Kong Nai, the Ray Charles of Cambodia

by AFP/Ros Sothea, Feb 26, 2008 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Known as the "Ray Charles of Cambodia," blind musician Kong Nai -- a master of the chapey, or Cambodian lute -- was once one of the country's wealthiest and most celebrated traditional performers. But now the 63-year-old, whose music is more popular abroad than at home, is a symbol of Cambodia's dying love affair with a rich musical catalogue that once entertained kings and was the voice of a nation. From his bare room in a city slum, Kung Nai tells Phnom Penh correspondent Ros Sothea about his life of highs and lows throughout Cambodia's turbulent recent history, and of his fears for the future of his craft.

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PHNOM PENH, Feb 4, 2008 - Over the blast of an electric guitar blaring out of a karaoke machine nearby, Kong Nai is trying to make himself heard as he talks of a time when Cambodian music reached back through millennia.

It could channel those things that defined his country, both simple and ornate, he says -- from the the shimmer of a green rice field to the gilded royal courts of the great builder kings.
But he stops his story, perhaps unable to think over the howl of the karaoke's tortured speakers.

Or perhaps he is simply unwilling to contemplate the future of his older, gentler craft, under assault from modern tastes with little consideration for old men and their music.

For many younger people, fed a steady diet of glossy Thai and Chinese-style pop, Kong Nai is an anachronism and his chapey -- a boxy instrument with a long, graceful neck that is strummed like a banjo to create a repetitive, droning counterpoint to chanted poems or improvised songs -- is uncool.

"I have no hope," he finally said, sitting on the porch of his tumbledown one-room house in one of the capital's slums.
"The chapey cannot compare to this hip-hop," Kong Nai adds, gesturing towards the nearby house from which the karaoke accompanying dancing at a young people's party is blaring.

"Only a few of the old masters are still alive to play the ancient music -- what of it when we pass away?" he said. "I am sure the music could easily die."

Officials acknowledge that Cambodia is in danger of losing a piece of its rich artistic legacy.

"People don't understand the value" of the old master musicians, of Cambodia's brightly costumed morality tales and epic dramas, played out through complicated dances and heavily nuanced songs, said Hang Suth, director of the culture ministry's art department.

Kong Nai, like the other few survivors of Cambodia's cultural upheavals, are the last links to a quickly fading past, say officials who also warn that when they die Cambodia will lose part of its soul.

Lifted from darkness

Blinded by smallpox at the age of four, Kong Nai had, by the time he was seven, allowed the darkness that defined his world to also poison his heart.

His disability kept him from school and for years made him the constant victim of small cruelties inflicted by the other children in his village in Kampot province, in southern Cambodia.

"I found life meaningless and wanted to kill myself sometimes. I worried for my future, how I would survive because I couldn't even walk without someone helping me," he said. "I felt useless."

But one evening, as he prepared to sleep, an unfamiliar sound pierced Kong Nai's gloom, carried across the fields from a nearby village where itinerant minstrels had been hired to perform at a ceremony. It was the sound of the chapey.

"I immediately called my mother to take me there," he said, recalling that inspirational flash that would change his life.
For the next several years he memorised poetry at a nearby Buddhist temple, and spent weeks during Cambodian holiday seasons traveling through villages chanting poems in return for small amounts of rice or money.

He first picked up the chapey when he was 13 years old, after struggling to make his voice sound like the instrument.
Surrounded by a musical family -- Kong Nai's relatives were masters of traditional Cambodian instruments, as well as chanting Buddhist texts and composing poetry -- he quickly excelled.

By 15, Kong Nai had taken up the chapey professionally. His reputation spread among the villages in his province and other parts of the country, where he was invited to sing. His popularity earned him the nickname "Handsome Kong Nai".
"I would never have expected that a blind man like me could earn so much money," he said, a broad, toothy smile spreading across his face beneath the dark glasses that, almost as much as his music, have become a trademark.

Halcyon days, and then disaster

The 1960s passed for Kong Nai in a blur of celebrity, wealth and romantic intrigue. He courted and then married a young woman, Tat Chen, whom he had last set eyes on 14 years earlier when they were both four years old.

She sang beautifully, he said, and her voice helped him visualise what she might look like as an 18-year-old.  "I thought I'd be alone forever -- I never expected that she would marry me," he said.

But his relationship was not without drama -- a rival for her affections threatened to kill Kong Nai, but by 1963 the couple had settled into an easy domestic routine as his fame grew.

As the war in neighbouring Vietnam escalated, Cambodia enjoyed unprecedented peace and underwent a cultural renaissance, with the chapey's popularity reaching its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s as newly-minted recordings of famous musicians spread across Cambodia.

