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A meeting of the Chapey masters

Suon San (left) and In Saron (right), with supporters of the chapey masters.
Suon San (left) and In Saron (right), with supporters of the chapey masters. Eliah Lillis

A meeting of the Chapey masters

Once an important musical form and storytelling tool, Chapey Dang Veng is now fighting for survival. Some of its most celebrated players met together last Saturday to celebrate the craft and to discuss its preservation.

They came from all over – four chapey masters converging on the home of the very oldest practitioner of the craft, Prach Chhoun, in Takeo province. Blind since the age of 7, 81-year-old Chhoun is now too ill to travel. So the others made the journey to pay their respects.

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Kong Nay performs for the crowd. Eliah Lillis

After decades of playing the long-necked Chapey Dang Veng for the public, the masters find themselves largely ignored today, despite the musical form being recognised by UNESCO last year as an intangible cultural heritage.

But today is meant to be a celebration and a reunion. The youngest of the bunch, 59-year-old Neth Pe begins by telling his story in song. Living in a pagoda and blind since childhood, he picked up the chapey because he loved the sound of the chapey masters on the radio. His style differs from the traditional form; whereas older players like Chhoun stick to scripts inspired by Buddhist texts and religious stories, Pe sings stories about daily life.

Later, over palm fruit soup, they joke together mostly about Neth Pe’s young wife before Chhoun asks about talented young singers who can play chapey. “I am tired and I cannot play chapey properly today,” Chhoun says. He predicts that, today, there are 80 percent fewer chapey players left than there were when he began. “I regret being so weak. I can’t fight my sickness, but things are subject to change in this world,” he says. “Although chapey is gone, the Khmer spirit is still with us”.

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A wall of photographs of Prach Chuon. Eliah Lillis

For the five masters, chatting together about their work, chapey singing is an opportunity to discuss a range of issues affecting society – from politics to economics to literature and history. “Being a chapey master is difficult, because we are always preparing to perform for the public,” Chhoun says. “We do expect to get support from the people, not to have them look down on us.”

For Kong Nay, 72, perhaps the most famous chapey player globally, the meeting with the elder Chhoun is special. The two used to perform together in Phnom Penh, mostly at government events, and until Chhoun fell ill, they were on a committee together through the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to support young chapey players.

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Kong Nay comforts his friend Prach Chuon. Eliah Lillis

Although the number of professional players has decreased, there are programs available to support the craft. Cambodian Living Arts and Royal University of Fine Arts each promote chapey players. Phoeung Sakona, the minister of culture and fine arts, said that the ministry also plans to make a program to show Chapey Dang Veng to students in different provinces and to subsidise the making of instruments to lower the cost.

“I do believe that Chapey Dang Veng won’t disappear, because … it touches the Cambodian people emotionally, especially in national ceremonies such as rice ceremonies and village ceremonies,” she said. One of the impediments to enlisting new players, Kong Nay says, is the perception that you have to be blind in order to play the instrument – or, even, that doing so can cause blindness.

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In Saron tunes his chapey. Eliah Lillis

Throughout the afternoon, they chat together, smoke cigarettes and laugh – all except Chhoun, who sleeps nearby.

Among them is Suon San, 69, from Takeo. People should respect chapey players, he says, because they are carriers of knowledge.

“In order to play Chapey, you have to be an intellectual: in poems, literature, novels, history, ethics and respect, because this is a way to contribute a good message to the public,” he says.

In Saron, a 73-year-old chapey master from Svay Rieng, sings alongside San about what it means to him to pursue his musical passion.

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Sub Chhan (left), with Suon San (centre) and Kong Nay (right). Eliah Lillis

“I was blind, but I committed to do my best in what I loved learning chapey,” he sings. “My family were happy to have me as a chapey master, but they didn’t know that I cried because this career gave me nothing [financially]. Sometimes, I laugh alone and dream of success and support in my favourite career.”

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