Sinn Sisamouth ស៊ិន ស៊ីសាមុត
Sin Sisamouth (Alternate English spellings include Sinn/Sin Sisamuth/Sisamut/Si Samouth) (b.1932–d.1975) was a famous and highly prolific Cambodian singer-songwriter in the 1950s to the 1970s. Among Khmer speakers, he is commonly referred to simply as "Samouth."
Widely considered the "Emperor of Khmer music", Sin Sisamouth, along with Ros Sereysothea, Paen Ron, and other artists, was part of a thriving pop music scene in Phnom Penh that blended elements of Khmer traditional music with the sounds of rhythm and blues and rock and roll to make a Westernized sound akin to psychedelic or garage rock. Samouth is believed to have been killed under the Khmer Rouge regime in August 1975.
Sin Sisamouth was born about 1935 in Stung Treng Province, the son of a Chinese-Cambodian (Sino-Khmer) father Sin Leang. He was the youngest of four siblings, with one brother and two sisters. His father was a prison warden in Battambang Province and was then a soldier during the Colonial Cambodia period. His father died of disease and his mother remarried, and the union resulted in two more children.
Samouth attended Central Province of Stung Treng Elementary School when he was five. At the age of six or seven, he started to show interest in the guitar, and he would be asked to perform at school functions. He was interested in Buddhist scripture, and he learned Pali from the Buddhist monks. He enjoyed reading books, playing soccer and flying kites.
In about 1949 he finished elementary school, and went to study about medicine in Phnom Penh, where he lived with an uncle. Despite the rigorous demands of medical school, Samouth still managed to find time to learn how to sing and compose songs. Just as he had in elementary school, he became well known in his school for his musical skills and lyrical talent, and was asked to sing at school ceremonies. One prominent elder Khmer statesman from the Sangkum and Lon Nol years, now living in Paris, has made the claim that he hired Samouth and his band at his wedding in that year. If the claim is corroborated, this could probably be the first indication of Samouth's earliest public performance at the age of 18.
Â Early Hits and Musical Talent
Â Samouth possessed a clear crooning voice which, combined with his own compositions about the pleasures and pains of romance, made him an idol. He sang many ballads, as well uptempo rock numbers that featured prominent, distortion-laden guitar, pumping organ and loud, driving drums. Other arrangements were more Latin jazz-sounding, featuring woodwinds, brass, and auxiliary percussion.
Â Samouth composed melodies on a mandolin. His songs were usually of a sentimental nature, reflecting on the longings, pains, and pleasures of romance. His lyrical talent was a result of hard work as well as natural ability. He was known to have used up to three different dictionaries in searching for just the right word in the Khmer, Sanskrit, or Pali languages.
Â In the 1950s he became a protege of Queen Kossomak Nearyrath. He was selected to join the Vong Phleng Preah Reach Troap (classical ensemble of the Royal Treasury) where together with Sos Matt, he performed at royal receptions and state functions. A number of songs he wrote subsequently bore the unmistakable melancholic melodies of traditional Khmer music he performed in those formative years.
Sometime in the early-1960s a romantic ballad "Violon Sneha", composed by violinist Hass Salan (or Hass Salorn), catapulted Samouth into stardom. Samouth's other hits of the same period include "Srey Sros Khmeng","Anussavry Phnom Kravanh" (Meul phnom thom theng ream reng viyauk..), "(Chett Srey doch) Chong Srol", "Thngay Dob Pee Thnou" (thngay dob pee thnou chhea thngay kann touk sneha..), "Kakey (chheat chhea eung euy sattrey dauch neang Kakey kom k'chey yok khluon biet..)", "KangRey (kuor nass assor dal roub neang Kang Rey..)", "Thngay Muoy Kakkda", "Somros Chhne Keb", "Stung Pursat" (Toeuk ho roheng, ho m'neak eng katt wat song sar..), and "Prek Eng Oss Sangkhim". Three songs from this period were to be re-released much later in the early 1970s. These are "Oudom Duong Chett" available from a popular video site, "Prek Eng Oss Sangkhim" and "Chau Dork" (a clever musical duet with Ros Sereysothea, showcasing Salan on violin and Samouth on mandolin). Interested readers should look for "Chong Srol" and "Somros Chhne Keb" on the internet. "Chong Srol" is currently freely available from one Khmer internet radio website, as is "Akhara bong sorseh teuv". This latter work, underpinned by a superb piano accompaniement, is a perennial Ramvong favourite at Khmer weddings. Dedicated fans should consider making more of these songs available on the web to future generations of Khmer listeners. They are priceless examples of Samouth's earliest vocal style and the poetry that pervades his art.
1960s Cambodian Music Scene
Beginning in around 1961, Samouth started singing on the radio. His "Champa Batdambang" won immediate acclaim across the country. In a rare 1971 appearance on Khmer Republic radio, Samouth's interviewer recalled that "Champa Batdambang" was the first opening song at the inauguration of the station in 1965. What captured Samouth's audience in this period was the use of a four-piece, rock and roll band instrumentation with guitars and percussion, a departure from an orchestral backing band of wind instruments, piano, violin and the odd accordion. He also experimented with Latin music - an infatuation that may have been started by Prince Norodom Sihanouk in compositions such as "Reatry Del Ban Chuop Pheak" and "Phnom Penh". Beginning in 1965 "Khnang phnom anussavry" seemed to mark a change away from the "Champa Batdambang" sound, with the use of the acoustic guitar. Throughout the years, Samouth's ability to re-invent himself musically may well be his greatest attribute and could explain his appeal through different generations of Khmer listeners.
By the mid-sixties, Samouth's fame had reached its zenith and had him in great demand. One measure of his appeal is examplified in "Prey Prasith", Prince Norodom Sihanouk's second full length feature film. Playing the piano and apparently shown singing the title song he composed, Prince Sihanouk was actually dubbed over by none other than Samouth.
Samouth's popularity nevertheless did not eclipse the work of other recording artists, notably those who sang at the National Radio such as Im Song Seum and Huoy Meas. Meas Hok Seng also achieved celebrity status in 1966 with "Lolok Nhi Chmaul". Hits by these artists often came from the pen of lyricist Ma Lao Pi, a talented poet and broadcaster now living in California, whose masterpieces include "Day Samot Trapaing Roung" (originally performed Touch Sonich) and "Lolok Nhi Chmaul". Im Song Seurm's career seems centred on vocal performance rather than musical composition. "Koh Tral" was recorded sometime in 1963, reminding Khmer listeners of the bitter loss of this island to South Vietnam. His successes range from the 1965 "Kanseng nissay" (Kanseng nissay sros srey proloeung chhrus neouv tarm dang stung ouyw khnom rompeung chhoab chhet) and "Kangkeb er boeung" to the 1967 "Chhnam Mun". With Huoy Meas, Seurm often accompanied Prince Sihanouk in his regular provincial visits, performing popular Ramvong songs for rural folks who have come to greet Cambodia's royal head of state. Im Song Seurm died, reportedly of lung cancer in 1972, leaving a series of songs borrowed from Thai movies, which he sang with Ros Sereysothea. Huy Meas ("Chamkar Samrong"), Im Song Seurm, and later In Yeng, often featured live on Khmer radio throughout the late sixties and early seventies. On the other hand, despite occasional hits such as "Akassyean", Sos Matt appeared to have been unfairly sidelined in the commercialisation of music that took place with the arrival of recording productions such as Vat Phnom and later on, Chan Chaya. Sos Matt nevertheless retained a following among older fans who may have been ill at ease with Samouth's later musical innovations. Also the popularity of the 45 rpm vinyl records forced commercially minded songwriters to work their compositions into 2.50 minute straigth jackets. By then, arguably, Samouth's penchant for putting poetry to music had become a thing of the past.
Parallel to mainstream khmer music carried by the National Radio, a number of lesser known artists also achieved recognition on the national scene. The band Dontrey Apsara with lead singer Sereyvuth burst on the scene with the classic hits "Anny" and "Batt Aun". The latter piece featured an imaginative intro that mesmerized every budding Khmer guitarist of the day. Throughout the early seventies the band's work featured regularly on National Radio broadcasts, just after the early morning buddhist saraphanh chants. Mol Kamach, a composer-guitarist and Faculte de Commerce graduate with considerable though unacknowledged talent, produced a series of songs including in the early sixties, "Noeuk Sranoss dol ti Kanleng..", and "Oh srey sross bang keng srawmaih..". His best loved song however still remain "Lea Neak Mean Kun", one that quickly became Khmer students' anthem. The song is an homage Mol Kamach paid to his parents before leaving for a study trip ("Kaun saum oywn kay krab thvay bangkum.."). Having escaped the Khmer Rouge years and living in Paris ever since, he wrote one moving song beginning with the lyrics "Roseal neouv srok keh.." ("one afternoon in someone else's country.."), describing the profound sorrows he felt at the loss of his family in the Pol Pot years. Meas Sary (nicknamed by his US army trainers "Abdul" for his middle eastern looks) shot to fame in 1972 with "Pul tau aphoap.".
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Samouth sang the soundtrack songs to a number of popular Cambodian films, such as Orn Euy Srey Orn, Tep Sodachan, and Thavory meas bong. In "Peou Chhouk Sar", a 1967 success directed by Tea Lim Kaing, Samouth captured the poignant breakup of lead actors Dy Saveth and Chea Yuthan with his "Neavea Chivit". In a beautiful series of shots choreographed to Samouth's soaring melody, Tea Lim Kaing showed Chea Yuthan leaving on a pirogue (touk) as his wife (played by Dy Saveth) followed on along the banks of the river.
