The 1960s was a decade of great popular cultural change, even in Cambodia where the current generation still love listening to the songs from an era when Cambodian pop flourished.
They still stand as number one favourites in Cambodia and fans never get sick of listening to the tunes – especially after a trove of records by the biggest star, Sinn Sisamouth, have recently been discovered.
But the singers in general did not survive to see how famous their songs became after they died during the Khmer Rouge regime.
An information clamp-down about their careers during the Khmer Rouge regime all but erased their reputations, but many people never forgot the music these people created.
Three men, Khut Sokhoeun, Pov Sok and Sam Noeun - spent their own money to trace the tale of the most famous singer, Sinn Sisamouth, who passed away during the regime and is remembered as Cambodia’s Frank Sinatra.
Sokhoeun, the executive producer of a legal program on radio FM102, led the mission to find out what happened to Sisamouth during the Khmer Rouge period.
In 2010 he claimed he had met people who lived with the singer at a work-camp in Kandal province. He interviewed those people and made a documentary called Cambodia’s Golden Voice Emperor about the legendary singer.
“Some foreigners have researched Sisamouth before, but we have never seen any information released about him,’’ Sokhoeun told 7Days.
“We could not wait any more. We decided to make a film about him on our own, so other Cambodian people could learn about him.”
Sok Pov tried his best to collect video clips of Sinn Sisamouth, but he only found a 1960 movie called Neang Apsara or Apsara Girl, produced by the king’s father, Norodom Sihanouk.
In the film Sisamouth sings two songs with a female singer known as Sieng Dy.
His career took a strange turn though. Sisamouth was a famous singer and was supposed to appear in many films, but Pov discovered that Sisamouth’s second wife didn’t want him to be so famous, which is why there is very little footage of him.
Sisamouth was born at Stung Treng province in 1932. His father was a prison warden in Battambang province and his mother was Lao-Chinese descendent. He moved to Phnom Penh in early 1950s to study medicine – following his parents wishes.
But he disappointed them by moving into a musical career instead. He was invited to sing on National Radio in 1953, and his fame quickly shot through the roof.
People who worked closely with him and survived from Khmer Rouge regime did not know what happened to Sisamouth after they were evacuated from their homes in 1975, and friendships were ripped apart.
But Pov was told by his work-camp colleagues that Sisamouth lived in a village in Koh Thom district, Kandal province. The Khmer Rouge elite ordered him to sing at night for them after a day at work in the fields because they liked his voice so much.
But Sisamouth became weak after being forced to work without proper nourishment, which affected his voice. And when he could not sing anymore, he was punished.
“Sisamouth was required to work like other people,” Pov said.
“Sometimes the militias beat him. People remember seeing scars on his face. Then he was killed and buried under a mango tree in 1976.”
The decision to execute the famous singer was not made by local soldiers, but regional leaders.
Seng Dara, the writer of the book Kingdom Covered by Gold, has profiled Cambodian singers of the 1960s and believed Sisamouth to be the best of them all.
His voice was mercurial and Pov believes no Cambodian has bettered him - that’s why the film is called Golden Voice Emperor.
“It’s hard for me to describe his voice,” Pov says. “God offered the perfect voice to this man among millions of Cambodian men. His voice was so beautiful to everybody.”
However, he was backed by songwriters who helped build his credibility, writing lyrics about life which resonated with most people.
Songs about happiness, love and sadness. Basic human emotions in other words. They also wrote songs about foreign places, inspiring people to visit them.
Champa Battambang or Flower of Battambang is one favourite amongst new musical students.
His songs featured in musicals and some have been re-recorded by young artists but people still prefer his original songs more. His songs are still played on radios, TV and at wedding – maintaining his face in Cambodia.
Seng Dara found out Sismouth’s songs faced a lot of challenges. Some songs that Cambodian people have today were rescued by the refugees or some local people. Nobody knew how many songs he sang. He guessed he might sing up to 10 000 songs between 1953 and1975, but many of them got lost in the wars.
His songs which were sung in 1950s on the National Radio were not recorded because they didn’t have the equipment needed. In the 960s Cambodians songs were only released as singles.
But between 1970 and 1975 his records were destroyed by the then regime and then the Khmer Rouge regime – leaders of which made him sing after a day in the fields – and his songs were totally banned..
“But then in 1979 the Vietnamese troops who pushed the Khmer Rouge out destroyed all music from the past and declared a new era had begun. They confiscated all vinyl records from homes and burned them at the Steung Meanchey commune in Phnom Penh.
“But some refugees who fled hid their records, or took them with them and when they returned Sasamouth’s songs again lived in Cambodia. That’s why his songs remain today,” he said.
Chea Sopheap, the archive analyst at Bophana centre, has a copy of the film Cambodia’s Golden Voice Emperor and views it for free. On Saturday (August 11 ) it will be screened from 4pm.
It will be a double feature with Golden Voice about a female singing star Ros Serey Sothea. She also died during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Address: Bophana Center, #64, St. 200, Phnom Penh
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]
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