Cambodia’s own “Elvis” thriving
September 17, 2007, 2:45 am
Filed under: Music

Cambodia‘s own “Elvis” thriving

Sinn Sisamouth is a Khmer legend, though his heirs have been left with nothing more than his songs. Moeun Chhean Nariddh reports.

HE has been dead for nearly 20 years, but the songs of Sinn Sisamouth are still the soundtrack of the daily lives of the Khmer people.

For almost half a century, the late Khmer vocalist has been the most popular musician in Cambodia. Tapes of his music still sell out today and younger singers constantly copy his songs.

But after many years of music companies and traders exploiting Sisamouth’s “golden voice” , one of his sons recently made his first complaint about the unauthorized trade in his father’s legacy.

In an interview with the Post on March 2, Sinn Chanchaya, 38, said he has long intended to raise his complaint to music traders but had not yet found an appropriate time to do so.

“I think those who do business on his voice and have become rich should think this over again.”

“If he’s dead, they must also think about his family, wife and children who are still alive,” lamented Chanchaya. “His voice is just like a heritage, so they must respect the rights of the heir.”

Officials at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts are energetic supporters of Chanchaya’s complaint.

“It’s a big violation of someone’s masterpiece,” said poet Pich Tum Kravel, general director of the ministry’s Technical Department. “Cambodian people have used his songs to accompany their lives.”

Said another senior ministry official: “If he was in a western country, Chanchaya could live a grand life just on the sales of his father’s heritage.”

The ministry is now beginning to prepare a copyright law to preserve the heritage of famous authors and to prevent people from illegally profiting from their work, said Tum Kravel.

He said he hoped that the law would be ready some time this year, and that “it will make a lot of changes.”

Handed down through generations, Sisamouth’s songs have taken deep roots in the Khmer community and prevail through most of the people’s happy hours.

Moeung Samnang, programmer in chief of Phnom Penh Radio and Television, said that he greatly attributes the popularity of his radio program to Sisamouth.

Throughout the nine hours of the station’s daily entertainment program, the station plays a mixture of old and modern songs – half of which are devoted to Sisamouth’s catchy tunes.

“His songs are absorbed by all the circles of the society, old and young people, students and civil servants,” Samnang said. More than 60 percent of the daily requests that come by letter and phone are for songs by Sisamouth.

“Actually, there are also some new singers who can sing beautifully, but their songs would finish when they come to the end. But for Sisamouth’s, they still echo in our heart though they are finished,” said Pok Vanthy at the Video and Cinema Department. “It seems as if we are seeing in front of us the views and events in the songs he is singing.”

When he grew up, Chanchaya picked up his father’s profession, joining the National Radio in Phnom Penh.

However, Chanchaya admits that he is not as good as his father and that Sisamouth didn’t want him to follow his career.

Many music devotees say that Sisamouth produced so many songs which paint every aspect of life in the Khmer society that later composers and singers can hardly write anything new or different.

While nobody can give an estimate of the number of songs which belong to the prominent singer, Chanchaya claimed all the Khmer singers in Cambodia and overseas grouped together “wouldn’t even know half of my father’s songs.”

“Just saying thousands is still not the right estimate,” he said.

Chanchaya said Sisamouth would produce almost a song every night and that “everywhere he went he would come back with a song about that place.”

In fact most of the provinces, and many districts, communes and villages have had the chance to become known by the Khmer people, who feel like they are touring the country while listening to Sisamouth’s songs.

Chanchaya said his father was able to sing all kinds of songs, both traditional and modern. “His voice fit all the songs and languages.”

Sisamouth also sang fluently in French, Thai and Chinese and his songs were popular in those countries.

Sisamouth was born in 1935 and grew up in the provincial capital of Stung Treng, the youngest of three children.

His father, Sinn Leang, was a soldier during the French colonial rule and became the chief of Battambang prison before he died from illness when his son was under ten years old. His mother, Sib Bunloeu, later remarried and had two more daughters.

The young Sisamouth had a natural ear for music. He also loved reading and playing football.

Sisamouth learned to play the tro and chapei [Khmer string instruments] and guitar at the age of six or seven. He was often asked by his teachers to participate in children’s music performances.

