Music will bring cultures together Saturday night at Asia Society in New York, as legendary Cambodian bluesman Kong Nay shares the stage with a trio of American jazz musicians.
"We don't speak the same language, but it works," Kong Nay, one of the few great artists to survive the Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge era, said after a rehearsal with his new bandmates on Friday. "We understand each other through music and that is something that makes me excited."
For the Asia Society concert — which is sold out, but will be broadcast live on the internet for free starting at 8 p.m. New York time — Kong Nay, who is in his 60s and blind, will spend the first hour performing solo, playing his chapei dong vong, a long neck guitar, and singing his soulful ballads. Then, he'll be joined by Ben Allison on bass, Marc Ribot on guitar and Rudy Royston on drums. Kong Nay met the American musicians for the first time this week.
"When we got together and played for the first time, I think there was an immediate musical affinity," Allison said. "The thing that stuck out to me about Kong Nay's playing and his singing is it is very much like the blues. It's got a folk-like quality. It's from the heart and it reminded me very much of American blues, so I think that is one of things that reminds us how universal music can be."
Allison said the group will approach the concert in an "improvisational way."
"Our idea is for Kong Nay to set up some of his traditional music and for the American musicians to improvise along with it," Allison said. "It's an adventure. We'll be adding a lot of Americana into the mix and see how we can fuse these two traditions together."
The concert is part of the monthlong Season of Cambodia, which brings more than 125 Cambodian performing and visual artists to New York City stages.
"It's a really important initiative because in many ways it re-imagines the relationship of the United States and Cambodia, particularly this concert," Asia Society's Director of Global Performing Arts Rachel Cooper said. "This is a whole new generation. The Khmer Rouge period ended in 1979. It has been an incredible struggle, and the American relationship with Cambodia was in many ways defined by war. The relationship now, and particularly in this festival, is defined by creativity."
In the video above, filmed Friday after a rehearsal, Kong Nay uses his trademark satiric wit and imagines himself as a member of parliament who never lost an election and is honored to have the opportunity to "sing chapei" today.
Local viewing times:
California: 5:00 pm | Houston: 7:00 pm | New York: 8:00 pm | Mumbai: 5:30 am (4/21) | Phnom Penh: 7:00 am (4/21) | Hong Kong: 8:00 am (4/21) | Manila: 8:00 am (4/21) | Seoul: 9:00 am (4/21) | Sydney: 10:00 am (4/21)