Sinn Sisamouth is, without question, the most famous and beloved Cambodian singer of all time. A brilliant singer and composer, “the Emperor of Khmer music” has had a greater influence, and has touched more hearts, than any other singer in the country’s history. Though he was tragically taken from this world, his soul, spirit, and emotions are echoed in the legacy of songs he had bequeathed to us, and for this reason, his life is eternal.
|Sinn Sisamouth was born in 1935, the year of the Rooster, in Stung Treng Province, Cambodia. He was the youngest son of a proud father, Sinn Leang, and mother, Seb Bunlei, a woman of Lao-Chinese ancestry. Sisamouth was now the youngest of their four children, joining a brother and two sisters.||____|
Sinn Sisamouth was a kind boy, full of emotion and sympathy for others, and it is said that he gravitated towards people with soft and sweet voices. Reticent in nature, he visited the local temple and talked with the monks in his spare time. From these monks, he learned Phalli and became well acquainted with Buddhist scripture. He also enjoyed reading books, playing soccer and flying kites.
|____||His father, Sinn Leang, worked as the head of a prison in Battambong Province. Later he would became a soldier during the revolution against the French, when Sisamouth was about six or seven years old. At this point, a young Sisamouth was already enrolled in school – he had begun to attend the Central Province of Stung Treng Elementary School at the age of five. When Sisamouth was six or seven years old, about the same time that his father had joined the fight against the French, the boy developed an interest in music, and he started learning to play the guitar.|
Academically, Sinn Sisamouth was a good student who was well liked by both teachers and classmates. His musical talents started to bud while he was in school, and often he would be asked to perform at school functions. By the time he was fifteen or sixteen, he had completed primary school and received his “Certificat D’etude Primaire”. At this time, he had an option of either joining the work force or pursuing further education to strengthen his skills. He decided he wanted to study for a career in medicine, and he moved to Phnom Penh for that purpose in 1950-51.
(At some point during Sisamouth’s childhood, his father became ill and passed away. Later, his mother would remarry, and have two more children with her new husband.)
During his years in medical school, Sinn Sisamouth resided with his uncle in Phnom Penh. The decision to join this profession was his alone, and was not at all due to any pressure from his family. Needless to say, his parents were very much supportive of their son’s choice.
As his reputation grew across the capital, Sisamouth began to sing semi-professionally, sometimes performing live on the radio and sometimes singing at weddings and other ceremonies. Unfortunately, when his family heard his voice over the radio, they were not happy. They wanted Sisamouth to be a doctor, and they were worried that his music would conflict with his studies. But it was Sisamouth’s destiny to be a singer, and he continued despite his family’s disapproval.
In Phnom Penh, word was spreading about this young talent. When Cambodia received its independence from France in 1953, the new Cambodian National Radio Station asked Sisamouth to join the station as a featured singer. Meanwhile, he continued to study medicine in the Pheah Ketokmala hospital.
Samouth was generally considered to be a very serious person. He neither spoke nor joked around needlessly. He behaved in this serious manner with his wife, with friends and with strangers. When he spoke, he spoke about business. His friends at the beginning of his career were songwriters such as Mao Saret, Seang Dee, and Sous Mat. His closest friends were Mae Bunn, in whom Samouth had the utmost trust, and Siv Sunn, who was often described as Samouth’s shadow. Siv Sunn was not an artist; he was more or less Samouth’s personal assistant, taking care of all his administrative needs.
Sinn Sisamouth was a person with a firm personality who was known to be very serious about his work. Kruoch Polin, a publisher of song and music books, stated that Samouth was a person who kept his word – he would always deliver on a promise. At home, Samouth was known to be a quiet man. Some people observed that sometimes he would not speak more than ten words in an entire day. Often, Samouth would lock himself in his room and dedicate his time to writing songs.
|____||According to different newspaper sources, Sinn Sisamouth was never known to have a clear love relationship. Because he was full of ambitions and was dedicated to his music, he didn’t have much time for romance. Apparently, his relationships with women were often more friendly than romantic.|
However, Sisamouth was married twice. After finishing medical school, he married his cousin, Keo Thorng Gnut, through the arrangement of their parents and elders. This union produced four children – a daughter and three sons. One of these sons would later be killed during the Khmer Rouge time.