After finishing school in 1950, 16-year-old Sisamouth chose to study to become a hospital nurse in Phnom Penh which satisfied his parents.

While studying in the city, Sisamouth learned how to sing and compose music by himself. Within one year, through his association with musician friends, he became famous at his school as a composer, musician and singer.

His parents at home in Stung Treng, however, were not happy with this. Living with his aunt and uncle in Phnom Penh, Sisamouth only had enough money sent by his parents to buy study books. So, Sisamouth then spent his free time at home, writing songs and singing them quietly in private.

When Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, the National Radio invited him to be a singer in its band. He had finished his medical study and was working at a hospital in Phnom Penh.

Particularly skillful at the mandolin, Sisamouth wrote songs and composed music using this instrument, searching for musically poetic rhythms. Most of his songs, which he prepared carefully by using books and dictionaries, were about families and their love, successes, failures, happiness and pain.

Sisamouth was later invited to join the Royal Property’s Music Band. He accompanied King Sihanouk, traveling to perform traditional music and songs in many countries.

At 23, Sisamouth married one of his cousins, Khao Thang Nhoth, and had three sons and one daughter.

The singer and one of his sons died during the Khmer Rouge period. Chanchaya said his father was separated from the family when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh in 1975. The family was sent to Kratie.

Nobody knows where, when or how he died but some people say he was killed by the Khmer Rouge at Toul Sleng – the regime’s most brutal prison – along with other singers and actors who were particularly hated by the rebels. He would have been just over 40 years old.

During nearly four years under Khmer Rouge rule, Sisamouth’s songs were banned and his records destroyed along with all sorts of entertainment. The brutal regime collapsed in 1979 but later the communists also denied the people anything they deemed an imperialist remnant – including Sisamouth’s tunes.

Through years of suppression, Khmer people were only allowed to amuse themselves with revolutionary, non-love songs and music. Though the later communist regime was a lot more relaxed than Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, people still found it almost impossible to procure their favorite, old musical recreation.

Muong Sokhan, chief of the Technical Audio and Visual Office [TAVO] of the Video and Cinema Department, said that the revival of the old Khmer songs and music went through three stages while Cambodia was on the path towards a democratic society in the early 1990s.

“It had changed from people not listening, to listening in secret, to openly listening to the old songs,” he explained. He said people then tried to collect the remaining discs and tapes both inside the country and overseas.

Many people began copying the music and songs of the old popular singers and selling them for their own profit.

According to Sokhan, there are only two music companies – the Royal Sound and Hang Meas – which have been authorized this year by TAVO to trade in the songs of late Khmer singers.

But he said these companies have been reproducing Sisamouth’s music for years, recording action songs – where actors and actresses pretend to sing famous old songs and are filmed on video – Karaoke songs, tapes and discs.

Sokhan said Hang Meas has produced at least ten video Karaoke tapes. Of the 12 songs on each volume, as many as nine are thought to belong to Sisamouth.

Pouv Seng, Managing Director of Royal Sound, said 80 per cent of the songs his company sells in Cambodia, the United States and Australia are Sisamouth’s.

Seng has restored up to 700 of Sisamouth’s songs, mostly using tapes found in the United States. Some of the accompanying music was quite old and unclear, needing to be re-dubbed and added to.

Seng said due to copyright violations he could sell only 20,000 Sisamouth tapes per month. He claimed he could have sold up to 4,000 a day if illegal traders weren’t copying his restored music.

“When a new tape comes out in the morning, it will be copied on tapes and sold that same evening,” Seng said, adding this made earning profits almost impossible.

Tum Kravel said some of the famous writers and singers have not only had their work exploited, but even their names have been forgotten because illegal traders have not acknowledged their authorship.

“But it is not a problem for Sisamouth. Everyone recognizes his voice.” Sisamouth songs have been utilized by every current singer, especially Chanchaya, who has molded himself to his father’s character. The heritage of this most celebrated vocalist will stay immortal and remain the most often heard tunes.

Phnom Penh Post, Issue 4/5, March 10 – 23, 1995
© Michael Hayes, 2000. All rights revert to authors and artists on publication.
For permission to publish any part of this publication, contact
Michael Hayes, Editor-in-Chief – Any comments on the website to


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: