Schubert. Elvis. The Beatles. Sin Sisamouth.One of these things is not like the others.
Or is it?
While few westerners would know enough about Sin Sisamouth to group him with the
King or the Fab Four, Arne Sahlen thinks Cambodia's musical messiah deserves equal
"He had Schubert's natural talent, Elvis' popularity, The Beatles' diversity,"
Sahlen said. "His sense of melodic structure was fabulous and he effortlessly
matched poetry and rhythm to music."
Which is why Sahlen is on a crusade to make sure Sisamouth gets due credit. A musician
himself, Sahlen has submitted a research proposal, "Sin Sisamouth, a songwriting
genius for Cambodia and the world," to Cambodia's Socio-Cultural Congress to
be held next month. He also plans to play eight of Sisamouth's songs at an upcoming
Sahlen hopes such efforts will help introduce both westerners and a younger generation
of Cambodians to Sisamouth, who was killed during the Pol Pot regime.
Even though his vintage photos dot music stands throughout Phnom Penh's markets,
Sisamouth remains an unknown to many of Cambodia's newcomers.
It took Sahlen some time to understand the importance of his music. While working
for the Cambodia Support Group in the early 1990s, he at first had trouble distinguishing
different kinds of Khmer melodies.
"For expats, it's a little like muzak," Sahlen said. "You may not
But certain pieces grabbed his attention.
"Every time I heard a song that was especially marvelous, I heard Sin Sisamouth's
name," he said.
Studying Sisamouth's work, Sahlen became impressed with his musical dexterity. At
the height of his career, in the 1960s and 1970s, Sisamouth was skilled in writing
contemporary pop, but could also compose in Latino, folk and traditional Cambodian
"He was like a master chef blending from a huge spice rack for whatever the
recipe required," Sahlen said. "Wherever he went, songs just flowed out
While Sahlen said he doesn't have Sisamouth's vocal range, he'll try to do the musician's
songs justice in his upcoming concert. It can take 20 hours for him to learn one
of Sisamouth's pieces, in a process that requires listening to songs in snippets,
over and over again.
But "it's important for people to play and respect Sisamouth's work," Sahlen
said. "All Cambodians can have a shared pride in him, from government officials
to garbage collectors."
Sahlen's concert will be held at 3 pm on Nov. 6, at the Royal University of Fine
Arts North Campus (beside the old stadium). Admission is 5,000 riel for Khmers, $5