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Kong Nay Biography - Kung Nai Bi

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					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.

				
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