The passing of the legendary Chapei Dang Veng master, Kong Nay, marked the end of an era for the greatest exponent of one important aspect of Cambodia's rich musical heritage.  Following the June 28 death of the renowned 80-year-old custodian of the unique “Mekong-Delta Blues” style of playing, many fans of the genre were concerned that the art form would die with him. One young man in Kampong Speu is doing his best to ensure it survives. After spending $10 dollars of his savings on recycled timber to construct a traditional Chapei Dang Veng, Soeung Chetra found a way to channel his passion for the ancient art. In the rustic home, Chetra, who performs under the name Chao Chet, strums his handmade instrument, showcasing his deep love for the two-stringed, long-necked guitar. “Because I love this music, I saved money to buy glue and construct my own Chapei. Then dedicated myself to practising every day,” says Chet, still just 16. His modest beginnings did not deter him; instead, they fuelled his determination to celebrate his country's musical traditions.  Chet’s story not only highlights the resourcefulness of Cambodia's youth but also underscores the enduring importance of cultural preservation in a rapidly modernising world.  Now a Grade 10 student at Slap Leng High School, his passion for the Chapei Dang Veng was ignited when he heard the story of "Three Color Snail" by Mom Sun. 

Chao Chetstrums his newChapei Dang Veng instrument. Supplied

However, he recalled that his first attempts to play on his own were not well-received. Chet explained that initially, his parents complained when they heard the sounds he was producing. Rather than dismiss his efforts, they sought out a teacher who could help him begin to master the instrument. He began his studies in 2019. The complaints soon faded into the past as he came to grips with the soulful tones of the Chapei. Chao Chet reflects on his journey, explaining that while learning to play the instrument itself was a challenge, mastering the art of singing melodies and lyrics that rhyme like poetry was even more demanding.  “Playing the Chapei requires skill and practice," he says. “But crafting and performing the lyrics, making them flow seamlessly with the music, and ensuring they carry the weight of our cultural stories is the true test of artistry and dedication,” he adds. This intricate balance of musical and poetic talent is what Chet strives to achieve, honouring the rich traditions of his heritage by learning to read poetry and studying the work of the masters who preceded him. Naturally, his heroes include Kong Nay, often referred to as the "Ray Charles of Cambodia" for his blind virtuosity and soulful performances, who dedicated his life to preserving and sharing the traditional sound of the Chapei Dang Veng.  His melodies and lyrics, rich with historical and cultural narratives, captivated audiences and kept the essence of this ancient art form alive.  As the older generation of Chapei masters dwindles, there is palpable concern about the future of this beloved tradition. The emergence of a rare young talent like Chet brings a glimmer of hope. “I felt very sorry when Master Kong Kay passed away. We lost a living heritage treasure,” Chet tells The Post.  Chet’s dedication and creativity reflect a deep commitment to preserving Cambodia's musical heritage, much like Kong Nay. 

Chao Chet performs at Slap Leng High School during Khmer New Year. Supplied

Chet's journey not only honours the legacy of the late master but also symbolises a bridge between the past and the future, with updated topics and themes that ensure the soulful strains of the Chapei Dang Veng continue to resonate for generations to come. “I love conceiving of educational lyrics about gang fights for example, because they allow me to use music as a tool to raise awareness and promote positive messages among my peers,” he says. Chet concedes that Chapei Dang Veng artists often struggle to earn a living from their art alone.  “I was invited to perform at nearby villages during the Sankranti Festival, but there are very few occasions when I am asked to perform,” he admits. This harsh reality has driven Chet to focus on his studies, aspiring to pursue a career as a Khmer literature teacher. He hopes to achieve financial stability through teaching while continuing to nurture his passion. By excelling in both fields, Chet dreams of becoming a Chapei Dang Veng master, preserving this precious cultural heritage for future generations. He appeals to all art enthusiasts and the wider community to support traditional arts, saying, "With your support, I can preserve the Chapei Dang Veng and earn a living, inspiring other young people to follow and keep our cultural heritage alive.” Chet has taken to TikTok to share his passion, filming himself performing traditional songs and earning hundreds of thousands of views.  His captivating performances have garnered a broad following, allowing him to promote his cherished art form to a wider audience.  In addition to his own content, Chet also posts performances by masters of the Chapei Dang Veng, such as Prach Chhuon and the late Kong Nay, helping to preserve and celebrate their legacy while inspiring others to appreciate and learn about Cambodia's musical heritage.