Cambodia's Golden Voice
by Daniel Hess
To many people, Cambodia is just the place where the Khmer Rouge genocide happened in the 1970s. However, there is so much more to know about the country beyond that singularly tragic world-famous event. One of those elements is an amazingly rich history in music.
Music for the people of Cambodia is steeped in deep tradition, being used in various ancient ceremonies throughout their existence. This music has predominately existed as part of an oral tradition, where the music is passed directly from teacher to student. The music is based on the pentatonic (five-tone) scale and is built linearly.
Western influence slowly made its way into Cambodia, giving rise to what could arguably be called the golden age of Cambodian rock/pop music of the 1960s and '70s. With music being imported from Latin America, Europe, and the United States more than ever before, an entire generation took hold of this modern sound. Something wholly unique was born from the combination of imported sounds and traditional cultural music. From this mixing of cultures, artists such as Yol Aularong, Ros Sereysothea, Live Tuk, Pan Ron, and Sinn Sisamouth gained notoriety.
Filmmaker and documentarian Chris G. Parkhurst, who is currently in postproduction for the film Elvis of Cambodia, describes the music in Cambodia of this period: "That's the special thing about the Cambodian rock and roll music during that time. It's drawing from different parts of the world. It's borrowing from American and British rock and roll. From Filipino music, from French music. Even some Cuban music. So, it's this beautiful conglomeration of this music that they then add their own Khmer spin to."
Sinn Sisamouth is probably the most influential artist in Cambodian music history and is believed to have written over a thousand songs. His story starts with humble beginnings and ends with the same tragedy that almost every tale of Cambodian heritage seems to have, with a life cut far too short.
Mark Chatt, from the band Kampot Playboys, described the amazing influence Sisamouth's music has had: "Kampot Playboys are heavily influenced by Sinn Sisamouth. I heard his voice played everywhere on my first trip [to Cambodia] in 2005. Even though other singers' old songs were played too, around the country I was amazed to discover that the majority were from the same person as he changed styles as he traveled and listened to other music from around the world. An incredible prolific songwriter and creator creating the soundtrack to Cambodia. I can't imagine modern Cambodian music without him."
Sisamouth was born sometime between 1932 and 1935. By age six he was playing instruments, and early on he knew that he wanted to become a full-time musician in some capacity. At age 16 he finished primary school and moved to the capital city of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, to study medicine (although this was only to appease his parents). He also started composing his own music.
By 1953, the year Cambodia achieved its independence from France, Sisamouth had completed medical training. He began working as a nurse but was quickly working full-time with a band through the Cambodian national radio station. Sisamouth's career continued to skyrocket, and his work ethic seemingly never ceased.
Sophal Keo Luy, a first-generation Cambodian American who survived the killing fields of Cambodia, remembers Sisamouth's music fondly: "He had the 'sum-laying meas,' which translates to the 'golden voice.' He was the most legendary singer in all of Cambodia."
Sophal learned to play guitar through the song "Kung Prous Srolanch" (which translates to "I'm Mad Because I Love You"). This song was so popular and influential in Cambodia that it was taught in schools as part of the music curriculum.
Sophal's wife, Sanavy Khuon, remembers Sisamouth's live performances: "He had a stage presence like no other. He had an aura of authenticity and charisma."
These sentiments might be echoed by the entire nation of Cambodia, which had a deep love and respect for Sisamouth's music. His work reached beyond the borders of the country through his many Khmer-language covers of popular Western songs. Sisamouth was that very rare pioneer who consistently produces music at a level that almost seems beyond human.
"He sang for everyone. He could sing about the capitol city but then also sing about rural Cambodia. He had such a direct connection with people in large part because they felt like he was speaking directly to them," Parkhurst described.
"He was so open that he would literally have his door open. People could come in and tell him their story and he would write a song for them right there. That of course becomes part of the legend. You'll have people that will hear a song of his and say he wrote that for me."
Stevenson Khuon, founder of the nonprofit organization Peace for Cambodia, reflects on his experiences with Sisamouth's music, as part of the first generation after his passing. "I remember my dad playing his songs back in Long Beach, California, growing up. His songs are my favorite. There are some new Cambodian musicians and bands nowadays which have dedicated themselves to reviving our Cambodian music roots too. For me, Sinn Sisamouth's voice and songs resonate deep because his voice is beautiful. The few classic singer/songwriters that I listen to from these previous eras are Sinn Sisamouth and Sam Cooke."
Ethan Holtzman, of the band Dengue Fever, comments, "The vocals alone were its own instrument... He infused traditional Khmer music with western psychedelic rock and roll so seamlessly, it was a huge inspiration for us to want to make the music we do now."
The through line that has been hinted at here, though, must finally be spoken of and that is the underlying tragedy that exists in the career of Sisamouth. Sometime between 1975 and 1976 Sisamouth disappeared after the evacuation of Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge genocide. His exact cause of death is unknown, and his remains have yet to be discovered, but many believe at some point as he was trying to flee, he was captured and executed.
The next part of the tragedy is that countless recordings of his music were either destroyed during the genocide or have simply been lost to degradation because of improper storage conditions.
More recently, massive efforts have been made to preserve as many of the original recordings of Sisamouth's music as possible, and many current artists have covered his songs so that listeners can at least appreciate his compositions.
One of the greatest triumphs to come from preservation efforts is the compilation album Cambodia Rocks, which was first released in 1996. With 22 tracks collected from cassette tapes purchased by an American tourist in 1994, it is the perfect time capsule of a short window in time where a culture was flourishing.
Ethan Holtzman reflected on that compilation: "When I heard that record with my brother, we were so inspired. It was really the birth of what we would go on to experiment with in our music. I can remember that collective thought of 'Why don't we form a band based on this sound.'"
In addition, the amazing 2015 documentary Don't Think I've Forgotten, by veteran filmmaker John Pirozzi, offers insights into this era of Cambodian rock music.
The real legacy of Sisamouth lives on in the people of Cambodia who continue to push forward, always remembering his music and the better times before the tragic killing of so many innocent people. It is yet another story of music's power and cultural importance.
Parkhurst put it beautifully: "Since 2004 in my travels to Cambodia I have not met one Cambodian person who doesn't know Sisamouth. Not only that but they will also know a song so well they can even sing or play it on the spot. His music is remembered not only for the quality but also as a perfect encapsulation of the Cambodia that existed before the dark times, a Cambodia so many still hold dear and hope to return to one day soon."
If you haven't had the pleasure of listening to Sinn Sisamouth yet, take a moment to find his music either on YouTube or Spotify.
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