Chapei dong veng traditions at risk with lack of new players

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Master Kong Nay (front) and his students, including Pich Sarath, in an undated photo. SUPPLIED

November 30 will be the sixth anniversary of the chapei dong veng – a stringed musical instrument unique to Cambodia – being added to UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The honour was announced in 2016 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Born in Doung Khpos village and commune of Takeo province’s Borei Cholsar district, Pich Sarath, 38, plays the instrument. He has taught over 200 Cambodian and foreign students.

Sarath, chief of the Community of Living Chapei and an art teacher at Chea Sim Chhouk Va High School, told The Post how he had dedicated himself to a full-time career with the chapei since 2010. He began learning the instrument in 2002.

Worried about a lack of interest and understanding of Khmer classical arts, Sarath advises the next generation to pay more attention to their own unique culture – especially the students at the high school where he teaches.

“The school incorporates an artistic lesson for one hour each week. We want to imbue a deeper understanding of the artistic form of chapei dong veng to the students,” he said.

In the present era of globalisation, it was more important than ever that the next generation learn about Khmer classical arts, he said, adding that the work of preserving Khmer cultural heritage is the responsibility – and duty – of every citizen.

He said that between 2002 and 2007, he passed the entrance examination and studied at the Secondary School Of Fine Arts, learning chapei from master Kong Nay, with the sponsorship of the Cambodia Living Arts (CLA). He studied alongside four other students – Pich Sarath, Kong Boran (Master Kong Nay‘s son), Ouch Savy, and Sin Sophea, who is now in Australia.

From 2010 to 2015, Sarath was tasked with passing on the skills he had learned from Kong Nay at the CLA.

“I began teaching students in 2011, and established the living chapei organisation in 2013. Since then we have taught chapei dong veng to over 200 students of all ages and nationalities,” he said.

When the instrument was added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2016, Sarath wanted to use the opportunity to make sure that all Cambodians appreciated the value of this unique art form. He especially wanted to encourage more children to take an interest and perhaps even learn to play.

In contrast, he says the Cambodian youth of the present day – and their parents – seem more interested in modern foreign musical instruments that classical Khmer ones. They were prepared to spend a lot of money buying modern instruments for their children to learn or even for home decoration, he added.

“In Cambodia, we see some families who can afford to buy foreign contemporary musical instruments, like a $10,000 piano, or a guitar worth thousands of dollars, but who seem reluctant to spend money buying classical Khmer instruments. This needs to change, if we want to preserve the cultural heritage of Cambodia,” Sarath said.

“A small chapei dong veng can be bought for as little as $170. It is small but sounds very similar to a full sized model. A big chapei prices vary according to the type of timber used to produce it. They range from around $280 to over $500,” he added.

The popularity of chapei dong veng seems to be slowly fading with the next generation of Cambodian children, he added, saying that this was not helped by rumours that learning the instrument could lead to blindness. Many parents had prohibited their children from learning it after seeing master’s Prach Chhuon, Kong Nay and Neth Pe, who are all blind. In fact, all three have been blind since childhood.

“Obviously, Prach Chhuon and Kong Nay were both blind as children, long before they attended the the chapei dong veng school. Over 200 students have graduated from my own classes, and none has suffered any vision loss,” he added.