Pich Sarath was once a young man with a passion for the chapei dong veng, the traditional long necked two-string Khmer guitar that is usually accompanied by storytelling in song form. His passion led him to seek out the legendary master Kong Nai, with whom he studied from 2003 to 2012.
In 2013, Sarath felt ready to pass on what he had learned, and founded the Community of Living Chapei.
Sarath explained the impetus behind the formation of the group.
“I and other several other performers realised that there was no central organisation for chapei players to exchange information, plan performances or teach students. The idea was to support the artists as well as fans of the art form,” he said.
“On my own initiative, and with the support of Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), I established the Community of Living Chapei,” he added.
He explained that the organisation conducts a mobile outreach programme, and also holds regular performances at educational institutions.
“In addition, one of the aims of the community is to change the perception that the chapei is only played by the blind,” he said.
Very few grandmasters survived the persecution of the arts that was perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, although the two most notable, masters Kong Nai and Prach Chhuon, were both blind men.
The chapei dong veng tradition has existed in Cambodia for hundreds of years, and was inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.
Its regional appeal received a boost in 2019, when Sarath taught basic chapei to doctoral thesis music students at Khon Kaen University in Thailand.
Since its inception, 192 students have studied with the Community of Living Chapei, among them foreigners, women and children.
Sarath explained that people who are unable to afford tuition are still permitted to attend the school, but people who could afford to contribute were asked to do so.
“The community requires some contributions. We rent our facilities and maintain continuous activities. Those who can afford it pay from $60 to $20 in tuition fees,” he said.
“We will allow people to enrol without making a down payment; but we do need to earn some income. We teach several children, and young people find it very hard to focus if they are not provided with water and snacks,” he added.
Sarath expressed his love for all Cambodians who remember the traditional art of the chapei dong veng, especially the young people who learned to play.
“Each person who plays becomes part of an unbroken chain of a uniquely Khmer experience that stretches back to the time of our ancient ancestors,” he concluded.