After an illness left him blind at the age of four, Kong Nai sought solace in traditional cha pei singing and is now passing on his musical knowledge
Photo by: Vandy Rattana
Kong Nai, who recently returned from Australia, is proud to be able to peform cha pei on the international stage.
Since discovering he was blind at the age of four, 63-year-old Kong Nai has found fame singing and playing the cha pei, a Khmer stringed instrument similar to a lute, and he is keeping the music tradition alive by passing his knowledge on to a new generation.
"I haven't been able to see since I was four years old, when I had varicella and it affected my eyes. But I didn't know I was blind because I supposed that all people were the same as me. I wondered why I had someone holding my hand when I wanted to go somewhere and other people didn't," he said, "And then I asked my mother, and she said I was blind."
At first, Kong Nai thought he would not be able to do anything, but one day he went to participate in a ceremony in his village and he heard them sing cha pei. It was from that moment on he decided to learn to be a cha pei singer.
"Since that time I tried to learn and sing, and I spent nearly seven years to sing and do music by mouth because I didn't have a cha pei instrument until I asked my uncle to buy one for me.
The goverment encourages me ... I get a salary of $50 every month.
"It is very difficult to learn because I cannot read, and I ask my relatives to read for me and I try to remember. I have a very good memory, and I can remember a story forever while I listen only one time," he said, "but now they just record for me and if I forget some points I will play it to listen again,"
Kong Nai has lived in Phnom Penh since 1992 after he placed first in a cha pei competition in the city. He was then invited to work in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art. After he retired, he became a teacher and now has 13 students, including two foreigners and three students from Cambodia Living Art.
"I think that if the government and NGOs support and pay attention to cha pei music it will improve in the future, but if not it will be lost even though most youths today don't care much about cha pei," he said.
"The government supports and encourages me to continue my work to the next generation with cha pei music, and I get a salary of US$50 every month."
"While I am teaching, I usually tell them about the value and importance of cha pei music in order to keep our Khmer culture because one day cha pei will be famous and everybody will know its value."
Some students, he says, understand and try to learn more about cha pei even though it is difficult for them.
He prides himself on being able to bring cha pei music to the attention of other countries and since becoming a famous cha pei singer he has performed in nine countries: France, Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria, Belgium, the United States, England, Australia and New Zealand. He has also recently returned from Australia last month and has plans to perform in France again next year.
"The place that I have never forgotten when I performed was at Sihanoukville, Kampot, and Takeo. They were very good events because many people came to listen to me and they admire and want me to sing again and again," he said.
"I am famous because I have a good voice and I can sing with good rhyming syllables that listeners want to hear, and I never sing the same song as that makes the audiences bored," he aded. "And all my songs have meaning to educate the listeners. Before I sing I have to know and understand clearly about the topic, and when I know it is very easy for me to sing."
Kong Nai says he is very happy to perform even though he cannot see the audience, and he is proud that as a blind person he can make people happy and perform on the international stage.
"I have never felt afraid when I perform because I believe in myself and I know what I have to do. I want to tell all the Khmer young generation that even though they like pop songs or Western culture, please don't forget our own culture," he said.
"Now there are more than 30 older cha pei singers in our country. I would really regret it if our cha pei music was lost because it is unique to our culture, and if we don't take care we will lose it."
Cha Pei music: Attracting people and the supernatural
The cha pei is used in Arack (communication to spirits) music and in Pleing Ka (wedding music). It is also used as Samdeng Toul - a solo instrument accompanying poetry and the telling of folk stories. According to the book Lomnom Sangkeb Nay Pleing Khmer by Peac Sal, printed in 1969 about the making of the instrument, the cha pei is made using carefully selected wood so that when the instrument is played it will make a beautiful sound to attract people and also supernatural beings. Such beliefs, according to the book, probably date back to the time when the people of Cambodia worshipped the spirit world as animists. The cha pei has a long neck made of krasang, a wood which can be steamed and bent. The neck goes down into a sound box made of rang wood, which is square with rounded corners. Some boxes have the shape of the banyan leave or the pineapple shape. When the cha pei accompanies singing, it changes pitch according to the voice of the singer. Sometimes the cha pei changes pitch in the middle of the song, especially if the cha pei player plays and sings him/herself.