While Sisamouth’s wife was a loving woman, the marriage would not last. Due to his fame, Sinn Sisamouth’s private life was now public knowledge. The demands of his career, and the often gossiped about temptations that his voice attracted, were too much for his wife to take. One of their sons, Sinn Chaya, would later comment that no woman in this world could stand the situation, and neither could his mother. At the age of 30, Keo Thorng Gnut left her husband to become a nun.
Overall however, he lived a fairly simple life and committed a lot of time and effort into his work. Since his hard work and vast musical talents only enabled him to earn a moderate income, Samouth forbade his children from becoming musicians. He explained to his son Chaya that the singing profession was not valued; and, even though his children had shown signs of talent in the field, Samouth never encouraged, much less taught his children about the art of music and singing.
Sinn Sisamouth’s personal interests included cock-fighting, so much so that he himself raised fighting birds. In his spare time, he would play betting games with some of his friends. He also exercised regularly, lifting weights every morning. His other interests included reading books at the library and watching French movies at the Luch or Prom Bayon movie theater.
Samouth was not a picky eater. He generally preferred to eat Lao food, the food his mother had made him when he was a boy. When he ate Khmer food, he liked to eat Pror-huk and Phork Tpul Trey. Under no circumstances did he drink wine or soft drinks, eat chili peppers, or smoke cigarettes – he believe all could damage his voice.
But singing was not his only gift. Sinn Sisamouth also had an incredible talent for composing music. Samouth would use the mandolin to search for rhythms to songs he was thinking of composing, and only later would he write the lyrics to match these rhythms. His songs were usually of a sentimental nature, presenting in musical form the longings, pains and pleasures of romantic endeavors. His genius for words enabled his lyrics to arouse the emotions of all those who listened to his songs.
Samouth’s talent in writing lyrics was a result of hard work as well as natural genius. He was known to have utilized up to three different dictionaries in searching for just the right word in the Khmer, Sanskrit or Pali languages to include in his songs. If a certain part of a song did not feel right to him, he would consult his dictionaries to find words which would better convey the precise meaning or feeling he wanted to communicate.
Samouth’s most famous talent was, of course, his incredible singing ability. He was endowed with a heavenly voice that was neither too harsh nor too husky – it was always the perfect pitch. When he sang, each word he crooned was always clear and distinct. He would pronounce each word he sang as precisely as it was written, without the slightest deviation from its proper pronunciation.
Samouth’s sweet, tender voice made him the most popular singer of his time. His fame and success led His Royal Majesty Treyany to ask him to work for the king’s band, which he did until 1970. He performed not only modern songs with his band, but ancient, traditional music such as Sak Krova, Mahori, Ayai, Chapei, Yekea, and Basak as well. During this time, the popularity and prestige of Samouth’s voice was such that he was considered by far the best singer in the nation – no one came close to even being considered second best.
Apparently Sisamouth had contracts with three different restaurants in Phnom Penh, where he was paid 1500 Riels to sing two or three songs – quite a lot of money considering a bowl of noodles cost a mere five Riels at the time. He usually sang at the Kbal Thmor Bar, Neak Bagn Teak Bar, and a bar located next to the current Interior Ministry. At night, after he finished performing, Samouth would meet with friends to eat rice porridge.
As his popularity increased, Samouth’s voice was in such high demand that he devoted himself to mostly performing songs composed by other writers. He initially picked songs written by Pov Sipho, Svay Som Eur, and Ma Laopi, but he would also occasionally sing songs composed by Mae Bunn, a close friend of his, and Has Salorn. Between 1970 and 1975, he almost exclusively sang songs written by Voy Ho. Regardless of who had written the songs, Samouth always managed to make them popular.
In the later years of his career, Samouth recorded albums for the Chann Chaya and Heng Heng recording companies, and he wrote songs for movies produced by other companies.
|Until 1972, however, he had sold songs to many production companies, and sources indicate that he sold thousands of songs. Before the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Samouth just finished recording about a thousand more songs. Only recently have those songs been released.||_____|
No one has collected enough data to ascertain the number of songs Samouth sang. He recorded a huge number of songs – according to his son Chaya, the number roughly corresponds to the number of days that he was famous.
