Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia's own "Elvis" thriving

Cambodia's own "Elvis" thriving

Cambodia's own "Elvis" thriving

S inn 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


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


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


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


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


Handed down through generations, Sisamouth's songs have taken

deep roots in the Khmer community and prevail through most of the people's happy


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.


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


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.


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


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


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


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


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, even

though none are political songs.

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


"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


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


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


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


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


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


"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.


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