A meeting of chapei masters and artists

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Cambodian Living Arts

On November 30, 2016, the kingdom celebrated Unesco’s recognition of the Chapei Dang Veng as part of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. The accolade paved the way to the protection and resurgence of the ancient guitar-like instrument. Two years on, Cambodia continues to celebrate and exert effort on further uplifting chapei’s significance. Som Kanika attends the first ever festival dedicated to the instrument in Siem Reap.

Chapei Dang Veng has always been a celebrated musical instrument around the kingdom. In fact, Unesco’s recognition of it as an intangible cultural heritage two years ago made the popularity of chapei expand even wider.

To mark the second anniversary of such feat and to encourage cognizance to this unique art, Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, held last week a three-day Chapei Dang Veng Festival in Siem Reap’s oldest temple, Wat Bo.

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Anne Lemaistre, Unesco representative in Cambodia. Photo: Cambodian Living Arts

The first ever Chapei Dang Veng Festival, which ran from November 30 to December 2, was meant to tighten the close connection between musicians whose specialisation is related to chapei and for them to collaborate more in creating music that would reach the younger generation.

“It is also our aim to gather local and foreign audiences and let them interact closely with chapei masters and artists. The festival involves workshops, panel discussions and knowledge-sharing on the history and significance of this beloved instrument,” said Song Seng, the manager of CLA’s Heritage Hub in Siem Reap.

The festival kickstarted with an essential dance ritual, Pithi Sampeah Kru, in which offerings were made to chapei masters and musicians. All artists set to perform were also given blessings to inspire them to perform with their heart and soul.

Photo: Cambodian Living Arts

“This spiritual event was celebrated with the purpose of honouring the spirits of ancestors or masters – called Kru Thom – of music to possess the souls of the performers to give them confidence and focus in performing a very important musical tradition. Performers have to respect all these spirits, whether they’re performing or not. It’s a tradition,” explained Seng.

For three nights, three generations of Chapei Dang Veng artists, showcased their musical skills, captivating everyone in the audience area with the power of the music of chapei.

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Chapei Dang Veng was presented to the audience in two art forms – Cheav Khan Sla and Areak – that go beyond pure entertainment.

Master Kaosal Voha Kong Nay. Photo: Cambodian Living Arts

Cheav Khan Sla is usually performed in traditional Khmer weddings to show the unconditional love of parents towards their children, and vice versa.

Areak, meanwhile, is more spiritually-centered and more vibrant. In performing such, the chapei is made to produce an upbeat rhythm that is believed to awaken spirits and heal sick people.

Inside Wat Bo, 15 performers brought their own chapei instruments and plucked the two-stringed instrument to give beautiful melodies that echoed throughout the temple. Their two-hour musical presentation made chapei all the more valuable and worthy of the accolade it received two years ago.

Young as they may be, schoolchildren in Siem Reap expressed enthusiasm in learning Chapei Dang Veng. Photo: Cambodian Living Arts

Even with chapei being considered an ancient instrument, festival organisers also introduced a different kind of performance set to prove the instrument’s versatility and relevance to modern society. The artists of the Khmer Magic Music Bus and Community of Living Chapei combined modern music and Chapei Dang Veng, and together made a performance like no other.

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The audience were also given brief information on the history of chapei and the research conducted by ethnomusicologist and music archaeologist Patrick Kersalé, who carried out many missions in Cambodia since 2009 to seek traditional music at risk of disappearing.

A panel discussion was also held to raise awareness about Chapei Dang Veng to the next generation. Chapei masters Kaosal Voha Kong Nay, Sao Eang (Lokta Kompul Pich), Kong Hing and Keo Hoeun gamely gave their own stories and perspective on the importance of chapei in both ancient and new Cambodia.

“To see Chapei Dang Veng remain alive in Khmer society, all of us have to help and protect it together, we have to engage with the society in all forms from entertainment to education so then the next generation will be able to learn and know the value of this instrument. Importantly, unity and understanding among chapei artists is the strongest foundation to keep this music alive,” shared Master Sao Eang, who has been playing chapei since 1960.

Also raised during the panel discussion is an old-time misconception that playing chapei can lead to blindness. This fallacy has been said to contribute to the fears and lack of enthusiasm among young people to learn how to play the instrument.

Master Kaosal Voha Kong Nay explained, “I’ve been blind since I was four, and I started learning Chapei Dang Veng at the age of 13. So, it’s not true that the instrument has caused my disability. It’s a total misunderstanding that should be eradicated now”.

Araek performance at Wat Bo. Photo: Cambodian Living Arts

Hoping to get the attention and interest of more young Khmers, Cambodian Living Arts also conducted storytelling sections, lessons on classical wedding and Areak music, puppet-making and drawing sessions. Schoolchildren from three primary schools in Siem Reap were given a crash-class on how chapei is made and played, and how the instrument has also contributed to the art of puppetry.

The three-day Chapei Dang Veng Festival ended on a high note as all workshops, discussions, performances and other events were filled with people who showed sincere interest and appreciation to the beloved instrument.

Cambodian Living Arts hopes to create more events such as Chapei Dang Veng Festival to re-introduce our traditional arts and music for the younger generation to uphold and preserve.

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