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In Cambodia, Preserving a Musical Tradition
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In Cambodia, Preserving a Musical Tradition

Arts & Life

In Cambodia, Preserving a Musical Tradition
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, in addition to destroying lives, the Khmer Rouge nearly obliterated traditional Cambodian arts and culture. Kong Nai is trying to save those traditions. He is one of two or three living masters of the traditional Cambodian chapei guitar to have survived the Khmer Rouge - only two or three. Matt Ozug, a fellow with the International Reporting Project, went to Cambodia to meet him.

Mr. MATT OZUG (International Reporting Project): The first thing that you notice about Kong Nai are his dark sunglasses, which earned him constant comparisons to Ray Charles. They're the result of a childhood illness that left him blind at the age of 4. Right around the time he began asking his mom to take him to hear the chapei.

Mr. KONG NAI (Cambodian Guitar Master): (Through translator) When I was around four or five, I told my mom I want to meet my uncles. My uncle, he's also teaching our peoples to play chapei as well. And then my Uncle (unintelligible) difficult for me to teach you because you are blind.

Mr. OZUG: But Kong persisted. Whenever one of the old masters was playing, he would beg his mother to take him to listen. And when he went home, he would practice humming the melodies over and over.

(Soundbite of humming and guitar playing)

Mr. OZUG: Chapei music is an oral tradition. The melodies are passed down from one generation to the next, while the lyrics are often composed or improvised on the spot.

(Soundbite of music)

OZUG: When the Khmer Rouge or Angkor took over his country in 1975, Kong was spared hard labor and even allowed to keep his instrument. But he was forced to play only Khmer Rouge anthems, extolling the greatness of Angkor.

Mr. NAY: (Through translator) They not allow me to sing a song from the Low Tsin story, but I can play a song that was composed by the Angkor. I have to follow what they told me to do.

OZUG: Then, without warning, Kong's instrument was taken away. He was separated from his family and sent to work making palm rope.

Mr. NAY: (Through translator) I've never been fit enough. They beat us up and we have to eat the potato leaves, and we have to eat the cassava leaves in order to survive. This is so painful, but we have to live through the regime.

OZUG: Then one day Kong was taken to the woods and left there overnight. He still doesn't know why he wasn't killed immediately. But the next day, when the Vietnamese army overtook the camp, Kong was freed. He was reunited with his wife, his children and his music.

Mr. NAY: (Through translator) I don't really expect that I have this day because of - before the liberation day I always thought everything turned to black. I can tell you after the liberation day, I feel totally changed that I have freedom to play the chapei again.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAY: (Singing in foreign language)

OZUG: When asked if he had a favorite song, or one he is proudest of, Kong played a song about liberation from the Khmer Rouge. The song says, in part, for three years we suffered unforgettable hardship. Everything was destroyed. Blood was spilled and children orphaned. Cambodia became a place of killing.

They forced the people to dig and plow the fields. Exhausted, they fell down to the ground; bodies swollen, tired, hopeless. Husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were separated. We were forced to forget each other. Until January 7th, when the Cambodian people were freed of their sorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NAY: (Singing in foreign language)

OZUG: Kong Nay still performs regularly and also teaches chapei to a new generation.

Mr. NAY: (Through translator) Among my 10 children, one of my sons, he is the one who can take over from me and can play the chapei. I'm the oldest one now and when I pass away I hope that the music will carry on to the young generation.

OZUG: For NPR News, I'm Matt Ozug.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: More of that performance at npr.org.

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