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Chapey community loses pre-eminent master Suon San

Suon San (centre), who passed away on Tuesday, is seen with supporters of the chapey master.
Suon San (centre), who passed away on Tuesday, is seen with supporters of the chapey master. Eliah Lillis

Chapey community loses pre-eminent master Suon San

One of the pre-eminent masters of the chapey – Cambodia’s traditional two-stringed guitar – has passed away. Born in Korki village in Takeo province, Suon San had been battling an illness for the past three months before his death at Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh on Monday night.

A skilled musician, San took up the chapey as a young boy. Growing up on a farm, he often tended to his family’s cows, while simultaneously taking the opportunity to create makeshift chapeys from palm trees, his son Ya Sela said yesterday. His passion for the instrument was so strong that he defied his father’s disapproval for the craft.

His formal introduction to the instrument came at the age of 18, through the master Pouthau Dai. It was then he met his lifelong friend Kong Nay, the world’s most recognised chapey player.

“[He] was a good person, and a good friend,” Nay said yesterday. The chapey masters had worked and played together for more than 20 years.

Read more: A meeting of the chapey masters

San was also a chapey teacher with arts organisation Cambodian Living Arts for around 12 years. In 2012, he was recognised for his chapey achievements by Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to Sela. Two years later, he performed in China, and had been offered a chance to play in London next month.

Though many chapey players are blind, San had full vision, though he was wounded while the Khmer Rouge were in power and lost his leg.

San’s death places additional pressure on the already shrinking chapey community, which has to contend with a general lack of interest and financial support among the public.

The craft was recognised by Unesco as intangible heritage late last year, and Nay was awarded the prestigious Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize earlier this month.

“Now that [San] has passed away . . . who will be able to play or show the younger generation about the chapey now?” Nay lamented.

San is survived by his wife, Khun Heiv, 65, and his six children.

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