In 1932, in a remote province of Cambodia, a boy named Sinn Sisamouth was a born. Sinn was musical and bookish–he’d sing traditional Khmer songs to the people in his community, he learned to play the guitar and, like many good Cambodia boys at that time, he was interested in sacred Buddhist texts. In 1951, Sinn left his province to study medicine in Phnom Penh. He kept singing, though, and he started writing some of his own songs as well. Sinn finished medical school, became a nurse, married a girl, had four children and, along the way, Sinn Sisamouth became the most famous and prolific singer-songwriter that Cambodia has produced.
By 1975, Sinn was a central figure of the Cambodian rock and roll and pop music scene–think of him as a kind of poet laureate of Cambodian music at the time. He sang traditional Khmer songs, ballads, straight-up rock and roll, covers of American pop songs (sung in Khmer and English), A-go-go songs and Latin and jazz-inspired songs. He sang duets with many other Cambodian singers and he fronted a four-piece rock and roll band. It’s believed that over the course of his short life Sinn wrote over 1,000 songs. From what I can tell he was loved by a wide range of people that included King Sihanouk and the Cambodian royal family as well as ordinary people on the streets of Phnom Penh, Battambang and rural villages throughout the country.
When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April of 1975, they were looking for the likes of Sinn Sisamouth–he and his cadre of rock and rollers represented everything that the Khmer Rouge wished to destroy. Sinn escaped to the country for a time, but the Khmer Rouge asked him to come back to Phnom Penh where they (falsely) promised him safety. All we know after that is that Sinn Sisamouth was executed in the Killing Fields. His bones are most likely mixed in with the tens of thousands of other Cambodians in the mass graves at Choeng Ek.
Sinn Sisamouth was at the center of a vibrant rock and roll scene in Phnom Penh from the early 1960s until 1975 when the Khmer Rouge began systematically killing musicians and destroying their recordings. From what I can tell we have access to only about 500 of the 1,000 or so songs that Sinn Sisamouth wrote. The rest were destroyed in the purges. In fact, if you listen to a Sinn Sisamouth song on ITunes or Spotify, what you are actually hearing are recordings that have been transferred from the few cassette tapes and LPs that survived the Khymer Rouge.
That’s a haunting, sad fact.
I’ve been listening to Sinn Sisamouth songs pretty much non-stop for the past week and I find them comparable to the finely-wrought songs of Elvis Costello, Burt Bachrach, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchel. Imagine losing one, or all of them, in a violent purge of artists and intellectuals.
The tragedy of Sinn Sisamouth’s life was repeated in the lives of many other Cambodian rock and roll musicians.
Ros Sereysothea was just an ordinary girl from a remote Cambodian village, but she sang beautifully and in 1967, when she was 17, Ros made her way to Phnom Penh where she quickly established herself as a cornerstone of the Cambodian rock scene and sang many wonderful duets with Sinn Sisamouth. After the 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh, Ros fled to the countryside where she hid until she was discovered by a regime member in 1977. Like Sinn, the details of her death are unknown and her remains have never been found.
And don’t forget Yol Alarung.
The first time I heard a Yol Alarung song I thought, “Oh, he sounds like Neil Young and Howlin’ Wolf (an interesting combination). And then I found the image above and thought he looked like a mash up of Keith Richards and Johnny Rotten, but I have to emphasize here that one of the things that makes pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian rock and roll so good is that it’s not just mimicking American rock and roll. There are clearly influences, but what the Cambodians were doing was nodding to American rock and then extending it and making it their own. They sing in Khmer and English, they play clean, creative guitar riffs, push out funky, psychedelic keyboard lines and all that’s backed by solid, interesting rhythm sections. I had to resist that temptation to compare what the Cambodians were doing to the Americans and now that I’ve listened to Cambodian rock pretty much non-stop for the past week I can make a pretty fair assessment that they were, by and large, really operating on their own and creating their own brand of rock and roll. This was certainly the case with Yol Alarung. His tune, “Jeas Cyclo” is probably my favorite Cambodian rock and roll song. You can hear some American rock and roll influences, if you listen closely you can hear Yol looking forward to late 1970s and punk as well incorporating elements of psychedelic rock of his time. Plus, I just love anyone who can write lyrics like this:
Riding a cyclo
To central Market
Checking out girls
Wearing maternity blouses
Those maternity blouses
Thought she was knocked up
But she’s not
It’s just a popular new style
Riding a cyclo
To the old market
There’s plenty of girls
They’re all powdered up
Wearing pig tails
They crouch to sit
While buying rambutans
They’re wearing maternity blouses again oh!
Every day I ride a cyclo and check out girls
If this makes me poor, that’s all right
After reading those lyrics–and maybe you have listened to the song as well–it’s not hard to figure out that someone like Yol probably had no truck with the Khmer Rouge, so Yol, like Sinn Sisamouth and Res Sereysothea was taken by the Khmer Rouge and disappeared never seen or heard from again.
Imagine an entire generation of musicians just . . . gone.
If there’s any good news here it can be heard in the likes of bands like Dengue Fever–an LA-based band that combines Cambodian and psychedelic rock.
“Tiger Phone Card” is a good place to start if you haven’t heard them before. Dengue Fever is led by the Chhom Nimol, a talented singer who was born in Cambodia and lived in refugee camps with her family before immigrating to the US, and brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman. Like their Cambodian predecessors, they sing in Khmer and English and seamlessly combine the best elements of American and Cambodian pop.
One of the few regrets I have about our time in Cambodian is that I didn’t really get a chance to hear any live Cambodian rock and roll. There were opportunities, but it’s kind of hard to prowl around rock and roll clubs with kids in tow–one of the few drawbacks of family travel.