Kong Nay story - Cambodian Living Arts UK - Tonale Bassac Folk

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					The blind man sings the blues.

By Dan Poynton

In the slums of Phnom Penh blind Master Kong Nay sings the Blues.
But ask him, as he cries out his husky song and digs deep on his two-
stringed Khmer guitar, and he’ll tell you he’s never heard of the Delta
Blues – although some make the comparison. For this is a more
ancient art – a blues they heard at Angkor. And according to the tale,
this gutsy music they call Chapei, strums it’s lamenting, laughing path
back 25 centuries, all the way to the Buddha himself.

The Delta bluesmen of the poverty stricken Mississipi Delta were
rugged sparse singers - a man and his slide guitar roaming the fields,
like an outcast troubadour. They strummed rough and hard over the
crowds, hollering out the pain of their past in the slave plantations.

But is this not Khmer Chapei too? The lone impassioned singer with
the hard-hitting riffs and sliding blues-notes belted out on his Chapei
Dong Veng (“Long-necked Guitar”), or just Chapei. Is this why Chapei
music seems to resonate with the pain and poverty left over from
Cambodia’s recent genocide? But if the Chapei is now the voice of
slums and rice-fields, its beginnings were more noble.

"The Blues is the first music that was here…It is the one that tells the
story," said John Lee Hooker, one of the greatest Delta bluesmen.

And Master Kong Nay can also tell a story.

His humble corrugated-iron hut sits in the heart of Bo Ding’s Day
Krahorm, a place teaming with rats, prostitutes and smiles. It is part
of the Tonle Bassac squatters’ community, famous as the home of
traditional musicians and dancers. You can smell the threat of eviction
and arson hanging over Master Nay and everyone else there.
Extinction looms for this precious community of close-knit artists.

We found him cross-legged on his bamboo platform, beaming rows of
compelling well-traveled teeth at us under dark gangster glasses, like
the Cambodian Ray Charles he is now hailed as – only without the
heroin. He is too alert for that.

“My Great Uncle Kong Kith, who taught me Chapei, told me this story,”
said the Master. “The Buddha was formerly a prince. The Indra
(angels) were worried the prince would die before he became the
Buddha, because he had been fasting for such a long time. So they
brought him down a Chapei. He tuned the string, but too tightly and it
snapped. Then he tuned one loosely, and it wouldn’t play. Finally he
tuned it not too tight, not too loose - and it played. From this the
prince learned the “middle path” of Buddhism: not to be too tightly
disciplined; or too loose, with too much wine and women.”

Nay said the Chapei was known by the Sanskrit Pinn, before arriving in
Cambodia. This was some time before Angkor as there are pictures of
Chapei carved on the Angkor temples, he told us.

Chapei players sing about almost any subject there is, from ancient
Hindu and Buddhist epics to bawdy social commentary, although Nay
said he shies away from politics. Their lightning wit and word-play are

“Some songs are serious – others are funny,” said Nay. “Whatever
people ask for, I can sing about. We can even exaggerate and lie a bit
sometimes.” He said Chapei players do not change ancient texts, but
with present-day ones, especially self-composed songs, there is
riotous improvisation, of both the words and their funky

After three hours of interview the Post asked the Master to sing for us.
No problem - he took up his Chapei and rapped and rhymed an on-
the-spot song never before sung, making digs at us and telling his life
story better than any journalist could. The jiving rhythm and subtlety
of the word play is lost in English, but it is an astonishing example of
this improvised art. An art which turns everyday events into legends.

Kong Nay was given a great honour today-ayeeih .
He was asked for an interview by the Phnom Penh Post-ayeeih.
I, Kong Nay did not hesitate for a moment-ayeeih.
They asked to know the story of me, Kong Nay.

