On a mission to save Cambodia’s musical heritage (Video)

Griffith creative arts lecturers have collaborated on a stunning new book that documents the battle to preserve Cambodia’s musical heritage.

Dr Catherine Grant (Queensland Conservatorium) and Dr Heather Faulkner (Queensland College of Art) have produced an artist book that explores the art of the Cambodian chapei – a traditional two-string lute.

The pair spent several weeks travelling through Cambodia with a group of young musicians on a pilgrimage to seek out the country’s few remaining chapei masters.

The journey is chronicled in a new book, Living Heritage – The Artists of Cambodian Chapei, which received funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

“We all piled into an old bus and headed out to the countryside to visit the chapei masters – there was music, singing and lots of laughter,” Dr Grant said.

“It was fantastic to collaborate with Heather, who captured some gorgeous images, and it was such a thrill to see the interactions between the Masters and the younger players.”

Many of the country’s musicians were killed under the Khmer Rouge, and the ancient musical tradition has recently been listed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.

The book, written in English and Khmer, was launched at the Chapei Festival in Siem Riep this month. All profits from the publication will go back to Cambodia’s chapei artists. 

Both Dr Grant and Dr Faulkner have visited Cambodia on various cultural exchanges and research trips over the past decade, and the country holds a special place in their hearts.

Dr Grant spent six months living in Cambodia as part of an Endeavour Australia Research Fellowship, becoming one of the first Western musicians to learn the chapei.

“There is a small group of dedicated young people in Phnom Penh who are working to revive the chapei,” she said.

“To them, the chapei is part of their culture and a way of celebrating Cambodia.

“Cambodia is a beautiful country, but there is still a lot of political upheaval and almost half the population live in abject poverty.

“The immense commitment of both young and old to protect, maintain and revitalise their musical and cultural heritage is extraordinary – it is such a privilege to play some small part in it.”


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