The work of Sinn Sisamouth reveals a fascinating lost world of Cambodian music, and the tragic circumstances that surrounded its downfall
When Danny gave me Reatrei Nov Hong Kong, Vol. 58, he became the first of the two of us to intentionally break the first and foremost rule of this project – no compilation albums allowed – but it soon became clear that he was more than justified in doing so. Not only is it a very strong album on its own terms that provides a unique window into the Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll scene of the 1960s and 1970s, it is very hard, not to say impossible, to find a complete album of music by Sinn Sisamouth in the sense that we like to examine albums. Many musicians come into opposition with the authorities of the day, some in minor ways, and some in more serious ways. In this case, sadly, it’s the latter. Sisamouth, an icon in Cambodia to this day and honorifically known as the King of Khmer Music, fell afoul of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian civil war, in part due to his support for the Khmer Republic but also because he was a popular performer of Western-inspired music – something the Communist group despised – and as such, once they won the war in 1975, he was captured and was disappeared. It is not known exactly what happened to him, but he was almost certainly one of the two million murdered in the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.
“I find it hard to listen to the album and not imagine myself in a concert hall in Phnom Penh listening to the music performed live, sitting at a round table sipping an alcoholic beverage, taking in the wonderful music.”
This barbarism wasn’t the end of their assault on Sisamouth, nor on culture itself. It is estimated that 90% of Cambodia’s musicians were murdered during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and they also attempted to destroy as much of his music as possible. They were reasonably successful in doing so, eradicating many of his master recordings, and aside from that, inevitably some recordings were lost to the passage of time. That is where the story could have ended, but luckily, some of his records were smuggled out of the country in 1979, and with the downfall of the Khmer Rouge beginning in the early 1990s, Sisamouth bootlegs and recordings began to emerge, and luckily today they have been remastered and immortalised forever more. The fact that it survived the most brutal repression is, in my mind, a testament to the power of music to last through the most tragic of circumstances.
After Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, the king at the time, Norodom Sihanouk, encouraged the musical development of the nation. Himself a musician, it was in the royal court that Sinn Sisamouth got his first break, playing in the royal ensemble of the king’s mother. The ties the country had to France meant that Western music became commonplace, and musicians like Sinn Sisamouth began to combine it with traditional Khmer music, and the music itself, for a Westerner like me, is at once familiar and unusual. The music is often in the style of rock ‘n’ roll or Motown music that we all know, occasionally dipping into other genres like doo wop, psychedelic rock and cha-cha-chá, but the singing is in the Khmer language, and there are flourishes within the music that also reveal its Asian origins, such as the occasional use of cymbals. Listening to it, you do get sucked into the world around the music. I find it hard to listen to the album and not imagine myself in a concert hall in Phnom Penh listening to the music performed live, sitting at a round table sipping an alcoholic beverage, taking in the wonderful music. Though it is not traditional Khmer music by any stretch of the imagination, Sisamouth successfully managed to make the music his own. It doesn’t feel like a rip off of Western music, it is its own thing, and a hugely enjoyable one at that. You can hear the passion and love for the music in his playing, and that shines off the record.
Sisamouth’s singing is clearly inspired by such singers as Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra, and it provides a very smooth listening experience. The album is very consistent and strong, with no song noticeably better or worse than any other, though I do have a soft spot for Bom Plech Menban, a doo wop song that evokes the sound of the 1950s, reminding me of songs like Earth Angel, which you might know as the song Marty McFly plays at the school dance in Back to the Future. At its best, this album has a fun tone to it as much of the pop music of the 1960s did, and yet that has to be taken in the context of what we know came next. Sisamouth and his colleagues would not have known what was to come next, which gives the music a strange poignancy – a poignancy not earned through the music itself but by the circumstances around it and after it. The Cambodian music scene that allowed Sisamouth to thrive no longer exists, and through the systematic murder of the Khmer musical scene in the 1970s, the nation has had a tough time reviving since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. As always when it comes to things like this, who knows what talent we have lost in the years since Sisamouth first made his way, either to death or simply due to the lack of opportunity to develop talent. So, I would recommend listening to this as a musical time capsule. Listen and enjoy the melodic tunes that Sisamouth performs, but in turn contemplate on what we have lost.