We were in Phnom Penh, making Boomtown Babylon. Naturally, the bearded angel pirate was hunting with his ears. But the sound was small at first; faint echoes of karaoke synth from the tiny cafés and gold-laced bar rooms that pepper the city. In the 70s, the Khmer Rouge had waged devastation on music, culture, and education, to make way for their tyrannical ideology. The shimmering 1960s era of Khmer rock’n’roll (so great!) had been all but eliminated, and almost every musician killed.
Kong Nay, master of the traditional, two-string chapei, was spared.
As the superstar of the moment, the Angkar leaders had let him keep his instrument, and his life, on the condition that he sang only songs about the greatness of the Khmer Rouge to his fellow prisoners.
Eventually they took away his chapei, separated him from his wife and children, and he joined his fellow millions in bonded labour on the rice fields, starving and destroyed – the trauma intensified by his blindness.
Now in his 60s and the formidable father of ten children, Kong Nay lives in a thronging side-pocket of Phnom Penh, and we filmed with him there one sweltering late afternoon in April, after a month of back-and-forth with his “people”.
Because our command of Khmer was weak to say the least – and we could not use the power of gesticulation – communication was hesitant. So we climbed the stairs to a tiny, sauna-hot room at the top of the house, where hazy pink curtains quivered as the low, late sun joined us through a stack of horizontal shafts in the wall.
And then he started to play…
Text by Lotje Sodderland