Sinn Sisamouth and the golden age of Khmer pop


The golden, liquid talent of Sinn Sisamouth has become a touchstone for memories of any Cambodian who lived before, and survived the horrifying Pol Pot years from 1975-1979.

When I became interested in in Cambodia, following a journey there in 2004, my search for Khmer music led me over and again to YouTube clips featuring Sinn Sisamouth. This clip (link here) is not untypical – a light pop melody that fuses western and Cambodian styles.

Every nation in the 60s had its own pop idols. Back then the recording business was highly localised and few artists – Elvis and The Beatles being rare examples – transcended the world stage. So within this context popular music in Cambodia adapted western music but combined this with its own traditions.

If you visit Cambodian nightclubs you’ll hear a dominant diet of hip hop, but the music that most fills the floor, still, is the traditional popular Romvong which is the music that drives the circle dance of the same name. These tunes, always sung in Khmer, feature a signature beat that belongs to the East, as well as keyboards and – sometimes, accordian which echos, I suspect, the French influence from the 1920s.

In the 1960s the move to guitar driven sounds led to adaptations of the US sound – including surf guitar, the Twist and the European classic romantic ballads such as Rain & Tears. (Modern version here.)  The up-tempo releases (See this clip featuring footage from a contemporary movie or this one also featuring contemporary clips) in the 60s were probably outweighed by the romantic romantic ballads.

Among the local pop stars Sinn Sisamouth was the giant. A congenial guy, he was vocally talented and also a prolific songwriter. I can’t over emphasise his status – to Cambodia he was Paul Simon, Andy Williams and Elvis all wrapped into one. His music, including dozens of duets with  female leads such as Ros Sereysothea (this clip captures the French influence) dominated the airwaves from the late 1960s through to the earl 1970s.

Then Pol Pot came to power and all promoters of anything vaguely western were rounded up, captured and tortured. Sinn Sisamouth was made to walk in circle, around and around until he collapsed and died of exhaustion.

Today thanks to YouTube and the patient curation work of American based Cambodians such as Darren Kham (Subscribe to his YouTube account) much of the music has been rescued and in many cases digitally restored so that the golden days of popular music, and the heart rending vocals of Sinn Sisamouth have been preserved.

Typical of the comments posted under his YouTube clips:

When I fell in love for the first time, it was like, everything is possible and everything is sweet and happy and awesome, and this song made my first love even deeper like an ocean and wider like the universe. But then, like everything in this world, it ends, though my memory of this song remained as wonderful as it was then.

Or simple memories of better times:

When I was little, I remember my parents listening to songs like this on car rides.

If you can, try and get hold of the documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten which traces the rock and roll era of Cambodian music.

One of the people quoted in the documentary is the lead singer for the modern group Dengue Fever, Chhon Nol. Dengue Fever represents an interesting phenomenon: the group is based in the USA and founded after their lead guitarist visited Cambodia and discovered the 60s pop sound. Well worth listening to: their songs such as Tiger Phone Card capture perfectly the well crafted Cambo-Pop sound of that era.

Today, pop music in Cambodia retains some of this same nostalgia. There is still a strong taste for romantic ballads, and remakes of the music of Sinn Sisamouth and his peers are not uncommon. I find it quite powerful when I read the comments on YouTube. People with scarred pasts find healing and hope, still, in Sisamouth’s music.


Still I Strive – A Cambodian Movie worth checking out.

School reopens on Monday 22nd


A moment of quiet in the Savong School library.

With Cambodian New Year drawing to a close the school children are probably feeling just a little disappointed that the new school semester begins so soon: on Monday 22nd April. Back to school!  

So lap it up kids. The countryside around Siem Reap has been alive with partying, prayer and celebrations, and every Guest House in town has been booked out with Cambodians returning from Phnom Penh to their homeland, or to see Angkor Wat where there have been live concerts and picnicking for thousands.

It is a glorious time of year – a moment of pause in the farming calendar and a time of goodwill and best wishes. 


Cambodian must-try recipes

Cambodian must-try recipes

These recipes have been collected by freelance American journalist Lina Goldberg. They’re from Phnom Penh which has a rather different cuisine to Siem Reap.  In Siem Reap I’ve asked Savong what his favourite dish is, and he’s pretty sure it is Amok, the local fish (not the service) but the children at SHEC, when I asked them, mostly answered: “Chicken!”

In fact Cambodian chicken is a source of pride in Cambodia because many locals have tried the battery raised chicken from Thailand -which is more akin to the white meat we have in westernised countries.  By contrast, the Cambodian chicken is tasty, delicious free-range and organic. Best chicken I’ve ever tasted.

Hip Hop – Cambodia style

tiny toones - hip hop

Cambodian popular culture in the past century has shown no reluctance to borrow from other cultures, and by the 1960s the pop sound made famous by the revered singer Sinn Sisamouth adapated western melodies, and a palette of surf guitar sounds to the unique Cambodian style of music which, I suspect, had already incorporated elements of French music, from earlier that century.

In the past 10 years Hip Hop has been the adopted style of choice. There are a number of reasons for this. First is the freeing up up of conditions since Pol Pot and the subsequent years of atrocious poverty. Music is back in its rightful place.

Second is the extremely young demographic profile of the population. Fifty per cent of Cambodians are aged 21 or younger.  This makes the baby boom generation that gave us Woodstock look like a comparative blip.

Third is the nature of radio internationally to look to America as the style leader. In NZ we did the same thing in the 1970s: my ear was glued – religiously, each Sunday morning – to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40.

But in Cambodia the hip-hop spark has been ignited by at least two Cambodians who grew up in America (refugee families) but got into trouble with the law. The US deported both: young men who had never actually before set foot in their mother country.  How did they respond?

Kosal Khiev responded through poetry, hip-hop style street poetry which he teaches and shares among young Cambodians.  See his story here.

And KK who founded TinyToones – a breakdance school in Phnom Penh had a very similar story.  See video here. Streetwise he may have been in LA, but in Phnom Penh he took some time to realise that he wasn’t the victim of the legal system so much as a young guy with something to share amongst disadvantaged young people in the slum areas. Today his breakdance school also runs classes in computing and languages as well.

These stories are a reminder that young Cambodians are interested not just in Cambodia’s past, but also in their role within the global culture.

Is $700 million lost through graft? If so, then top-down aid in Cambodia is not working.

Here’s a valuable link to a report funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and looking into issues of effective aid in Cambodia. Among the challenges:

  1. Overseas NGO’s tending to take a top-down approach.
  2. Lack of co-ordination between NGO’s.
  3. Failure to account for where the funding goes – huge levels of graft suspected.
  4. Often, but not always, a disconnect between foreign-run NGOs and the local population.

The report suggests, I think quite fairly, that the NGO sector is under-developed or immature, and it raises the question about whether NGOs are unintentionally doing the work  that the Government should be responsible for.

It is good to see an independent report such as this – and one raising the questions it does. From my own perspective I feel that decisions discussed in 2004 and 2005 with Savong about the management and financial structure of Savong’s School were the right decisions: namely to deliberately put the project in local hands.

Immediately after the school was built, the village elders of Bakong came to visit Savong, and they asked for money to rebuild a footbridge over the river near Rolous village.  I remember (westerner that I am) being a little offended. Haven’t we done enough? How can they ask us for more?  But Savong quietened me down and explained the need for the bridge and how he wanted to show that his school was a willing new part of the local community.

He saw things from a local perspective, and literally built bridges with local people. What a different outcome might have eventuated for the school if a proud, business-focused, target driven, top-down western-run school had been set up, and run by foreigners.