Kruorch Bunly, a publisher of song and music books, stated that from 1972 to 1973, he published a song book called “A Collection of Sentimental Songs” which contained 500 songs exclusively sung by Sinn Sisamouth. This book contained only songs Samouth sold to one particular production company.
While the volume of music that Sisamouth created is astounding, he would not perform just any song with any musicians. He would only sing songs by select writers and perform with certain bands and he absolutely refused to sing with bands in which he did not have confidence.
It is not that he didn’t have an interest in in younger musicians – according to Seang Vanthy, Samouth delighted in those who were considered the new generation of singers in his time. He always freely gave them advice and reminded them to take care of their voices. For this reason, Sisamouth was always loved and appreciated by his fellow musicians.
|____||According to a close friend of Samouth’s, quite a few of his songs express the singer’s own emotional reactions to events that occurred in his own life. The song “Oudom Dueng Chet”, for instance, was an expression of the singer’s deep feelings of regret during a period of time when his wife had temporarily left him. Other songs were written at friends’ requests, to commemorate occurrences in their lives.|
“Ohn Chea Tevy Duorng Chet” is a song that tells of Samouth’s secret love for a woman who possessed a higher social status than he. “Min Baj Ray Rab Brab Teat Te” was an international song which Samouth modified to express his feelings for a woman with whom he had once had a romantic relationship. In the song, Samouth chastises the woman for her insincerity and dishonesty. “Pael Reathrey” is a song written by the King of Cambodia, recounting his visits to France and Hong Kong. Samouth sings this song with Keo Setha.
“Cham Churb Reul Tgnai Lich” was written by Voy Ho when he was in love with Dara Chourm Chann. Samouth personally plays the mandolin in this song, which can be clearly heard before he begins singing the first stanza. “Chamreang Et Preang Tuk” is a song written by Pov Sipho, a friend of Samouth’s, to describe an incident where he serendipitously met a woman at a restaurant. This song was performed in a movie of the same title starring Chea Yutthorn, Vicharadany and Ros Sereysothea. The movie was produced by Sinn Sisamouth himself and played at the Haem Chaet Theater.
Samouth himself brought back about twenty five songs from his travels abroad, such as “Sdab Snour Teak Pleang”, “Lea Hei Paris”, “Antoniata”, and “Reatrey Nov Hong Kong.” Regardless of whether he was in Cambodia or elsewhere, Samouth always possessed the ability to immortalize his experiences in song.
|After the coup d’éta against Cambodia’s royal government on March 18, 1970, Sinn Sisamouth broke away from the King’s band and moved to Office No. 5 in the Chief Command Ministry of the new Khmer Republic. He worked in Office No. 5 for one year and joined the Ministry Band with the rank of Lieutenant.||_____|
Creating wonderful music all the while, he had risen to the rank of Captain in the military by the time the Khmer Rouge took over the country.
In the days just before the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, and the the terrible years to follow, details of Sinn Sisamouth’s life are hard to verify. Below I will try to construct a likely portrait of Samouth’s last months and days, but the reader should be aware that contradictory accounts do exist. By now, stories of his demise have become almost mythic in nature, a not uncommon phenomenon when legends die young.
His Last Days
(This account places Sinn Sisamouth outside of Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge invaded the capital. In other accounts, his journey begins in Phnom Penh.) One evening, shortly after April 17th, 1975, Sinn Sisamouth decided to ask his friend Has Salorn to go back to Phnom Penh with him and work for the newly formed Khmer Rouge government, then known as Democratic Kampuchea. Has Salorn disagreed with the plan, and may or may not have gone with Sisamouth. Samouth decided he would travel back to Phnom Penh anyway. Samouth left for Phnom Penh with his second wife, a dancer in the royal ballet, who was pregnant at the time. According to Searng Vanthy, Sisamouth and his wife met his ex-wife and children at Wat Champa along National Route No. 1 with Has Salorn, Bich Soloen and Vicharadany, the movie star.
|____||Some people propose that the Khmer Rouge may have killed him along the road between Wat Champa and Phnom Penh, since most Cambodians who tried to return to Phnom Penh were killed. Only industry workers who possessed skills useful to the Khmer Rouge were spared; when they outlived their usefulness, they too were butchered.|
Other people claim that Samouth died in Siem Reap, Kompong Cham, or Preah Vihear provinces. Some people even believe that he was killed in Tuol Sleng prison, though this is unlikely. Although his family and friends are uncertain as to what really happened to Sisamouth, they are certain of one thing – that he has passed away from this Earth.
Perhaps the most compelling account of Sisamouth’s last days comes from Keo Chamnab, a government official at the state statistics office of the planning department, who tells us that he was jailed with Sinn Sisamouth. He has provided numerous details on Sinn Sisamouth’s life and death at the hands of the Pol Pot regime.
Before 1975, Keo Chamnab lived in Phnom Penh and he devoted his leisure time to composing songs, over 2000 of which were broadcast on radio or television. He had met Sisamouth before 1975, because he wrote the song “12 Kakkada”(July 12th), which the singer performed.
|____||Keo Chamnab tells us that after being evacuated from Phnom Penh and living in a village in Koh Thom district for three months, the Khmer Rouge took him “to a jail know as Center 15 which was then known as Area 25 (located next to a Vietnamese church along the river, in Village no. 1, Pau Ban commune, Koh Thom district, Kandal province).”|
“Arriving at Center 15, I saw a camp fenced with bamboo trees. The camp is about one kilometer long by about 150 meters wide. They pushed me inside the bamboo fence and told me to go to a brick roof house built on stilts. Below the house there were young security guards stationed there. That was the Khmer Rouge’s Angkar jail. They told me to go upstairs. As soon as I opened the door and stepped in, I saw plenty of men and women prisoners, at least 60 of them, they were manacled and shackled in rows to long steel rods. This made me so scared. When they put me in jail and shackled me to other prisoners, I was very surprised to see Bong (Old Brother) Sinn Sisamouth, Kong Sam Oeun (a famous film star), and a number of other artists who were also jailed there.”
Chamnab tells us that one time, when he was shackled nearby, “Samouth, looking very sad, told me that he was sent from Prek Eng, Kien Svay district, Kandal province, where he had been jailed for three days. He did not commit any fault but he was accused by the Khmer Rouge of being an imperialist. It was difficult for Sinn Sisamouth to hide his identity and his face because he was a very famous singer dubbed the emperor of the country since long ago. Even if the Khmer Rouge did not accuse him of being a singer serving a regime which was a sworn enemy to that of the Khmer Rouge, he was also a soldier serving the former regime.”
|“Furthermore, the Khmer Rouge policy was to oppose and destroy all government employees and those involved with the pre-1975 regime (Lon Nol regime). Therefore, it was difficult for him to escape or hide his identity.”||____|
Keo Chamab goes on to tell us some details about life in the prison; about the daily rations – “a scoop of rice husk powder mixed with chopped up banana trees” – and about how “the prisoners did not care about their life anymore, they did not know when they will die, whether it will be tomorrow or another day.”
“Bong Samouth told me that we no longer have any hope. He usually did not talk much, he used to stare the jail ceiling while others whisper to one another to reminisce about the good food they had before 1975, and some even laughed of their past stories from the Lon Nol regime. As for Bong Samouth, he did not say much.”
Keo Chamab continues by telling us about the horrible interrogation methods used in the prison. “During the questioning session, all prisoners are manacled on both feet and shackled to the chair, they were beaten and some even had their nails pulled out. As for Bong Samouth, he also bore torture marks on his back.” Keo Chamab described another incident when Sisamouth was hit in the head by a young guard with a bamboo container normally used to pee into. “The guard then lectured him and told him that he belonged to a group of people without revolutionary conscience, to a group of imperialists without revolutionary conscience. I saw tears rolling down his cheeks but he did not cry out loud as others would because to do so, he would be hit even harder, and he had no choice but to shed his tears in silence.”
|“Every day, I and all the other prisoners, including Bong Samouth, we always tried to peek outside through holes in the wall. We used to see the Chhlobs (spy soldiers) sharpen two or three knives and testing their sharpness. Around 4 o’clock, they would call some prisoners and take them out.”||____|
“They would tell the prisoners that the Angkar had congratulated them (the guards) for doing a good job in re-educating the prisoners, and that those prisoners who are being called to go out, they always ended up returning back to their village where they came from. At the beginning, we believed them, but later on we noticed that the Chhlobs brought us back the clothes of those whom they took away, sometimes the clothes would still be stained with fresh blood.”
“In the jail, we were forced to perform hard labor for 5 months, then in November, I did not remember the exact day, around 5:30 PM, it was already late when 2 to 3 Chhlobs came in with a list to call the prisoners to be taken away [to kill] as usual. On that day, Bong Samouth’s name was called among the names of four or five other prisoners. He did not change his name and he was still known as Sinn Sisamouth. When his name was called, I was very distressed. I saw that his face was very sad and was ashened. Before he was escorted out, he hugged me but he did not leave any message for his family, he simply said: “I am leaving before you Phoun (younger brother), may you remain behind in peace.” I did not want to say much, I only replied to him: “Yes, Bong.” His face was the face of a romantic person, he did not express anger nor unhappiness.”
|____||“Two days after they took Bong Samouth away from the jail, they brought back his clothes to us. This confirmed to us that he was killed. In fact, the real killer of Bong Samouth was a young security guard who was later imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge Angkar with us as well because of errors he committed. I did not dare ask him much because I was afraid he was a spy put in jail to obtain information from the prisoners.”|
I only asked him briefly “is it true that Bong Samouth already died?” He shook his head affirmatively and said “that’s right.” This former security guard told us that he was the one who actually buried Bong Samouth with his own hand in a mass gave at an earthen mound known as “Khpob.” It is a banana plantation currently located at Village No. 1, Pau Ban commune, Koh Thom district, [Kandal province]. This mass grave is currently a banana plantation occupied by farmers.”
As for Chamnab, he survived because they moved him to another jail. He said that before they moved him, they had already taken him out to be killed on three separate occasions. However, fate would intervene on all three occasions, and something would happen to forced the Khmer Rouge guards to take him back in, allowing him to survive up to [the Vietnamese Invasion] in 1979.
Another story, which is probably not true but should be repeated because it has become part of the myth of Sinn Sisamouth, tells a tragic story of his final moments before being executed. The story tells us that Sisamouth requested that he be allowed to sing a song, perhaps trying to persuade the guards to spare his life. He expressed himself as sincerely as possible through his music, sharing his wonderful and unique gift one last time. The solders, however, were unmoved. After the singer had sung his last beautiful note, they killed him without mercy.
One of the companies which has worked to restore and record original Sinn Sisamouth songs onto CD is Reasmey Phean Meas. The producer, Sam Sovandeth, was informed by an aunt that old recordings had been placed in an archive in Singapore. He researched and found about 2000 old songs duplicated and stored in the archive.
Many of Samouth’s works still sound good on the radio and in cassette tapes copied from the original. In fact, the copies are openly sold in various markets. Some production companies have made new recordings of Samouth’s old songs using new singers and new bands with modern equipment. Although many listeners like the modern music in the new recordings, they acknowledge that the voices of the new singers cannot and do not compare with that of Sinn Sisamouth. Thus, the new versions of Samouth’s songs could not compete with the popularity of the originals – prompting production companies to search for old recordings made by Heng Heng and Chann Chaya Productions and record them onto Compact Discs.
Among the recordings found include songs sung by Sinn Sisamouth, Suos Mat, Im Sung Serng, Meas Samon, Ta Saluort, Ros Sereysothea, Pan Ron, Huoy Meas, and more. Regrettably, about 70% of the songs found were completely defective and could not be reproduced. Sam Sovandeth selected the ones of good quality and, using new technology, reproduced them onto CD, thereby preserving these works for future generations of listeners.
|____||Of Sinn Sisamouth’s three living children, only one has decided to make singing a profession. Sinn Chaya, Samouth’s son, is currently a singer for Cambodian Radio. He himself admits that his singing cannot compare to that of his legendary father. The only thing Sinn Chaya claims to have inherited from Samouth was the desire and destiny to be a professional singer.|
Sinn Sisamouth has left Cambodia and the world a rich legacy of glorious songs expressing an enormous range of sentiments. Despite his tragic end, the man with the golden voice, the Emperor of Khmer music, lives on in the hearts of all those who continue to listen to, appreciate, and admire his music.