Unesco Adds Chapei Dang Veng to Heritage List

Unesco has added a unique Cambodian art form to one of its Intangible Cultural Heritage lists—a move years in the making—and provided $230,000 for the protection of the endangered tradition.

Chapei dang veng, performed by artists who sing while accompanying themselves on a two-chord instrument of the same name, was added to the list by the Unesco’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage during a meeting on Wednesday in Ethiopia.

Kong Nay reclines with his chapei dang veng last month in Kampot province. (Cambodia Living Arts)
Kong Nay reclines with his chapei dang veng last month in Kampot province. (Cambodia Living Arts)

Obtaining a position on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding took years, and the stakes were very high for Cambodia, as the art form is threatened with extinction, Culture Minister Phoeung Sakona said on Thursday.

The origins of chapei dang veng, an instrument that appears in reliefs on the walls of temples in Angkor Archeological Park, have been lost. But historians say artists toured the country’s villages, improvising or singing known songs, recounting ancient tales or giving advice on culture or morality.

Performing as solo artists or in groups, the few remaining chapei dang veng artists now play mostly at weddings and in traditional ceremonies.

“Older masters became even older and younger ones are not yet there to succeed them,” Ms. Sakona said.

Chapei dang veng is challenging to learn and requires a great deal of talent to perform, and those qualities have added to the difficulty of preserving and developing the art form, she added.

As in the case of numerous art forms whose transmission to a younger generation was interrupted by the civil war and Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, chapei dang veng is left today with very few masters to assure its continuity, which made it a strong candidate for the endangered list, said Anne Lemaistre, Unesco’s country representative in Cambodia.

Kong Nay, one of chapei dang veng’s grandmasters, was thrilled to hear the news on Thursday. He may be 71, he said, “but I now have more moral force and want to train the younger generation as chapei dang veng is nearly lost.”

Mr. Nay, who was declared one of the country’s intangible treasures by the Cambodian government, taught his art for years in programs supported by Cambodian Living Arts. But artists can only do so much, he said. If they don’t have opportunities to perform and there is lack of interest among the public, they won’t be able to support themselves, he said.

Being added to the endangered list may trigger young Cambodians’ interest in chapei dang veng, Ms. Sakona said. “We believe that it is a kind of encouragement for the young generation.”

The $230,000 Unesco grant is intended to help Cambodia implement a program to assure chapei dang veng’s survival.

The National Song Contest held Saturday by the Ministry of Culture will include a performance by three generations of chapei dang veng artists. It will take place at 3 p.m. at the Koh Pich Theater in Phnom Penh. Admission is free.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon)

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