Kong Nay at the Season of Cambodia Festival
The troubadour wielding a stringed instrument and singing praises, dance
tunes, love songs, histories or wry comments is a nearly universal
figure in traditional music, from Appalachian banjo pickers to Moroccan
gnawa musicians to West African griots to Japanese minyo singers. Kong Nay,
who performed at the Asia Society on Saturday night, is one of them,
playing the Cambodian style called chapei: singing in a hearty voice and
playing the chapei dang weng, a long-necked, two-stringed lute.
Published: April 21, 2013
Chapei is a sparse, open, toe-tapping style. Mr. Kong sang forthright modal melodies, propelled from the downbeat and embellished with quavers and slides. He plucked a steady rhythm, meanwhile, with a repeating note on one string while the other carried a melody line: sharing it with the voice and sometimes answering a vocal line with an instrumental refrain. The modes and inflections were Southeast Asian, but the folky tunes were homey and direct.
The Asia Society projected some of the lyrics overhead; in various songs Mr. Kong invoked Buddhist deities, praised a mother’s sacrifices, celebrated dancing and hoped to find a “new soul mate” on the dance floor; “My old one should not have jilted me,” he sang in “Rom Vong.” Mr. Kong also improvised some verses that drew laughter from Cambodians in the audience.
His upbeat music is an ancient tradition — one endangered by the cultural genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, who starved and executed an estimated 90 percent of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals. Mr. Kong, who is in his late 60s and has been blind since childhood, is one of the rare survivors among his generation of master musicians. He appeared as part of the citywide Season of Cambodia series, which is celebrating the preservation and progress of Cambodian culture.
Mr. Kong played the first part of the concert solo. Then he was joined by a jazz group, the Ben Allison trio, with Mr. Allison on bass, Marc Ribot on guitar and Rudy Royston on drums. Mr. Allison remarked that when he first heard Mr. Kong’s music he thought, “It just feels like the blues to me” — another troubadour tradition. In one song Mr. Kong declaimed, “Though we can’t speak a common language, our music does for us.”
It was a congenial fusion. The trio added a jovial bustle to the songs while respecting Mr. Kong’s clear beat; at one point Mr. Ribot tried to add some lead-guitar counterpoint to Mr. Kong’s pithy melodies, but wisely backed off. And in “Arapiya” the group heard compatible chords that fit Mr. Kong’s melody and unchanging bass note; the Cambodian tune tilted toward hand-clapping country, hinting at “You Are My Sunshine.” The song was about dancing “to the rocking music” on a Saturday night; it was a neat cross-cultural fit.