A documentary about the life of 1960s Cambodian singer Sinn Sisamouth will explore his global legacy. Will Jackson reports.
It was in a rice field in rural Cambodia, a couple of hours drive south of Phnom Penh, that US filmmaker Chris Parkhurst began to truly understand the legacy of Sinn Sisamouth.
While shooting for their up-coming documentary Elvis of Cambodia last year, Parkhurst and his crew turned their cameras on a random eight-year-old boy and asked him if he had ever heard of the singer and songwriter.
“[The boy] was like ‘yeah, yeah of course’ and started singing one of [Sisamouth’s] songs,” Parkhurst said.
“I don’t know anywhere in the States where you can just walk up to an eight-year-old kid and ask them for instance, ‘hey, do you know who Elvis Presley is? Can you sing us a song?’
“Firstly, he may not even know who Elvis Presley is and, secondly, to be able to sing one of his songs is just remarkable.”
Parkhurst, who has previously worked on documentaries and advertisements in Cambodia, and his wife Stephanie Vincenti had been intending to make Elvis of Cambodia a straight-forward biopic of Sisamouth but after getting a sense of the remarkable impact that the singer continued to have on Cambodian society, they decided to change the focus.
“When we first started to shoot we didn’t really realise the genuine love and affection for Sinn Sisamouth and his music,” said Vincenti via Skype from their home in Portland, Oregon.
“We knew he was popular, and we knew he had a lot of songs and he had a fame about him, but we didn’t know how much people loved him. The more we talked to people we realised we couldn’t just tell the story of his life, we had to show his impact and legacy and what he’s left behind.”
Born in Stung Treng in 1932, Sisamouth is regarded as one of the greatest singers of Cambodia’s cultural golden age having written and recorded scores of hit songs between the 1950s and 1975, from romantic ballads to rock and pop songs.
Parkhurst said while Sisamouth was a prolific songwriter – reputedly penning as many as 1500 songs – he was best known for his voice.
“Certainly his voice, that’s the first thing that anybody points to, they truly believe that his voice is unparalleled and that nobody will ever have a voice as sweet as his,” he said.
Sisamouth was about 43 when he died in unclear circumstances sometime during the Democratic Kampuchea period. It’s presumed he was executed like many other singers and artists. He was survived by three children and his first wife.
Parkhurst said Cambodia’s “golden age” artists – like Sisamouth and fellow singers Ros Sereysothea and Pen Ron who were also killed by the Khmer Rouge – still loomed large on the country’s cultural landscape.
“I’m fascinated with the idea that [the Khmer Rouge] could kill the singer but they couldn’t kill the music,” he said.
“And in many ways Sisamouth’s music and his pop stardom is bigger today and more important to Khmers world-wide than it ever has been.
“So we’re sort of telling that story through a handful of people, both in Cambodia and Khmer Americans, who are really living their lives in a way that’s honouring the spirit of Sinn Sisamouth.”
Parkhurst said one of the central figures in the documentary would be Saron Khut, a Cambodian American who fundraised $2500 from the Cambodian diaspora and delivered it in person to Sinn Sisamouth’s widow Khav Thorng Nhot, who still lives in Stung Treng in north-eastern Cambodia.
“As a young Cambodian growing up in America, Lok Sinn Sisamouth music was my window to Cambodia,” Khut wrote in an email. “His music took me back to a country that I knew very little of.
“His songs painted all the beautiful pictures of Cambodia and its culture. I was educated through his songs. I learned Khmer words and history from his lyrics.”
He said he felt it was important to give the money to Sisamouth’s family because it was the right thing to do.
“It is sad to see the surviving families of artists such as Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth live a life of poverty while their music is being used and sold all around the world,” he said.
Since 1982 record companies have been selling bootleg copies of “golden era” classics but the families of the songwriters haven’t received any royalties because of weak copyright laws and enforcement in Cambodia and a lack of documentation proving who actually wrote the songs.
For the past 10 years, Sisamouth’s son Sinn Chanchhaya has been fighting on behalf of his family for control of the rights to his father’s songs.
However, Chanchhaya, who runs the Sinn Sisamouth Association, said that money was not the family’s only concern.
He said the free-for-all on Sisamouth’s songs meant that there was no quality control being maintained.
As record companies added new backing tracks and had new vocalists sing the songs, their meaning was being destroyed.
“Many of my father’s songs are romantic and gentle and now they change the songs and make them impolite,” he said.
“It’s like a cook has already made the food and added the spices and then they come along and put more spices in and it’s not tasty anymore.”
He said his worst fear was that the younger generation wouldn’t know who was responsible for the songs.
He added that if he was successful in establishing his family’s claim to Sisamouth’s songs it would pave the way for other families of dead singers to get royalties too.
Chanchhaya said a recent breakthrough may have brought the family a step closer to gaining control of Sisamouth’s legacy.
He said a drummer and Sisamouth fan had come forward with a huge cache of records he had managed to hide from the Khmer Rouge.
Chanchhaya last week submitted photographs of the records – which credited Sisamouth as songwriter – to the Ministry of Commerce as proof of the family’s claim to 180 songs.
“We have registered already and now wait for the government,” he said.
Minister of Commerce Sun Chanthol has promised to examine and process the material with the aim of protecting Sisamouth’s work under the Kingdom’s intellectual property law.
In Cambodia copyright is valid for the creator’s lifetime plus 50 years which means Sisamouth’s work should not pass into the public domain for another 20 years.
Parkhurst said there was still another nine months of principle photography to do on Elvis of Cambodia before editing could begin and the couple planned to shoot between three and six months of that while living in Phnom Penh later this year.
“As with any documentary, you start with an idea and that idea evolves along the way and you have to let that story tell itself so we’re still very much figuring out the story as we go along, who the major characters and players will be,” he said.
“We know Saron Khut is going to be a subject and of course Chanchhaya will be as well but we’ve got quite a few other people who have recently come down the pipeline.”
Asked what they wanted to achieve with the film, Parkhurst said he felt that Cambodians wanted to see some positive stories about Cambodia that didn’t just focus on the tragedy of the Khmer Rouge regime.
“I personally want to make this film because I know that Cambodians would be extremely happy to have this film told, a story of Sinn Sisamouth and how Khmers today are living in ways that honour his spirit and music,” he said.