Chapei instruments ready for blessing at the Buddhist ceremony Pchum Ben © Catherine Grant

Gauging Musical Vitality and Implications for Safeguarding: The Case of Cambodian Chapei

This article briefly presents a framework designed to gauge the level of vitality or endangerment of music traditions and suggests how the tool can be used to inform music safeguarding activities across contexts. The framework is the Music Vitality and Endangerment Framework (MVEF), developed and first presented in my book Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help (Grant, 2014). The MVEF draws inspiration from various language vitality assessment tools, particularly UNESCO’s Language Vitality Framework (2003). In the absence of any such tool for gauging music vitality or endangerment across contexts, the MVEF was developed to fill this gap.

The MVEF identifies twelve factors in the vitality of any music genre. The first factor is its intergenerational transmission, which can be used as an indicator of vitality or endangerment overall. The next four factors relate to change over time (with a suggested assessment period of five to ten years):

2. change in the number of proficient musicians;
3. change in the number of people engaged with the genre;
4. pace and direction of change in music and music practices;
5. change in performance context(s) and function(s).

The remaining factors are:

6. response to mass media and the music industry;
7. accessibility of infrastructure and resources;
8. accessibility of knowledge and skills for music practices;
9. official attitudes toward the genre;
10. community members’ attitudes toward the genre;
11. relevant outsiders’ attitudes toward the genre; and
12. documentation of the genre.

Taken together, these factors give an overall picture of the strength of the genre.

Gauging the vitality of music traditions through a predetermined framework like the MVEF admittedly has its limitations, as UNESCO quickly recognized in relation to its language vitality framework. (These, and other concerns such as the risk of reductionism, are explored at length in Grant, 2014.) Yet despite some limitations, MVEF assessments may prove useful to music safeguarding efforts, in three key ways. First, they may be used by performers, researchers, non-government organizations (NGOs), and others to advocate for (and secure) safeguarding support for specific traditions through affirmative funding strategies or policy decisions. Second, used to gauge the relative vitality of two or more traditions, they represent foundational work for priority-setting, by helping identify traditions that may be in most urgent need of safeguarding, as well as suggesting specific areas where at-risk traditions may need support. Lastly, the assessments offer a way to gauge the trajectory of music traditions over time, with assessments at intervals (say of five to ten years) also representing a way to evaluate the success of any safeguarding interventions. In these ways, the MVEF may be useful for musicians, communities, fieldworkers, scholars, cultural bodies, and others who are trying to find best ways to safeguard musical heritage around the world.

With this hope in mind, and again taking inspiration from UNESCO—this time its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger—between May 2014 and March 2015 the MVEF was used to gauge perceptions of vitality of 101 music genres across the world (see, through a survey methodology. While further testing of the tool is necessary to better understand validity and inter-rater reliability within and across contexts, the outcomes of that project (reported in Grant, 2017) suggest that the MVEF may be a promising means of assessing music vitality.

Putting the MVEF to Use: Cambodian Chapei

I now offer a brief example of an assessment of a musical tradition using the MVEF and its implications for safeguarding. During my six-month research fellowship in Cambodia in 2015, collaborating with my colleague Chhuon Sarin of Cambodian Living Arts (a cultural NGO), we carried out an MVEF assessment of three Cambodian music traditions—smot, chapei, and kantaomming (reported in Grant and Chhuon, 2016). To do so, we drew on our own knowledge of these genres, existing research, (participant) observation, and insights from formal and informal interviews with performers, teachers, students, government representatives, and cultural workers. Our undertaking aligned with the on-going agenda of traditional musicians, their communities, the Cambodian government, and local cultural NGOs to safeguard and revitalize traditional Cambodian performing arts, which were severely disrupted during the years of genocide, war, and famine in the 1970s and 1980s.

