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Long Borarith installs an electric pickup into the soundbox of a chapey, a traditional Cambodian two-stringed guitar that is believed to predate the Angkorian era. Eliah Lillis

Plugging in the classical chapey

During the week, 36-year-old Long Borarith throws on a suit and heads to his day job at the National Bank of Cambodia. On the weekends, though, he can be found in a dusty workshop near the CTN TV station, where he devotes his time to his passion – turning the chapey, Cambodia’s traditional two-stringed long-neck guitar, up to 11.

Yes, after more than a millennium in existence, the chapey has finally gone electric.

Interested in learning how to play the instrument, Borarith ordered his first chapey several years ago, but immediately noticed problems in the production. For one, it took over a month for it to be finished, and the chapeys on sale in markets were only for home decoration.

So, after studying the structure of properly made chapeys, Borarith taught himself the craft.

“I brought [my chapeys] to masters to test it and they said it is well-made and easy to play,” he says. “I had an idea that I should make crafting chapey my second profession to earn extra income, as well as to preserve this heritage.”

A few months after starting his workshop, Borarith noticed that when chapey masters would play for a crowd, a microphone had to be placed by the sound box.

“Electric guitar is possible. Why not chapey then?” he asked himself.

And so the idea of installing electric pick-ups into the body of the chapey was born. With an electrical engineering background, Borarith figured doing so would be a breeze.

“I believed that would make it sound better and allow it to be played along with the modern instruments. After one sleepless week of research, my first electric chapey was created, and the other young craftsmen copy my model,” he says, referring to the workers in his shop.

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Chapey luthier Long Borarith rocks his modified instrument that includes an electric pick-up. Eliah Lillis

For all intents and purposes, Borarith’s electric chapeys resemble traditional ones, aside from the pickup control panel and the jack in the back of the body. The controls allow for boosting the bass, mid or treble tones, though Borarith recommends leaving these flat to preserve the original sound.

With its signature long neck, typically with a C and a G string, the instrument is said to predate the Angkorian Empire. Played with a vocal accompaniment that usually involves humourous or social-political commentary in its lyrics, the art-form chapey dong veng was recognised by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage in urgent need of safeguarding late last year.

Indeed, since the Khmer Rouge rounded up and killed artists during the Democratic Kampuchea regime, traditional arts have struggled to regain prominence and social value in Cambodia. However, there are signs that, despite public funding shortages, appreciation for the Kingdom’s artistic legacy may be on the rise.

“When I started this workshop, my friends suggested I not waste my time on it since they thought no one would buy my chapey. But I noticed that today’s young generation has been more and more interested in chapey, and they value what belongs to their nation and cultural authenticity,” Borarith says. “Now, our production cannot keep up with the demand.”

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Long Borarith strings the frets of a chapey. Eliah Lillis

His workshop typically makes 10 to 15 instruments each month, and in March, orders exceeded production capacity fivefold.

“As you can see, young people now use chapey in modern hip-hop songs,” he explains.

One such artist incorporating traditional instruments into contemporary music is Small World Small Band’s Morm Picherith. The 18-year-old most famously incorporated the tro with the popular group Kmeng Khmer for the theme for the film Jailbreak. Beyond that, Picherith has experimented with the chapey, roneat, khloy, skor thom, skor sampau, and smaeng, he says.

However, for now he has shied away from using instruments with pick-ups out of concern for sound quality.

“I have seen traditional artists, such as chapey players, with pick-ups, but the sound is not really good,” he says. “When I plugged it into my mixer it’s not really natural.”

Nonetheless, he’s happy to see that the attempt is being made, and while not familiar with Borarith’s chapey making, Picherith says he has his own aspirations to pursue a degree in sound engineering and to create his own modified traditional instruments. For now, he says using pick-ups in combination with a microphone may be the best way to preserve sound quality.

“It will be good if [in the future] the sound engineering makes musicians feel ‘fly’ when they play with the pick-up,” he adds.

A few other bands have also taken to integrating traditional sounds, such as the rock ‘n’ roll outfit Kampot Playboys, who use an unamplified tro.

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A rack of finished chapeys in Borarith’s workshop. Eliah Lillis

Thus far, the electrification efforts have not caused an uproar, a la Bob Dylan plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival, as masters like Kong Nay seem to give cautious support.

“Making electrified chapeys is good because it could help chapey players in today’s modern world and draw more young people to learn it,” he says. Nonetheless, for him, the old ways die hard.

“I still prefer originality,” he says, adding that, after all, the instrument predates amplification technology. “It is a tradition left by our ancestors.”

Regardless of the future of Cambodia’s traditional sounds, for Borarith, the chapey will always be his favourite, and his workshop now also doubles as a chapey school where masters play and teach. He also plans to move on to electrifying other traditional instruments.

“Chapey is my favourite instrument because it dated back to the time of Buddha, and the players can also sing educational songs or poems while playing it,” he says. “One day without chapey for me is just like one day without eating.”

To order a chapey from Long Borarith’s workshop, contact 016 514 499 / 069 574 233. Prices range from $200 to $300, depending on style.