Saturday, July 28, 2007

Cambodia's Ray Charles

'They planned to kill me - but I survived'
Cambodia's Ray Charles lookalike endured serious hardships. Jon Lusk on the man who escaped the Khmer Rouge - The Guardian (UK)

With his legs folded under him as he sits on the floor, Kong Nay seems a frail figure, dwarfed by the large banjo-like instrument he holds. There's a flash of gold fillings in his smile, and when he sings, the voice of a much stronger man jumps out, answering the call of his strings. This 61-year-old Cambodian is a master of the chapei dong veng, an ancient long-necked guitar with two strings thought to have arrived in Cambodia with the Buddhist faith nearly two millennia ago. Kong's penetrating, nasal wail closely follows or spars with the simple and often melancholic tunes he plunks out on the nylon strings of the instrument. The dark glasses that mask his heavily pock-marked face and sightless eyes have earned him the nickname of "the Ray Charles of Cambodia", but the two artists have rather different stories. "I'm so excited and honoured that they compare me to him. But at the same time I'm not very happy with myself because the American Ray Charles was so rich and I'm so poor," he chuckles.

I meet Kong on his first day in the UK, where he is touring with his 21-year-old protege Ouch Savy to promote their joint debut album, Mekong Delta Blues. Kong admits he doesn't really know what the blues are - not the musical kind, anyway. But the superficial resemblance of his music to the African-American form, and the tough life he's lived do more than justify the title. Born in the southern Cambodian province of Kampot, Kong was blinded by smallpox at the age of four, and as a boy fell in love with the sound of the chapei. "I felt it was something that I should learn, something that would give me a good life in the future," he recalls. His family was too poor to afford one, though, and for five years he sang and mimicked the chapei vocally, until his father finally bought him an old one. At 13, he began to take lessons from an uncle, mastering the basic repertoire within only two years. He then began playing professionally, improvising on traditional folk songs by spontaneously spinning stories like a hip-hopper, tailoring them to each audience. "At 18 I met my wife [Tat Chhan] and we started our life together, depending on chapei. We managed to earn a good living. Not too rich, not too poor, but just good enough to survive, like other people. But when the Khmer Rouge took over, that was a big turning point in my life," he says with characteristic understatement.

In 1975, like millions of other Cambodians, his entire family was deported to a forced labour camp by Pol Pot's genocidal regime. Despite the Khmer Rouge's dislike of artists in particular, they found a use for Kong. "I was forbidden from singing folk tales, or songs that touched on social issues. Instead they told me to sing something that served their propaganda. So during the lunch break, I would sing and play to entertain people. "While most prisoners were given three large spoons of rice per day, Kong and anyone else who was sick or disabled got only one, and starved more rapidly. After two years, they stopped Kong's music altogether and forced him to work. "They planned to kill me. I was on their list. But then the Vietnamese [army] invaded and so I survived." During the bombing that ended the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, Kong and his wife each lost a brother. Another of Kong's brothers had been executed, but all seven of their children - three born in the camp - miraculously survived. In 1979, the family returned to their village, where Kong resumed his life as a chapei artist, and they had three more children. In 1991, Kong won a national chapei singing contest in Phnom Penh, and the following year moved there at the invitation of the Cambodian ministry of culture. The salary was poor, but his family - and those of a few other artists who had survived the genocide - were allowed to build homes in the city's Tonle Bassac squatters' community. Then in 1998, Kong received a young visitor called Arn Chorn-Pond, a former refugee who now lived in the US. He was another survivor of the killing fields, who had been forced take part in atrocities from the age of nine and had returned to Cambodia periodically over the previous decade, trying to make peace with his past. Cambodia had lost around 90% of its artists in the genocide, and Chorn-Pond's family, which had run an opera company, had been particularly hard hit. "When I came back to Cambodia in 1989, I found nobody here, except one of my sisters," he explains from Phnom Penh, his voice still raw with anguish. "They were all starved to death or killed by the Khmer Rouge - my dad, my mum, my cousin, my nephew, my uncle ... 35 in my family had disappeared."

With Kong Nay and several others, Chorn-Pond founded the Cambodia Master Performers Programme, which soon became Cambodian Living Arts, a charity dedicated to reviving the country's performing arts by helping to lift surviving artists out of poverty and employing them to pass on their skills to the next generation. "It was for me an urgent thing to start this, because I knew that my culture was going down in the next 10, 20, 30 years, if no one did anything about it," he says.In 2003, Kong began teaching four young students, including Ouch Savy. That same year both he and Chorn-Pond appeared in the harrowing Emmy-nominated film The Flute Player, now being shown before each of his UK performances. When Peter Gabriel saw it, he was so moved that he began donating equipment and expertise to CLA, which led to the recording of Mekong Delta Blues. Chorn-Pond's vision is of a Cambodian artistic renaissance by 2020, but it won't be easy. The loss of so many artists created a cultural vacuum that has been filled by foreign music, leaving most Cambodian youth hooked on western rap and rock or Chinese pop, and scornful of their own traditions. Government arts funding has been very limited during Cambodia's slow economic recovery, but ironically, Kong and his neighbours are now under pressure to move 20km away as developers eye their inner-city land. He relates this in the song My Life - as close as he's prepared to get to singing about politics these days. Apart from wanting to stay put, what else does he wish for?"I hope that peace will prevail. There should be no more fighting, no more civil wars, no more conflicts. I am sick and tired of it."· Kong Nay is playing at the UK's Womad Festival, Charlton Park until Sunday, then continues his tour of Britain.

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