said. "In
the city they have lots of videos and things, and they don't know how to listen.
In the countryside they love listening."
He met his wife Tat Chhan in Dawng village when he was 18. It is impossible to imagine
Kong Nai without this loyal, beautiful woman with the smiling eyes.
The survival of Nai, Chhan and their 11 children during the KR time was another Nai
miracle: the entire family was marched into the forest to be executed only to be
rescued in the nick of time by invading Vietnamese soldiers.
At Nai's Bon, monks chanted all day, and then after a ritual bathing, Nai and Chhan
were paraded bizarrely around the rice fields atop a massive wooden double bed.
On the rickety stage in the middle of the rice field, the first chapei player started
singing just after 11pm. Like the chapei musicians of the past who wandered the rice
fields anonymously, escaping censorship, no one seemed to know the name of this old
player or where he was from. It was rumored he had once learned from Nai himself.
"He doesn't seem to play very well anyway," whispered some. Others conceded
the blame could lie with the rustic sound system and its improvised bamboo microphone.