Skylines don’t tell the story of the city when you can’t see. Phnom Penh has transformed since Kong Nai first arrived, at the request of the Ministry of Culture, in the early 1990s, and although he hasn’t been able to watch the expansion, he has been listening intently.
For the past two decades the blind father of 10, who is also one of Cambodia’s most beloved traditional musicians, has been playing the chapei dong veng – a traditional long-necked, two-string guitar – for audiences around the city and the world. At the age of 65, the man can still strum and sing with a whole lot of soul, but he’s taking more time to sit back in his hammock and “just think about which words sound good together”.
The way things sound has been Kong Nai’s speciality since he heard a strummer in Kampot when he was 13 years old. “I just remember hearing a man who came to my village to play the chapei and thinking, ‘This is something I can actually do if I train and practice’.”
He began performing for audiences at the age of 15, some days from 9pm until 5am for traditional ceremonies. “I could play all day and not get tired,” he says with a smile that makes one want to draw the Ray Charles comparison despite its utter lack of subtlety. “I didn’t know if people were listening or not. I just played.”
When he wasn’t playing chapei, he was listening to the voices around him and the music of the provinces. “At my house in the countryside the birds and the insects harmonise together. It is beautiful to listen to. In Phnom Penh there are no sounds like that.”
Kong Nai still goes back to the provinces to see his eight children who have remained there, as well as the 40-odd grandchildren who are living on his land in Kampot and Sihanoukville. “I miss all of the voices around me, the children playing and the adults talking about the good life,” he admits.
However, despite his longing for the simpler life, Kong Nai has made a home in Phnom Penh, and with the financial support of the NGO Cambodia Living Arts, as well as paid appearances on television and monthly stipends from the Ministry of Culture and government officials, he is making both a name for himself and a decent living after a lifetime lived in poverty.
“When I got to Phnom Penh it was strange because everyone was living so close together,” he says of settling into his long-time home at Dey krahorm, a site that is now notorious for the eviction of one of the city’s most vibrant local arts communities. “I could hear through the walls. I could hear everything that people were talking about. I knew that some single girl was no good because she was seen walking with a man.”
“In the countryside things are quiet and you can just sit and think. In Phnom Penh something is always making a noise,” laments the musician. “So I have learned to shut that out and just listen to the words in my head. There are always words going around in my head. When I sing I can keep going on and on.”
One of the few places that Kong Nai can still find solace in sounds is at the pagoda. “The noise of kids playing and monks praying are the same as I remember them when I grew up,” he says. “Of course things are noisier here, but it still makes me feel good to hear those sounds.”
Now that he has moved to a relatively spacious villa on the outskirts of Phnom Penh (a gift from the governor of Phnom Penh after Kong Nai wrote a song about the injustices of the eviction) with his wife and two of his children, he doesn’t know the city as intimately as he once did. However, he ventures into town on a regular basis for gigs at public and private functions and listens to the ruckus around him from the back of his son’s moto or the passenger seat of the Toyota Forerunner that was also given to him by Governor Kep Chuk Thema.
“It used to be that you would hear motorbikes and cars go by one by one,” he says of the traffic in downtown Phnom Penh. “But now the vehicles go by in constant succession. It’s an endless stream of engines and tires and noise.”
Although tones of transport tend to dominate the auditory landscape in the city, Kong Nai doesn’t pass by without listening to life on the side of the streets as well. “I can hear people talking all over the place, but it’s not the kind of talking that makes me feel good; its people arguing and yelling.”
On top of that there is music blasting from the night clubs, weddings, parties and karaoke restaurants. “I’m not sure what the people are doing, but I know they are having a good time because the music is loud and it makes people happy,” he says with a kind smile.
It’s Saturday morning and Kong Nai is sitting on a wooden platform in the front room of his house, his legs effortlessly folded to his right side as he sips a cup of tea delivered by his always attentive wife. His instrument is laid down a few inches in front of him. He reaches deep into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out a pack of Liberty smokes and a lighter. He puts a cigarette in his mouth and moves his fingertips so they are touching the tip. He sparks up the lighter with his other hand and moves it towards the cigarette. Just as his fingers feel the burn he moves them and roasts the end of his cigarette. He then drops the lighter back into his pocket, leans back and settles into his smoke.
“I like my new house,” he says. “But it is not the same as the countryside. There are always sounds of drilling or welding or hammering. I know that there is something being built around me. I just don’t know what it is.”