“King of Khmer Music”: Sinn Sisamouth

The closest medium to expressing the inexpressible, after silence, is music. Despite the fact that each country has its own language or languages, there is only one language that we can all understand: the language of music.

Sinn Sisamouth (1932–1976) was a Cambodian singer-songwriter active from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Sisamouth is known as the “King of Khmer Music.”

Sisamouth, along with Ros Serey Sothea, Pen Ran, Mao Sareth, and other Cambodian musicians, was a part of the vibrant pop music scene in Phnom Penh that combined elements of traditional Khmer music with the sounds of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, to create a Cambodian rock sound.

Before he disappeared, the singer-songwriter Sinn Sisamouth was a regular on radio shows and in nightclubs throughout Cambodia and beyond. Fans admired his soft voice and lyrical songs about love and the Cambodian countryside for more than two decades, from the 1950s to the mid-70s.

In the 2014 documentary “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll,” directed by John Pirozzi and focusing on the musicians Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea, and others, the Cambodian musician Mol Kamach described him as “a pioneer.” Other professional singers looked up to him as an inspiration for how to sing in the modern age.

Early Life

Sinn Sisamouth, the son of Sinn Leang and Seb Bunlei, was born in the province of Stung Treng. The majority of sources give his birth year as 1935, however some also provide 1932 or 1933.

During the time of colonial rule in Cambodia, Sisamouth’s father worked as a prison warden in the province of Battambang in addition to being a soldier. His mother remarried after his father passed away when he was a young child.

Sisamouth picked up the stringed instruments at the age of six or seven and showed a natural talent for singing. He frequently received requests from school events to play music.

He traveled to Phnom Penh to begin studying medicine when he was around 16 years old. This decision was likely made to appease his parents, while his genuine ambition was to become a musician.

Around this time, he started writing his own songs.

During his breaks he used to play his mandolin under a tree and he often entertained sick patients to calm them down.

Music Career

Sisamouth started giving live performances at the national radio station that had just been founded in Cambodia, which boosted his fame.

The mother of former Head of State Norodom Sihanouk, Queen Sisowath Kossamak, became a protege of Sisamouth while he was performing with the official radio station of Cambodia. 

Sisamouth performed at royal receptions and other events after being invited by the Queen to join.

Around this time, he also had national radio success with hit songs; initially, he wrote and performed songs based on traditional Khmer music. Midway through the 1950s, Sisamouth became a household name throughout Cambodia because of the romantic ballad “Violon Sneha,” written by violinist Hass Salan.

In 1965, Sisamouth’s song “Champa Battambang” was played on Khmer Republic Television for the first time, signaling the widespread popularity of the music he and his contemporaries made.

He also took international trips, visiting Hong Kong, India, and other places.

The rural public was astonished to hear Sinn Sisamouth’s music played on the radio as his popularity grew. He was referred to be the “Elvis of Cambodia” or “golden voice” by others.

The musical journey of Sin Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea

At the national radio station, he first met Ros Serey Sothea when she was 17 years old. They recorded together for more than ten years.

Their musical conversations were love stories that held out the hope of reunification while also being filled with longing and anguish.

The duo had created a number of hit songs by the early 1970s, including a few for Cambodian movies.  The 1974 movie “Unexpected Song,” which was written and directed by Sinn Sisamouth, featured some of his original music.

Ros Serey Sothea, who had been singing at weddings before becoming the top female performer in the Cambodian rock scene, credits the beginning of her career to Sisamouth.

From the middle of the 1960s until the beginning of the 1970s, Sisamouth and Sothea recorded a lot of really well-known duets.

Sisamouth also provided songs for the soundtracks for a number of well-known Cambodian movies, including Orn Euy Srey Orn, Tep Sodachan, and Thavory Meas Bong.

During this time, Sisamouth gained fame for his extremely prolific songwriting; it is believed that he wrote more than a thousand songs for himself and others, though the actual figure may be far higher.

In his nearly 20 years as a full-time artist, Sisamouth is believed to have written around one song per day.

A Collection of Sentimental Songs, a collection of 500 songs by Sinn Sisamouth, was issued by the music label Kruorch Bunlyhe in 1973.

Sinn Sisamouth married Khao Thang Nhoth, and they had three sons and a daughter. One of his sons, Sin Chanchhaya, also became a musician.

Sinn Sisamouth disappeared during the Khmer Rouge genocide, and despite conflicting reports from numerous sources, it is unknown exactly what happened to him.

The closest medium to expressing the inexpressible, after silence, is music.

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