Kong Nai was among the tradition's superstars and by far the richest in his home province, renowned for his free-style improvisational skills that helped the art form evolve beyond simple poetic recitals.

But Cambodia's drift into the inferno that was consuming the region was inevitable. In 1970 Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the country's leader and a patron of the arts, was ousted in a coup by his top military advisor, General Lon Nol.

"We weren't happy for long after that," Kong Nai said. The country was collapsing in on itself, its corrupt disorganised government battling an increasingly emboldened communist insurgency.

Kong Nai could still work, walking between villages that remained untouched by war, but the crowds were evaporating, and with them the money.

"The country had changed -- people didn't care about good music. They cared only for their security," he said.
"What I earned from the chapey was just enough to feed myself from day-to-day."

Like tens of thousands of rural Cambodians, Kong Nai was quickly absorbed into the "liberated zones" controlled by the communist guerillas, known by then as the Khmer Rouge.
Under their rule, he was ordered to only perform songs that described the suffering of farmers under Lon Nol.

"I couldn't sing what I wanted or I would be killed," he said, but Cambodia's misery, and his own, were only to deepen.

Silence under the regime

Kong Nai was, miraculously, allowed to keep his chapey after the Khmer Rouge wrestled control of the country from Lon Nol and began implementing their draconian vision of an agrarian utopia in 1975.

The arts, music included, had no role in the revolution and like the educated classes performers were slaughtered by the hundreds. An entire cultural legacy was being extinguished.

Kong Nai's role in this new Cambodia was to inspire those toiling on a vast collective farm in southern Cambodia with a brief recital of revolutionary songs once a day to which, he says, "people were forced to listen".

Within a few months it was decided that "there will be no more chapey," the musician recalled, and he was assigned first to harvest corn and beans, and then to making palm rope.

"I worked as hard as the others, but was not given the same amount of food because the Khmer Rouge felt that a blind man could not do the same amount of labour," he said. "A scoop of porridge was my food."

His family was assigned to a remote area of the country, and Kong Nai, alone and without his music, was more isolated and vulnerable than most. "No song, no music and no chapey. We only heard the voice of Khmer Rouge soldiers," he said.

In its final years, the regime's paranoid leadership had begun to turn on itself and increasing numbers of people were disappearing in purges.

Kong Nai's family came under suspicion after being accused by another villager of being American spies and he was imprisoned for three months.

Later, he said, he was sure to be marked for death when a regime cadre ordered the disabled and elderly to prepare to leave for somewhere else.

"I knew my family and I would die," he said.

Instead, he was left overnight in the forest after one of his children was wounded in a landmine blast. The following day, invading Vietnamese troops overran the area.

It was early 1979 and Kong Nai, and his long-suffering country, were free of the Khmer Rouge.

From refugee to resurrection

His village home destroyed, Kong Nai embarked for the second time on the life of a roving musician, his fortunes riding on the scattered holidays that Cambodians were again tentatively embracing.

Bumping along the country's ruined roads in an ox cart, he would travel to the remotest areas of his province to play his chapey for rice.

It was a lean time, marked by hunger and uncertainty for a blind musician whose only skill was in a craft that had seemingly lost all meaning in a shattered world.

"People had forgotten the sound of the chapey since so many old masters were killed," he said.

But in the ruins of their country, Cambodians were seeking solace in their artistic traditions -- dance, the singing of epics and ancient orchestral music, including the chapey, were being resurrected.

Kong Nai began winning music competitions in the 1980s and in the early 1990s he moved to the Phnom Penh slum where he still lives.

But life in the city was one of anonymity, and Kong Nai again found himself without a livelihood.

"The chapey won't survive if its popularity continues decreasing," he said.

Despite having a small group of disciples, two of whom he is teaching his craft, their numbers are not enough to signify a resurging interest in not just the chapey but traditional Cambodian orchestra music in general.

"It's just a start and we are still reluctant to say things will be better in the future," Kong Nai said.

"If we can't make it popular, we should at least help each other protect (this tradition) as it is part of our national identity."

However, help has come from an unlikely source, as audiences in Europe and Asia have been mesmerised by Kong Nai's spirited musicianship, just as Cambodians were some three decades ago.

Last year he traveled to Washington DC, where he played at the Smithsonian Institute's Folklife Festival, and to Britain as part of the 25th anniversary of the Peter Gabriel-inspired WOMAD Festival.

"When I finished singing, I could hear tens of thousands of hands clapping," he said, recalling a recent overseas performance. "I thought, 'Now my music will survive'."

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