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Overlooked No More: Sinn Sisamouth, “king” of Cambodian pop music

This article is part of Neglected, a series of obituaries on notable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, were not reported in The Times.

Before singer-songwriter Sinn Sisamouth passed away, he had become a staple on radio shows and nightclubs in Cambodia and beyond. For more than two decades, from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, fans praised her soft voice and evocative lyrics about Cambodian love and the Cambodian landscape.

He and his band mates, most notably singer Ros Serey Sothea, have distinguished themselves with their versatile repertoire of jazz, rock’n’roll, and popular Khmer ballads, among other styles. Sometimes they would use the melody of a western song – “Hey Jude” by the Beatles for example – while adding orchestration and writing original Khmer lyrics.

They have played a major role in defining the sound of Cambodia’s popular music industry, with Sinn Sisamouth becoming one of the country’s most revered stars.

Then, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized power, sparking a four-year campaign of executions, forced labor, disease and starvation that killed at least 1.7 million people. The work of artists and intellectuals was brutally suppressed, and Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea were among the many Cambodians who have disappeared amid the violence and upheaval.

Even now, the circumstances of their deaths are unclear, although family members are certain they are no longer alive. Sinn Sisamouth’s granddaughter Sin Setsochhata said, based on her father’s research, her family believe Sinn Sisamouth has gone missing in the southern province of Kandal on the border with Vietnam. Some believe he died in a labor camp. The Guardian reported in 2007 that he was shot dead. According to some accounts, before his execution, supposed to be in 1976, he pleaded to sing one last song.

However, many recordings of Sinn Sisamouth have survived and they still exert a profound influence on Cambodian culture.

“He was a trailblazer,” Cambodian musician Mol Kamach said in “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll,” a 2014 documentary film by John Pirozzi, about Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and other musicians. . “He was an example to other professional singers that modern singing is like this.”

Sinn Sisamouth was born on August 23, 1933 in the northeastern province of Stung Treng. (Some accounts indicate that his year of birth is 1932 or 1935.)

Her father, Sinn Leang, was a prison warden; her mother was Sib Bunloeu, according to a 1995 Phnom Penh Post article.

At the age of 7 or 8, Sinn Sisamouth moved to the western province of Battambang, where his uncle helped him develop an early interest in playing traditional Khmer music on stringed instruments like the Khmer tro, a type of violin, and the chapei, a lute.

Sinn Sisamouth arrived in the capital Phnom Penh at the age of 17 and enrolled in medical school with the goal of becoming a hospital nurse, but he never lost his love of medicine. music. He played for sick patients to help them relax, his granddaughter said, and spent his breaks playing the mandolin under a tree.

He then began performing live at the headquarters of Cambodia’s New National Radio, and his profile grew.

“When it comes to singing technique, Sinn Sisamouth was king,” Prince Panara Sirivudh, a member of the Cambodian royal family, said in the documentary. “His voice was so beautiful and he wrote very sweet songs. “

Popular Western music was brought to Cambodia as early as the 1940s by the royal palace and by Cambodians who could afford to travel to Europe, and the country’s rock ‘n’ roll scene began in earnest in the 1950s, according to one. study by LinDa Saphan. , the documentary’s associate producer and professor of sociology at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York.

The sound mixed high-pitched opera vocals and distorted electric guitar solos that were popular in American music at the time.

Sinn Sisamouth became representative of this new style because he had the ability to write both ballads and catchy rock songs, Saphan wrote, but the vocals of Ros Serey Sothea and other female singers on his recordings were the “finishing touch that made this Cambodian blend so alluring.”

Early in his career, Sinn Sisamouth was invited to perform with the Royal Cambodian Ballet; he appeared in elegant suits and bow ties, his hair combed back. He also traveled abroad – to India, Hong Kong and beyond – with a traditional group formed by the Queen’s son, Norodom Sihanouk, a composer and saxophonist (and future King) who played a major role. in the development of the country’s cultural industries in the postcolonial era. .

It was a hopeful period in Cambodia’s history: the country gained independence from France in 1953 and was shaping its identity and culture.

As Sinn Sisamouth’s popularity grew, his former country neighbors marveled at hearing his songs on the radio. Some called him “the golden voice” or “the Elvis of Cambodia”.

“A medical student, how can he sing? The villagers said at the time, his sister recalled in the documentary.

He met Ros Serey Sothea at the age of 17 on National Radio and recorded with her for over a decade.

Although they had never been involved in a romantic relationship, “their musical conversations were love stories filled with a sense of longing and hopelessness, palpable loss, while offering the possibility of reconciliation.” , wrote Saphan.

By the early 1970s, amid a scene of go-go bands, chunky hairstyles and youthful exuberance, the duo had produced several hit songs, including a few for Cambodian films. Sinn Sisamouth also wrote and directed the 1974 film “Unexpected Song”, which included some of its original music and a performance by Ros Serey Sothea.

The duo’s music has sparked renewed interest. Sinn Sisamouth is the subject of an upcoming documentary film, “Elvis of Cambodia”, and Ros Serey Sothea is the subject of a graphic novel, “The Golden Voice”, due for release next year.

Sinn Sisamouth married one of her cousins, Khao Thang Nhoth, and they had three sons and a daughter, according to The Post. One of his sons, Sin Chanchhaya, also became a musician.

For all of Sinn Sisamouth’s prowess, he was an introvert who spent most of his time alone, his granddaughter said. Often, after having dined with his family, he retired to his studio to compose.

“All the emotions – the mind, the connection, the inner feelings – were expressed through her music,” she said.

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