Cambodian Arts Legend Kong Nay Receives Asian Art Prize

Kong Nay, a master of Cambodia’s centuries-old art form of chapei dang veng, has been named this year’s recipient of Japan’s Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize.

“The prize is awarded to individuals in Asia who have outstanding achievements in the area of academy, arts and culture,” said Japanese Ambassador to Cambodia Hidehisa Horinouchi in a news release on Thursday.

cam photo chapei
Kong Nay performs at a ceremony to wish a couple long life in Kandal province in April last year, in a photograph provided by the Japanese Embassy.

“This is a very great honor not only for him but for all Cambodia…. And I think his students and the young chapei community are sharing his happiness,” said Hab Touch, director-general for intangible heritage at the Culture Ministry, on Friday.

Considered one of Cambodia’s artistic masters, Mr. Nay was among the 17 artists the government declared National Living Human Treasures in 2013, Mr. Touch said.

“In the past, chapei dang veng was more important than it is for today’s generation,” before the rise of modern technology, Mr. Nay said on Saturday.

And yet, seeing a new generation of masters and artists, he said, “I feel satisfied and can rest in peace when I die, knowing that young generations will preserve this art form.”

In November, chapei dang veng was inscribed on Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding and the government received a grant of $230,000 for the protection of the endangered tradition.

Mr. Nay is the third Cambodian to receive the accolade, awarded by the southern Japanese city of Fukuoka. Mr. Horinouchi said the previous recipients were the late Chheng Phon, former Minister of Culture and Fine Arts and a “profound dramatist,” honored in 1997, and Ang Choulean, a leading ethnologist and scholar in Khmer Studies, recognized in 2011.

The origins of chapei dang veng are lost in time. The art form consists of a musician playing a long-necked string instrument called a chapei while singing or reciting Buddhist teachings, folktales and traditional stories, at times improvising about current themes or events in lively performances peppered with humor.

Mr. Nay has been a chapei artist since his teens. Born in 1945, he grew up in a family of artists who played traditional instruments and were familiar with literature and Buddhist texts, legends and poetry. He became blind at 4 years old after contracting smallpox, and started studying chapei at 13. He was playing professionally within two years and was soon nicknamed Nay, which means “handsome.”

Having survived decades of war in the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Nay was one of several arts masters living in and around Phnom Penh’s White Building whom Cambodian-American musician Arn Chorn-Pond met in the late 1990s. That prompted Mr. Chorn-Pond and a group of Americans to launch nonprofit organization Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). Their goal was both to enable these masters to train a new generation of artists and to be able to support themselves financially.

“CLA has worked with Kong Nay for nearly two decades,” said Prim Phloeun, CLA’s executive director, on Friday.

And that partnership has borne fruit, he said. “Chapei as an art form was almost disappearing a decade ago, and now it’s kind of in full revival mode.”

“For me Kong Nay is the ambassador of this instrument,” Mr. Phloeun said. “There are many, many other master teachers that Kong Nay really inspired…a whole new generation of young chapei players.”

“And now they are the ones carrying the legacy of their master,” he added.

Mr. Nay will travel to Japan in September to attend the award ceremony, where he will perform at the organizers’ request. He will be accompanied by his son Kong Boran—the only child among his four daughters and six sons who became a chapei player—and his wife Tat Chen.

“My wife is my life,” he said. “She’s always with me everywhere I go. Without her, I could not have grown to what I am today: She’s sacrificed all her time, holding my hand and walking with me in my artist’s life.”

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