Nephew Dan wanted to come and meet me face to face at the fesitval
the other day.
But first I had gotten to know Nephew Phatry, and then Nephew Sam
Who asked whether Nephew Dan could follow his heart’s desire, and
meet me face to face at the ceremony where I was singing Chapei.
But I replied, “Oh nephew! The road is very long and hard. It is not
easy to find!”
The nephew asked me when the much sought-after uncle was coming
When was Uncle Kong Nay returning to Phnom Penh-ayeeih?
I told both Nephew Sam Rith and Nephew Phatry-ayeeih,
I would be back on the 29th, not a day later-ayeeih.
Both nephews heard my reply:
If Uncle was free one day, he would give them an interview,
So they could ask Uncle to tell all.
I said come and see me on the 30 th, at nine in the morning-ayeeih,
I’d have no problem with that.

On the day of the appointment the nephews came to the house of
Kong Nay-ayeeih.
They introduced themselves, so I might get to know them-ayeeih.
They all came in the morning, and there were four of them, exactly.

One of them introduced himself and let me know, to be sure, that he
came from Barang, Not America or New Zealand.
After this, that one told me his name was Stephane.

Oh yes, and then Nephew Dan said, “My name is Dan,
And I came to Kampuchea from New Zealand.”

That Nephew Sam Rith, he didn’t come from anywhere,
Except Cambodia-ai,
Just like old Grandfather Kong Nay.

As for Nephew Phatry-a,
He was not from New Zealand or Australia.
He also hearkened from Cambodia,
But he went to live in the United States of America.
Let’s not forget our brothers and sisters over there.

I put in some time then, I did not turn away.
So those nephews could interview me on everything they were
wondering about.
The nephews asked me, was I Kong Nay?
Which village was I born in? Which commune, which district, which
Those nephews wanted to know everything.
And which year was I born?
I answered without delay.
Oh Nephews-ayeeih,
At that time I had not suffered the misfortune of my blindness-ayeeih.
I was born in 1945. Why do I remember that? Because my mother and
father told me.
I told them the story of how, when I was four years old, small pox
ravaged me-ayeeih,
Leaving me blind in both eyes-ayeeih.
I was just seven when I was told that tale-ayeeih.
But at that time I thought everyone was just like me.
However I wanted to know so much why, whenever I went to and fro,
Someone always held my hand.
I asked my mother why they always put their hand in mine.
Why could I not go walking on my own-ayeeih?
Mother said, “Child, listen closely to Mother: My son, you are blind in
both eyes-ayeeih.” I listened closely to Mother indeed.

When I was eight my mother told me about the Kaken Festival at
Svaytong Pagoda.
They were hiring a musician to sing songs for that occasion – songs
they called Chapei.
I was aching to go and told my mother to put her hand in mine and
take me there-ayeeih.
I sat close to that Chapei singer, I listened very hard-ayeeih.
I yearned to be able to sing like that, I loved it so much.
That is how the story goes-ayeeih.

Those nephews asked me everything.
I did not stop speaking till I had gone right from beginning to very
I told them my whole life story then, right through my teenage-hood
until the year 1975, when unfortunately the unfaithful Pol Pot with the
cruel heart came along-ayeeih.
Three years, eight months and 20 days,
No health or happiness in the land

Now the nephews have stopped asking me those questions-ayeeih.
Nephew Sam Rith told me Nephew Dan wanted to hear me play the
Singing about how those nephews came to interview me-ayeeih.
Oh yes, he wanted to hear how those nephews came to interview me-

This pockmarked bard hardly dropped a word - names and
nationalities like a passport. Half sage-half clown, his unique Khmer
humor soothed the ballad’s pain. Nicotine-stained fingers picked away
drones and seductive blues-notes on two ragged old strings.
This is the rest of his tale: Nay was one of 10 children, born into a
family of poor rice farmers in Dawng Village, Kompot province.

Eight-year-old Nay’s family were too poor to buy him a Chapei. For
five years he sang and imitated the sounds of the Chapei with just his
mouth, a “beat-boxer” before his time.

“Neighbours began hiring me to play with just my mouth,” he said. He
also practiced on the almost extinct Chapei Teang Thnout (children’s
“Palm Frond Chapei”), which he said children still play in his district.

When he was 13 his father finally bought him an old Chapei. After only
two years of lessons with his great uncle, he started giving public
performances. He never had another teacher again.

