Phuong Phearon walks onto a broad wooden stage, folds his legs to sit and lowers to the ground. In his lap rests a chapey, a three-stringed instrument of ancient heritage that Buddha played for meditation and instruction.
The style of instrument is old, but Phearon, 11, is not. He pulls a child’s playcard from his pocket—the card advertises the Japanese cartoon series Pokemon—and, using it to pluck the strings, he begins to play.
His young voice trembles and then finds traction, airing out a sad story about AIDS and domestic violence in a raspy cadence that belies his tender age. Phearon’s face, tightly framed by short brown hair, wears no expression.
To see him play is to see a child with a gift doing something that comes naturally, the way the sandal game or football comes to other children.
But this is not only the story of a precocious child. Phearon is among a cadre of young artists striving to preserve Cambodian culture against a tide of foreign music and the decimating undercurrents of crime and poverty.
As a gifted chapey student at the Aspara Arts Association in the Russei Keo district of Phnom Penh, Phearon says only war would stop him from making music.
“If Cambodia has war, people have no time for music,” he said, his almond eyes fanned by long lashes. “They must save their lives instead.”
At the urging of his uncle, Phearon left his family in Kandal province two years ago to train at the Apsara association. The school teaches classical and folk music to children, particularly those who are orphaned or from poor families. The organization was founded in 1998 with sponsorship from the KASUMISOU Foundation, a Japanese charity, and Unesco and ASPECA. Twenty-five children live at the center, but many more train there.
Phearon loves chapeye, but he’s a child, so he loves cartoons as well. Someday he will become a music teacher, he says. Then he will “turn Cambodian boys and girls into men and women,” he says.
For now his days begin at five every morning, when he wakes inside his house built on stilts above a lotus-filled pond. Before walking to school he helps with morning chores and attends to any neglected homework. He will complete the fourth grade this year at the Toul Kok Primary School in Toul Kok district, where his favorite subject is Khmer. Music, though, is his best language.
When school ends Phearon walks to the association, where he greets the teachers who as “Mother” and “Father.” Phearon dumps his knapsack onto the bare planks of a wooden bunk-bed and replaces his school uniform with worn blue cargo shorts and a gray T-shirt.
First, some playtime. Phearon picks up a stuffed clown doll to battle a friend’s dinosaur. The clown, the bigger of the two, wins. This fighting is mimicked by two girls who play with pig and sheep dolls.
The girls are not as impressed with Phearon as his teachers are. “He is sometimes good and sometimes bad,” one says with a shy smile. “When he says mean things about me or the food, I, of course must answer back.” Phearon overhears them and starts to tease back.
When playtime ends, the students learn music and dance from four teachers, including AAA director Chhay Sopha. “I am afraid to lose our Khmer culture,” he said. “No other nationality can help us prevent the loss or restore what we lose.” But he added that domestic pressures often are more destructive than any foreign song.
Drugs and HIV/AIDS are the biggest obstacles facing Cambodian children today, according to Sebastien Marot, director of the NGO Friends/Mith Samlanh. With little entertainment offered beyond television and karaoke bars, bored youth can easily be lured into crime, Marot added.
Gangs, often run by children of elite families, employ poor boys to carry out undesirable tasks like stealing or fighting, said Marot. The problems worsen as the gang members reject society and embrace a circle of superficial power and protection.
“There is nothing to look forward to,” said Marot. “Young people get bored so they get into negative groups, where peer pressure is very high.”
If youths do not succumb to peer pressure on the street, many are still burdened by dysfunction at home. “HIV/AIDS is a stress on all young people,” Marot said. “Many kids have sick parents, and they eventually will become orphans.” Before being orphaned, children often live a life of poverty, since many parents are too sick to work.
Phearon’s family of rice farmers is poor, even by Cambodian standards, and so he is vulnerable to many of the same forces that drive youth into lives of crime. Phearon’s older sister doubles as his best friend because, he says, she loves him more than the others. “She gives me advice,” he explained. “‘Don’t go outside with gangsters. Study hard. Be good.’”
Artisans long have carved the chapey from various kinds of wood, stringing it with strands of steel or silk. Players pluck notes from the three strings stretched across an elongated front board, while singing humorous tales.
Chapey players are a particularly clever breed of musician. Although the content of a story is prepared prior to a performance, an effective artist improvises rhymes throughout, redirecting the course of the tale or even trapping a partner in silent submission.
The best players have nimble fingers, a sweet voice and an intellect capable of improvising story lines and intriguing rhymes that draw from Khmer history and literature.
Chapey playing is one of the oldest traditional Khmer arts, with its ideological roots entangled in the Buddhist religion. According to Yos Sat, a chapey instructor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Buddhists would hold hunger strikes to devise remedies for societal ills.
Throughout their hunger-induced daze, they would dream that “Deravada plays chapey to obey Buddha with the three ways of resolution: Don’t be too tight; don’t be too loose; keep it medium.” Chapey players since have aimed to mix moderation with amusement.
Phearon either plays with a female partner or competes against another boy, both of whom engage him in playful banter about AIDS, domestic violence or drugs. They aim to boost public awareness about society’s pitfalls, making the lesson more palatable with humor. As with any good debate, the victor of a chapey duel must deliver the funniest, more shrewd lines. An informal verdict is issued by the audience’s laughter and applause.
“The best experience is when I’m playing for customers or parties,” said Phearon about his monthly performances for foreign tourists or student groups. “I like making them smile and earning money for the school.”
Teachers at the association have great faith in Phearon’s future. Smen Seri Vutheun, last year’s national chapey champion, says the boy has the wits and determination necessary for a fruitful career.
And Phearon has something else.
“The boy is special because he has good human light from ancestors that gives him an ability to succeed,” Smen Seri Vutheun said.
An old soul, a young heart, Phearon plays the chapey as if his future depends on it.