A Cambodian Bard documents the work of Kong Nay, a traditional musician of Khmer extraction. He was in his early fifties when this session was recorded in a studio in Phnom Penh back in February 1997. Playing the chapey, a traditional lute with a very long neck and three strings (although Kong uses a custom two-string version), he sings about the everyday life of Cambodians and memories from the regime of the Khmer Rouge. The authentic bard songs all use a similar main theme over which Kong embroiders his own variations and permutations. Voice and lute answer each other in a dialogue where narrative and decorative voices are constantly interchanging their roles. Some pieces adopt a more personal style where the artist borrows elements from Khmer classical music. There, the lute doesn't stop playing and the music taps into a kind of earthly ethos strongly resembling the blues. This comparison is reinforced by the choice of topics. In "Thkol Loan Nauv Khet Svay Rieng" (Thunder on Svay Rieng), Kong enumerates the agricultural chores of every season while dreaming of the places where the products of the labor will be enjoyed, echoing some American cotton field songs. Despite the language barrier and the highly Asian inflections and ornaments of the melodies, this music speaks to the soul in a way that is far closer to Leadbelly or early John Lee Hooker than other traditional music from the Far East. The 28-page booklet includes translations of the Cambodian lyrics in English and French and an interview with Kong Nay from 2001, also in both languages.
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AllMusic Review by François Couture