When he was 18, Nay met Tat Chhan, his future wife. At our interview,
Chhan sat patiently watching Nay’s facts, perhaps mindful that this
was a master story-teller speaking. “My wife kept working in the rice
fields, because I couldn’t,” said Nay.

“In those days Chapei money was good. I was able to buy a nice
house, cows and a rice field.” Yet he only played in nearby provinces -
a stark contrast to the lot of today’s Chapei players.

“The only time I didn’t play was in the Pol Pot time,” he said.

“At the beginning they let me keep playing – but only Khmer Rouge
songs.” He broke lustily into an old KR song, that defiant smile
dispelling the evil .

“In 1977 they told me there was no place for me to sing now.” He laid
his Chapei down and joined the old people pounding palm to make

“Two of my siblings were killed. I didn’t think I would survive,
especially after I heard that [the great Chapei master] Ta Pu Tao Dai
was killed. The healthy were given three spoons of rice a day, the sick
only got one. I was considered a sick person.”

In 1979 Nay’s past caught up with him. The KR took him, his wife and
five of their children into the forest at Phnom Thkou..
“I cried and begged them not to take us away just yet. But they came
again at 3am, and then I knew they were going to kill us,” moaned
Chhan, seeming to relive the scene.

For two nights the KR kept them there. But Kong Nay’s life seems to
have a miraculous, blessed quality to it, despite its hardship:
Vietnamese soldiers stormed through the forest as they liberated
Cambodia, and saved their lives. All but one of their eventual 10
children survive until this day.

“I started playing Chapei again on the very first day after liberation,”
said Nay.

While Chhan worked the fields Nay won a series of Chapei
competitions, gaining the national prize in 1991. In 1992 the Ministry
of Culture gave him a monthly salary of $19 and some land in Day
Krahorm, along with other chosen artists. They lived in poverty. In his
new job he sang at public festivals and election campaigns. One of
Master Nay’s much-loved songs goes:

I was once an election candidate in the Land of Giants.
But when I failed, I became a Chapei player.

“Chapei players like Master Kong Nay are very clever. Sometimes they
can talk about politics in a sly way,” said Song Seng, project
coordinator for Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), an NGO which has helped
rescue many of Cambodia’s forgotten masters from poverty and

In 2003 Nay becamse a CLA “Master” in a program to support
Cambodia’s most endangered masters, along with six others from Day
Krahorm. CLA pays Nay $80 a month, boosting his earnings to keep
him from the brink of poverty. In return he teaches promising young

His new status has pushed Nay into a pioneering role as fusion-artist.
Recordings are due out from Khmerican rapper Prach Ly, and band
Dengue Fever – both featuring Nay. But does he like this new music?
“Really beautiful,” he replied in that Chapei way of his that makes
simple words ring deep and true.

Music legend Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking ethnic label Realworld has
just recorded Nay for an international solo release. This philanthropic
label should make up for Nay’s beautiful 2003 CD release from French
company, Inedit, who ran off without paying Nay a cent.

[Peter Gabriel’s telephone comment – to come tonight]

This compelling man has performed in Africa and Europe and is now
recognized as one of Cambodia’s three best Chapei players (with
Prach Chhoun and S’mean Pei), but conditions are still frugal for
Master Nay.

“They say we’ll be 32kms away if we get evicted,” he said.

“It’s too far away, especially at night. Perhaps my nephews at the
Phnom Penh Post could hire me a house!”

And Kong Nay, the man? With Chapei irony, blind Nay loves football
and boxing. He is also the only one in the family who doesn’t eat
prohok. “It’s not bad for the voice. I just can’t stand the smell,” he

And in the close Khmer culture isn’t solo Chapei playing a bit lonely?

“I am the only one, but there are many hundreds of people listening –
I feel very happy,” said Nay.

“When people aren’t hiring me, when I get frustrated, I just take out
my Chapei for half an hour and it calms me down. I miss it even if I
don’t play for one day.”

It is to the Chapei that he always returns, ever since little Nay’s
mother took his hand, and he fell in love at the Pagoda.