For decades, Brach Chhoun has enjoyed a great reputation as a musician, playing a traditional Cambodian instrument called the “chapei.” He is retired these days, and his health is declining, but his name is still among the masters of Cambodian music.
On a recent day, the 78-year-old smiled as he sang to welcome a VOA Khmer reporter for an interview.
“Now that I’m old and weak, singing like this is considered not bad,” he said, though he wouldn’t dare ask to be paid these days. “Back in the day, my voice was nice and my singing contained rhymes, too.”
Sitting on a wooden bed in Tropeang Kok village, Takeo province, Brach Chhoun uses both hands, full of wrinkles, to play. The left one handles his chapei, the right one plays its strings, skillfully if shakily.
This song has not been planned, but Brach Chhoun builds it with rhymes, like stacking bricks.
At the age of 78, he has lost almost all his teeth. Only two or three bottom front teeth remain. The song passes these as he sings.
He is sitting in palm-leaf cottage, which seems to calm his old age. He is constantly smiling when he plays. His smile gets wider when he hears applause, even though he cannot see.
Born in October 1936, Brach Chhoun was the youngest child in a farmer family that had six children in Tropeang Kok. Smallpox took his sight when he was five, though he can still distinguish between day and night. He started to study the chapei when he was nine. His brothers became soldiers. His sister remained a farmer.
“My uncle said, ‘You are blind, but if you are successful in learning the chapei, maybe you could be something,’” Brach Chhoun explains. “So I started to learn it, and I could really play it.”
He studied with a monk named Aet Sen, in the Pro Mor pagoda, who taught him ancient languages, songs and poems, along with literature and stories. As he learned to play the chabei, his first audience was made of nearby villagers.
In 1962, he joined a chapei contest arranged by a national radio station. He beat 19 other contestants, which launched his career. He played and sang for national radio, songs dictated by the head of the station, often about history, politics and famous internationals. He learned to play seven classic genres with skill, using old poems and old expressions, rhymes, and the strings of the instrument.
In 1975, he joined the mass exodus from Phnom Penh, returning to Takeo province, where he farmed every day and where Khmer Rouge soldiers threatened to kill him. “Some of the big people said, ‘Hey, he can’t shoot anything; he can only sing chapei. Killing him would make no good to our revolution. Just ignore him. He’ll die by himself anyway.’ This is what they said.”
He survived, and when the Khmer Rouge fell, he took up the chapei again, returning to national radio, and playing at events. He has preformed around the country, and abroad, in Singapore, and the United States, twice, and France, three times.
Some of his songs are comedies. Some are educational. He sings “rules for women,” and sings other advice.
He has five children now, three of whom live with him. None of them play chapei. It is difficult to learn, they say, and to practice, and there are few breaks. Its music is not so popular these days, anyway, they say.
Brach Chhoun has some young students, but they are not as talented as he is. He has heart disease, and diabetes. He is entering the final stage of his life.
“Living for too long is not very favorable,” he says. “It would be nice if I were taken. I cannot help anything anyway.”
He has of course left a musical legacy. He has left recordings of his music, stories, advice, Buddhist history, tales from the Ramayana. “From time to time, I hear villagers play them,” he says. The radio plays them, too, on weekends. “Half an hour at a time,” he says. “These are all I have. Nothing’s left.”
His reputation is well known, but his fame has not given him riches to help him in his old age. He worries about the future of the chapei. “This is the Khmers’, if you know and keep it,” he says. “Don’t let it die.”