Â Samouth in the 1970s
As his popularity increased, Samouth could no longer keep up the pace of writing his own material, so he started performing works by other songwriters. 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, a long standing colleague. Regardless of who had written the songs, Samouth always managed to make them popular. Samouth also adapted a number of Thai songs into his repertoire, including "Chnam Mun" and "Thnom Snaeh".
From 1972 to 1973 music publisher Kruoch Polin issued A Collection of Sentimental Songs, which contained 500 of Sinn Sisamouth's songs. It is estimated that he wrote thousands of songs, possibly at least one for each day he was famous, his son Sinn Chaya has said.
Along with his original works, Samouth also introduced many Western pop tunes to Cambodia, simply writing new verses in Khmer language. Examples include "The House of the Rising Sun" as "I'm Still Waiting for You" (a particularly good showcase of his sustained phrasing and baritone voice), "Black Magic Woman" (influenced by the Santana version) under the title "I Love Petite Women", and "Quando My Love".
Marriage and Family
After finishing medical school, he wedded his girlfriend, Caeo Torng Nyut, in an arranged marriage. They had four children. After the Khmer Rouge, only one daughter and one son survived. His family life deteriorated as a consequence of the pressures of his career and the temptations that his voice attracted. With regard to his relationship with his wife, one of his sons, Sinn Chaya, commented that no woman could pay that price. At the age of thirty, his wife left him to become a Buddhist nun. Interested Khmer readers can view a recent interview she gave, posted on a popular video site. Now in her seventies, with most of her family devastated by the wars, the video also contains her appeal for financial support from Khmer fans of the late singer living overseas.
Â Friends and Interests
Sin Sisamouth had a reputation for being very serious about his work. In business affairs, according to publisher Kruoch Polin, he would always deliver what he promised. At home, he was a quiet man, and would sometimes not speak more than ten words in an entire day. When he was not performing, in the daytime, Samouth would go and sit in the backyard and dedicate his time to writing more songs until 5pm and after 5pm, he start listening to the radio. His failure to socialize contributed to a reputation for being elitist.
His friends at the beginning of his career were songwriters such as Mao Saret, Seang Dee, and Sous Mat. His very close friends were Mae Bunn and Siv Sunn, who was more or less Samouth's personal secretary.
Samouth was an avid fan of cock-fighting, and he raised fighting birds. In his spare time, he would bet with friends. He exercised regularly by lifting weights every morning. His other interests included reading books at the library and watching French films at the Luch or Prom Bayon cinemas. At night, after he finished performing, Samouth would meet with friends to eat rice porridge.
Every time he traveled to countries with lots of Cambodians (such as Thailand and France), he would have a concert there.
He was not a picky eater. He generally preferred to eat Lao food. When he ate Khmer food, he liked to eat pror-huk and phork tpul trey. He never drank wine or soft drinks, ate chili peppers, or smoked cigarettes, all of which would harm his voice.
The Killing Fields
In the aftermath of the coup d'Ã©tat by the Lon Nol government on March 18, 1970, which saw the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Samouth started to sing propaganda songs in support of the fledgling Khmer Republic. In that rare live 1971 television show mentioned earlier, Samouth appeared in military fatigues, wearing an officer's cap to hide his slightly balding forehead, and performed a number of pro-republican songs. One such songs that became an enduring classic was "Mae Owy Ao Yoann", telling the story of a mother giving a mantra-covered magic vest to her soldier son on his way to battle. Referring to Viet Cong troop movements inside Cambodian territory during the Vietnam War, a verse in the same song claimed that the deposed monarch had sold out Cambodia to the Vietnamese communists. This criticism of the royal family, while understandable at a time of huge political and social changes, was nevertheless unprecedented in Samouth's career, especially as he had been a protege of Queen Kossomak Nearyrath, mother of Prince Sihanouk. By this time however, and save a few memorable works ("changkieng keo teuk","Chey luok nom banchok","Krahob te klenn", "Chau Dork") many have questioned the quality of Samouth's final years' output. It was claimed that his art was becoming formulaic and repetitive, if not trite. One could sense a yearning for normal times by the artist, when he started to re-issue old hits that were long forgotten ("Oudom duong chet", "Prek Eng"). How he could reconcile the hellish tragedy that was consuming Khmer society at the time with the fun-filled, almost surreal detachment of his seventies songs may never be known. It was clear however that by then he had distanced himself entirely from politics and from anything that could be construed as taking side. The Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 saw Samouth forced to leave the city, along with millions of other residents.
By this time he had remarried, to a dancer in the royal ballet, who was pregnant with the couple's second child.
The circumstances of his death in the Killing Fields are unknown, but he had connections with the old government, was highly educated, and was an artist â€” all trappings of a society that Pol Pot sought to eradicate. One apocryphal story is that before he was to be executed, Samouth asked he be allowed to sing a song for the cadre, but the cold-hearted communist soldiers were unmoved and after he finished singing, killed him anyway. One recent interview of Samouth's former wife is available on a popular internet video site. Besides an appeal for financial support for the humble remnants of Samouth's impoverished family, Samouth's widow relates memories of her famed husband.
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