At the time of writing, we don’t know whether Cambodia or Phnom Penh is about to undergo the kind of lockdown we’ve seen being imposed in other parts of the world. But, whether this does come about or not, there’s never not a bad time to take a moment to appreciate one of Cambodia’s great artists, Sinn Sisamouth, something that is possible even under the strictest of social distancing guidelines.
You will almost certainly have heard of Sinn Sisamouth, or at the very least heard his music, even if you have recently arrived in Cambodia. The “King of Khmer Music” reigned supreme over Cambodia’s vibrant pop music scene in the heady 1960s, following independence from France. Their music blended elements of Khmer traditional music with the sounds of rhythm and blues and rock and roll that were then taking the world by storm, to create a unique Cambodian style, rhythm and energy.
Born in in the early to mid 1930s in Stung Treng, a remote, rural province that is still one of the poorest in Cambodia, Sisamouth took to music at a young age, learning to play traditional stringed instruments at six or seven years old. But he didn’t start to sing until later on, after movig to Phnom Penh to study medicine around 1950.
His smooth, silky voice — compared by some to Nat King Cole — and adaptability to different styles was soon noticed, and his timing, musically and professionally, could not have been better. These were the days when King Norodom Sihanouk was determined to open his newly independent (in 1953) to the world and show that it was ready to take its place among modern nations. He set out to achieve this with a strong focus on architecture, urban planning, literature, and music.
Among those who noticed Sisamouth’s unique talents was Queen Kossamak who, on hearing him on the recently formed National Radio Station, asked that he sing traditional music for royal receptions and state functions at the palace.
Cambodia’s openness to the world brought with it several waves of western musical influences. The first wave brought French jazz and chanson singers such as Edith Piaf, Gilbert Bécaud, Jacques Brel, and Charles Trenet. But, while Cambodians, particularly the urban youth and elites, loved this music, it was hard to dance to at parties, so when French Yé-Yé music appeared on the scene, Cambodia was waiting with its dance card.
This was also a time when Latin rhythms started to play a role in Cambodia’s cultural landscape, including the cha-cha and bossa nova, and by now, Cambodian musicians were already familiar with Western musical instruments, such as the piano, accordion, banjo and brass instruments. In those years of the early 1960s, Anglo-American music still carried the taint of association with the American army presence in Vietnam.
But French Yé-Yé, inspired by the Beatles’ lyrics “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” and marked by hits such as Johnny Hallyday’s “Souvenir, Souvenir,” and Richard Anthony’s “J’entends Siffler le Train”, laid the groundwork for the inevitable, and enduring next wave.
According to Dr LinDa Saphan*, the beginning of Cambodia’s adventures in rock and roll can be traced to Chubby Checker’s 1960 hit, “The Twist”, brought back to the country by Chum Kem on his return from studying ceramics in Italy. In 1962, he recorded his version, “Kampuchea Twist,” the first Western sound mixed with Khmer lyrics to be played on Cambodian radio, and sparked a cultural revolution. The kids loved it.
As it happened, Sinn Sisamouth had already gained a national reputation for the heartfelt ballads and love songs he performed. He penned many of his own songs on the exquisite perils of romance, as well many uptempo rock hits featuring the distorted guitar, heavy organ and driving drums that defined the era. The love songs he performed with his longtime collaborator, Ros Serey Sothea, drew a huge following. The pair recorded almost 400 songs together, a fraction of the more than 1,200 recorded by Sisamouth throughout the course of his professional career. The new rock and roll simply proved to be another ground on which he could prove his musical prowess, with his combination of Cole-like vocals and Sinatra-like stage presence, he earned his stripes as the “Cambodian Elvis”.
Sadly, events overtook him, while the circumstances of his death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the location of his body remain unclear, despite many testimonies.
Listen to “I’m Still Waiting”, Sisamouth’s cover of The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun” here:
*Linda Saphan PhD, Sounds from the Periphery: Modernity and Development of Asia Pop 1960-2000, ‘Cambodian Popular Musical Influences from the 1950s to the Present Day’, 2017.