Kong Nay Biography Kong Nay often called “The Ray Charles of Cambodia,” is one of best-known and celebrated artists in the chapei tradition. Accompanied by his own spirited strumming on the chapei dang weng (a Cambodian long-necked lute), Kong Nay, with his lively voice and tenacious word play, regularly brings audiences to their feet with his gift for improvising poetry and song. Now one of the few surviving masters in the chapei tradition who studied before the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late 1970’s, in which an estimated ninety percent of Cambodian artists perished, Kong Nay continues to strive to promote and teach this beloved art form. Blinded by smallpox at the age of four, Kong Nay began his studies on the chapei at thirteen. Coming from a musical family, he grew up around relatives who were masters of traditional instruments, copying religious manuscripts, Buddhist chanting, poetry and the chapei dang weng. In his youth, Kong Nay often faced ridicule from his peers for his disability. Rather than being disempowered by their prejudice, however, Kong Nay sought to find a vocation that would bring him independence and respect. The chapei, whose sound had excited him from childhood, turned out to be the perfect instrument. Within two years of beginning his studies, at the age of fifteen Kong Nay began to perform professionally. His reputation grew quickly, and he soon earned the nickname Kung “Handsome” Nay. The chapei tradition reached its height in 1960’s and early 1970’s as a result of the spread of radio and audio recordings carrying the voices of famous musicians across Cambodia. Originally, however, the chapei tradition belonged minstrel musicians, who wandered itinerantly composing and performing poetic tales to entertain and morally instruct young and old alike. The most notable of these performers, Phirum Ngoy, wrote poems to be sung accompanied by chapei that are still studied in Cambodian schools today. Kong Nay, while still sometimes performing classical poems like those by Phirum Ngoy, is best known from his incredible gift for improvisation (akin to the ability of some hip hop artists to “freestyle”), a prized skill he acquired after studying poetry for nearly two decades. During the Khmer Rouge genocide, Kong Nay, like so many other Cambodians, was forced to work for long hours with little food. Unlike most of his fellow musicians, however, Kong Nay was miraculously spared from the regime’s hideous attempts to wipe out intellectuals and artists. Kong Nay has since performed internationally is five countries, including Belgium, France, Thailand, and Vietnam, once even stopping to perform in Africa. His stage presence, at once majestic and full of joy, continues to captivate audiences wherever he performs. Even in his sixties, his poetic gifts are stronger than ever, and his stunning ability to weave the context of each performance into his rhyming, imaginative improvisations never fails to awe and entertain. Master Kong Nay has thoroughly earned his place as a precious gem in the crown jewel of Khmer culture, and continues to be a source of pride for Cambodians across the world.