One of Cambodia’s most remarkable musicians, blind Nyel Che from the indigenous Bunong community in Mondulkiri province, has died of an unknown illness. He was in his thirties.
This week those who knew him best, from friends in his native Bus Ra village to NGO workers to members of the Cambodian Space Project, with whom he played in Phnom Penh last year, have spoken of how his music and his humble demeanour touched their lives.
Somboro, a 49-year-old singer from Bus Ra, remembers Nyel Che, her bandmate of five years, well. “When I played with him I was very happy. Nyel never wanted anyone to worry about him, even though he was blind,” she said on the phone from Mondulkiri earlier this week.
Julien Poulson, frontman of the rock group the Cambodian Space Project, first met “Blind Nyel”, as he came to be known, in Bus Ra in 2011 when his band stumbled upon a music school in the village late one night.
“He turned up with these amazing instruments which he had made himself out of planks of wood and 24 strings and resonators made out of coconut milk tins. He called it the ‘Bunong guitar’. We sat there in the dark under these oil lamps exchanging Bunong, Khmer and English songs,” Poulson said on the phone from Australia earlier this week.
He added: “The songs were so interesting – they were updating old ideas in the Bunong culture, which is vanishing, it is incredibly endangered and special. To hear what Nyel Che was doing was absolutely astonishing – the sorts of subjects he was singing about and the way he’d updated very ancient folky ideas.”
He recorded Nyel’s songs and posted them online. Two years later, he returned and tracked down the musician again, playing the video he’d recorded so that he’d recognise him without his sight. He then took him back to Phnom Penh, where they performed together in September last year.
Video by Marc Eberle
For Poulson, what’s particularly sad about Nyel’s death is that a unique type of music died with him. “The saddest thing is that he was the most original of musicians: someone who was singing in depth about his own culture and traditions, the storytelling and the links to the songs of that tribal heritage – and he’s gone,” he said.
Nyel Che became blind at the age of six following complications from a bout of measles. Despite his blindness, he composed and played traditional Bunong music –and even made his own instruments: the traditional Bunong Kong Rieng, made from bamboo, gongs influenced from Vietnam, and his very own Bunong guitar. He also sang. According to those who knew him in his village of Bus Ra, he never married, and he lived with one of his two brothers.
Blaise Kilian, program co-ordinator at UNESCO, has known Nyel since 2009, when he worked on a project with the government to protect and promote the culture and traditions of indigenous communities around Cambodia. When UNESCO and the local NGO Nomad inaugurated the Mondulkiri Documentation Centre, Nyel performed at the ceremony.
“We were all struck by his music – both traditional and original. His compositions were in his own language, based on traditional folk songs. It was very interesting, very creative. Even once the ceremony was over, I remember I kept on listening to him play for an hour or two because it was very moving,” Kilian, who described Nyel as “the most renowned” musician in Mondulkiri, said.
He then invited Nyel to play at the inauguration of an exhibition about indigenous handicraft at Phnom Penh’s National Museum. He also contacted a French ethnomusicologist, Patrick Kersale, to record a CD of Nyel’s music, with the support of Cambodian Living Arts. The CD, made up of original songs composed by Nyel and traditional Bunong folk songs, includes tracks about indigenous life, with titles such as Looking at a Beautiful Flower, Give Me a Hen and Farming in February.
Kersale said that his music was unique. “I was struck by the resemblance of some melodic songs with those of Vietnam. He revealed to me that he grew up in Vietnam, and he was inspired by songs that he heard on the radio,” he wrote in an email.
“We recorded the same day in a house in his village. His enthusiasm was total and he displayed the most beautiful energy to sing in front of the microphone and camera,” he added.
According to Poulson, the world music festival Womad was interested in flying Nyel and his band to Australia to perform. Tragically, he died just before this opportunity came around.
“All his contemporary songs, and interpretations of his ancient and endangered form of music, are lost. There’s no one else like him,” he said.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.