CAMBODIA: Un Barde Cambodgien - Kong Nay
Updated: Feb 11
A master of his craft, Nay's work serves as a vital piece of cultural preservation that can hopefully inspire a next generation
Throughout this deep dive into the music culture of each nation on the planet, we realise that most countries’ music scene is shaped by a wide variety of factors from a complicated, nuanced and varied past. Though it is fair to say that Cambodia certainly had a complicated past, the "Land of the Khmers" form part of a much smaller list of nations’ whose musical story is unfortunately intrinsically linked to one point in their history. For this to happen, it usually means a brutal event in the past has taken place, a hangover of which affects every aspect of a nation’s culture. Well, this is undeniably the story of Cambodia. Any music recorded from Cambodia is either a miracle that it even survived or was produced in the first place, such was the vicious nature of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“This alternating style in which Nay sings in-between the plucking of the chapey, though repetitive and somewhat drone-like at times, has its own unique charm.”
Regular readers on the site will remember our piece on the stunning Reatrei Nov Hong Kong, Vol. 58 by Sinn Sisamouth in which we explain in great detail the ruthless response of the Communist tyrants to the nation’s music and musicians. Herein lies the reason why the work of Master Kong Nay is so powerful. Nay is considered the most famous chapey master in the world. Were I to suggest that Eric Clapton is the most famous guitarist in the world, this would be considered so impressive due to the fact that Clapton would have to trump millions of guitarists to earn this title. The case of Nay is slightly different, as there are literally less than a handful of chapey players in the world. “What is the chapey?” I hear you ask. Well, the chapey, also known as the chapei dang veng is a two-stringed long-necked lute that is native to Cambodia. The instrument was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2016 as Nay entered his 70s.
The instrument is used to accompany both educational as well as satirical poems, tales and stories. Considering that the Khmer Rouge practically wiped out the entire intellectual-class in their genocide, it is no wonder that the nation was left with virtually no chapey players, a skill that not only takes musical talent but also one that requires a capacity to improvise and the fearlessness to take a sideswipe at the politics of the day. What’s more, the learning of the chapey is passed along orally and thus the potential next generation of chapey players after the Rouge’s reign was left in tatters with Nay being one of very few survivors. Known affectionately as “the Ray Charles of Cambodia”, Nay shares a real physical resemblance with “The Genius”. Though his music is quite distinct, like Charles, Nay is also blind. This fact is also relevant in explaining why the younger generation have failed to take up the chapey. A rather bizarre coincidence amongst the remaining chapey masters, is the fact that most are blind. As well as Nay, the oldest chapey master, Prach Chhoun, 85, and the youngest, Neth Pe, 64, are blind. This creates the false perception amongst prospective chapey performers that the art form is inaccessible to them.
In terms of the album itself, recorded in 1997 and released six years later in France, Un Barde Cambodgien (Chant Et Luth Chapey) is a selection of songs played in the chrieng chapey genre in which Nay punctuates the playing of the chapey with lines of improvised text. This alternating style in which Nay sings in-between the plucking of the chapey, though repetitive and somewhat drone-like at times, has its own unique charm. I get the sense that unlike the aforementioned Sisamouth, Nay’s music is more to be enjoyed for its lyrics which is unfortunately not yet accessible to me. Nay is regarded as a highly comic performer. Singing about the perils of youth culture in Khmeng Chamnoan doeum Khmeng ay leuv he appears to have a humorous side but also demonstrates a profound and melancholic side on the song Prawat Poaun Kong Lene about his brother who died under the Khmer Rouge regime. Despite performing predominantly in the alternating style on Bom Pet, he sings in accompaniment with the music on both Bom Pet and Bankoung Kaek. I find the switch somewhat endearing, thus making the latter my most preferred song on the record. Though not my favourite album of all time, the work of Nay is deeply important and demonstrating the ultimate failure of the Khmer Rouge to totally succeed in their despicable mission.