One of the three musical traditions we chose for assessment was chapei dong weng (chapey dang veng, and the permutations chapei or chapey for short). Chapei refers both to a genre of music and an instrument—a two-string, long-necked, round-bodied, strummed, and fretted lute, these days often made primarily of jack wood. In the genre, the performer plays the instrument to accompany his or her improvised singing. Traditionally, the chapei genre was performed in outdoor or informal contexts in both urban and rural areas, often by blind musicians, for edification and entertainment. These days, chapei is increasingly also found at semi-formal or formal staged events, especially in Phnom Penh. Last year, the tradition was inscribed on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding (UNESCO, 2016).

Our MVEF assessment of the situation of Cambodian chapei revealed several areas of strength. Particularly promising for the future of the tradition is the strong interest being shown in it by a small group of committed young people (Factor 3), who have come together to form a troupe called Community of Living Chapey. This troupe is exploring new contexts and functions for the tradition (Factor 5)—including festivals, restaurants, hotels, and schools—in an effort to make it more relevant, engaging, and accessible to contemporary audiences. National and international scholarly and media interest (Factors 6 and 11) is likely to flourish in the wake of inscription on UNESCO’s Urgent Safeguarding list. In turn, the inscription (with its concomitant funding) has inspired greater attention and professed support from the Cambodian government (Factor 9).
On the other hand, an MVEF assessment of chapei reveals some significant challenges to its viability. Younger-generation learners are generally not yet proficient in the skills needed to perform chapei well (Factor 2). Efforts to promote intergenerational transmission of these skills are challenged by the dearth of actively teaching master-musicians, most of whom are elderly, some in less than optimum health (Factor 1). Although chapei is generally valued and appreciated by the wider Cambodian population, a persisting superstition that playing chapei leads to blindness continues to deter younger potential learners (Factor 10). Instrument makers can be hard to find, particularly in rural areas, presenting a barrier to learning, teaching, and performing; and the shift to the stage as a performance context can bring financial pressure in terms of venue hire and equipment (e.g. for lighting and sound) (Factor 7).

Implications for Safeguarding

In some cases, it may appear obvious enough whether, or for what reasons, a given music tradition (or any other form of intangible cultural heritage) is losing vitality. However, taking a systematic rather than intuitive approach to gauging the vitality of chapei, through the MVEF, helped us set aside common preconceptions about the reasons for the precarious state of this tradition, allowing us to think about possible alternative ways to support it, beyond the intergenerational transmission programs that have been at the core of safeguarding efforts to date. Instrument-makers could be trained and supported to hone their skills and generate a viable income from selling instruments; transmission initiatives might now shift emphasis from soliciting new learners to moving existing learners to levels of greater proficiency; school-based awareness-raising initiatives could aim to break down the association of chapei with blindness; and so on. In this way, the MVEF assessment of chapei is acting as a useful springboard for safeguarding discussions among chapei musicians and communities, government agencies, researchers, NGOs, and the others with a stake in the sustainable future of chapei. It is one tool in the wider efforts to secure a viable future for this precious tradition. n


The author wishes to thank Chhuon Sarin for the research collaboration reported on in this article; and Pich Sarath, Sokim Keat, and the Community of Living Chapey for text and image permission.


Grant, Catherine (2014). Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help. New York: Oxford University Press.
Grant, Catherine (2017). “Vital Signs: Toward a Tool for Assessing Music Vitality and Viability.” International Journal for Traditional Arts 1(1), 1-19.
Grant, Catherine & Chhuon Sarin (2016). “Assessing the Vitality and Viability of Three Traditional Khmer Music Genres.” Yearbook of the International Council for Traditional Music 48 : 25-47.
Moseley, Christopher (Ed.). (2010). Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (3rd ed.). Paris: UNESCO.
UNESCO (2003). A Methodology for Assessing Language Vitality and Endangerment.
UNESCO (2016). Chapei dang veng. List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Catherine Grant, Senior Lecturer in Music Literature and Research, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University

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