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Mountain music: the sounds of the Bunong

Nyel Chaas, who is blind, performs on the kong ra, a hypnotising stringed guitar made from recycled materials.
Nyel Chaas, who is blind, performs on the kong ra, a hypnotising stringed guitar made from recycled materials. NICK STREET

Mountain music: the sounds of the Bunong

How a unique music from Mondulkiri is making itself heard in the capital.

On a Saturday night, in front of a transfixed audience mostly made up of foreigners, musician Nyel Chaas places his hands on the fret board of the kong ra and begins to pluck out a strong, twanging melody.

The instrument is a work of art: a long, raw wooden neck, carved tuning pegs and sardine-can reverberators. Thirty-four-year-old Chaas, who is blind and ethnic Bunong, made the kong ra from his home in a village near the Bou Sra waterfall in Mondulkiri. The sound is almost bluesy, but intricate and sweet.

“Mountain music” is how Julien Poulsen from the Cambodian Space Project describes it, hearing similarities between it and North America’s rootsy Appalachian sounds. He first came across Chaas’ traditional Bunong band two years ago, performing for tourists in a village in the mountainous province, and couldn’t get them out of his head. In particular, 91-year-old musician Gnel Cla, who plays mouth harp and percussion, and is now a custodian of what continues to an endangered art form for the Bunong. Now he wants to take the band to Womad, the world music festival founded by Peter Gabriel and held in cities across the globe, including in Australia, where Poulsen is from.

When he returned to Mondulkiri this month to find Gnel Cla and the band’s singer, Som Boro, he was told that Cla had died. Fortunately it was a case of mistaken identity, and the nimble senior was discovered working in a field.

Poulsen then asked if Nyel Chaas was still in the village, and in another misunderstanding was introduced to 45-year-old Smos Chbrarb Soy, also blind, who plays the flute.

The four were happy to drop everything and make the trip down to play in Phnom Penh for the weekend, performing at The Village restaurant last Thursday night and opening for the Cambodian Space Project on Saturday at the FCC. It was not the first time the group has played in Phnom Penh, and at both performances they appeared undaunted by the crowds.

Chaas, who composes new music as well making instruments, started with a rousing original number, translated as ‘Having More Road, We Must Go On.’

“I can compose new songs that have my own meaning, and people encourage me to write the songs,” he said before The Village performance. “Unfortunately I never had the chance to go to school, I only listened and learned from the radio [but I had the will].

“Sickness was the reason that I became blind, when I was three years old. But I never give up in life”, he said.

Threatened with near-extinction during the Khmer Rouge period, performing Bunong music is something of a reclamation of a once-strong tradition. Many of the band, which normally has more than 10 members, rely on the money made from their performances at a Mondulkiri tourist resort. With Chaas’ new compositions and unique instruments, new music is being forged.

Gnel Cla remembers a time when their culture faced a far darker future. Fearing their valuable instruments would be destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, people buried the drums, cymbals and stringed kong ra in the forest ground, hoping to recover them later.

“After the war ended, we found them and reused them in the Bunong community again,” Cla said.

“[We once had] 14 types of instruments, we now use only four, because [the buried] were old and broken.”

Som Boro, 38, the lead singer, who keeps a reassuring eye out for her elderly, young and visually impaired fellow-band members, said that in the village, a traditional music class was also helping to get the young in touch with their ancient musical roots. In the last six years the class has taught 30 Bunong students.

“The old songs we took from the original old people, and the new songs we in the band compose ourselves – the new songs because we want to describe and protect our environment.

“In our community, the young Bunong have begun to love and protect their traditions.”

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