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Art form gets UN heritage status

Chapey artist Kong Nay plays the instrument at the Cambodian Living Arts Association in Phnom Penh yesterday.
Chapey artist Kong Nay plays the instrument at the Cambodian Living Arts Association in Phnom Penh yesterday. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Art form gets UN heritage status

After two unsuccessful attempts to have the musical artform chapey dong veng recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage, the third time proved the charm yesterday as it not only earned the status but was added to the urgent safeguarding list, making funding available to the government to apply towards its preservation.

The decision – made public via Twitter – was taken yesterday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, by the Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which met there this week.

The Cambodian traditional art form involves the playing of a two-stringed, long-necked, lute-like instrument while singing lyrics that can be a poetic telling of folklore as well as educational, satirical, and even a form of social commentary “I’m very happy for us,” Makara Hong, UNESCO national program officer for intangible cultural heritage in Phnom Penh, said upon hearing the news yesterday.

The status of urgent safeguard is reserved for heritage items that “may disappear” very soon, Hong explained. “It means the government should take urgent measures to safeguard the intangible cultural item.”

Indeed, the Cambodian Living Arts Association (CLA), which took part in the application to have chapey recognised, is in the process of scouring the country for surviving “masters” of the instrument, of which there may be as few as 20.

Among them is 70-year-old Kong Nay, the Kingdom’s most famous chapey artist, who yesterday evening told the Post during a break from teaching a class of 14 students at CLA that he was “over the moon” upon hearing the news.

“To protect the continuation of this art form, first, we need to have a working group like the community of living chapeys [those who perform the art], because only with a group like that can chapey dong veng be passed to the next generation,” he said.

Breaking out in song, he said that he had committed himself to completing the documentation of all the chapey songs he knew. His assistant professor, Sokim Keat, added that because many high-profile chapey masters are blind (including Nay), a challenge has been convincing youth that becoming a chapey player will in fact not lead to blindness.

Cambodia’s UNESCO head, Anne Lemaistre, likened chapey to American blues music. “I think it’s like a Cambodian blues. I’m quite happy, because I think [that] thanks to Kong Nay, chapey is much more popular now, and it’s a tradition that was being lost,” she said.

Addressing the two rejected applications by the government in conjunction with CLA, UNESCO’s Hong says they failed to clearly mention the “community aspects” of chapey as well as present a clear safeguarding plan. The successful nomination this year was assisted by a workshop funded by the government of Japan, he added.

In an email last night, Lemaistre further disclosed that an application for $230,000 had also been approved by the UNESCO Intangible Heritage Committee, meaning that programs proposed by the Ministries of Culture, Fine Arts and Education may well be funded.

While ministry officials could not immediately be reached last night, according to Lemaistre, the proposals include bringing chapey back to the seconday School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh as a field of study, launching a pilot program to bring chapey to public schools nationally and creating an annual chapey festival.

Given these programs would be a shared project between the government and UNESCO, Lemaistre said “I imagine most of them will be realised”.

Chapey artist Kong Nay reacts to UNESCO decision:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited that the chapey is a three-stringed instrument. Confusion: one of the strings is anchored at the last fret and runs along the neck twice, making it appear to have three strings.

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