Sin Sisamouth is not your grandfather's regular singer
- From: Chim <ChimS1@xxxxxxx>
- Date: Thu, 18 Dec 2008 07:15:02 -0800 (PST)
Akin to Killing Elvis? The sad song of Sin Sisamouth
Written by D Allan Kerr
Thursday, 18 December 2008
An American discovers Cambodia's classic crooner and his tragic fate
Here we are again, celebrating the season of peace and thanksgiving,
counting our blessings and spreading joy to the world. It's a time to
reflect on - well, hell, you know how it goes by now.
This is that time of year when people tell us how lucky we are to live
in the greatest, most freedom-loving country in the history of
It's when we're encouraged to remember those less fortunate than us -
the poor, the oppressed, the fearful and the damned. So in that
spirit, here we go again:
I currently work with some fine outstanding American citizens who
happen to be of Cambodian origin. The other day they brought in a CD
of Cambodian music, mostly from previous decades. It was pretty catchy
stuff, more modern than I had expected but also with what sounded like
more traditional, native influences. I was struck by the stylings of
one guy in particular. He would croon a heart-ripping ballad in one
number and then deliver a rousing rocker in the next; as warm and
familiar as your grandfather's sweater one moment, and then as fresh
as last week's Top 40.
This man was the most famous singer of their old country, my co-
workers said. Was he still around, I asked. No, they said - he had
passed away. Then a bit later they elaborated - he had actually been
exterminated by the Khmer Rouge back in the 1970s.
In fact, they said, the famous singer had been brought in by leaders
of the Khmer Rouge and asked to compose a song celebrating their
ascendancy. When he finished the song and then performed it, he was
In my homegrown American naivete, I was kind of stunned by this. I
asked one of my younger colleagues what artist in the United States
had a comparable status. Elvis Presley, he said. I think I blinked and
did a kind of double-take.
"So if our government had executed Elvis, that would have had the same
kind of impact here as when this guy was killed in Cambodia?" I asked.
The artist in question was Sin Sisamouth. I, of course, had never
heard of him, but in Cambodian culture he is indeed considered a
And as we continued listening to the CD, my co-workers pointed out
that several of the other singers we heard had also been murdered by
the Khmer Rouge. One of them, a female artist named Ros Sereysothea,
performed many duets with Sin Sisamouth.
Knowing this totally changed the listening experience for me. The more
melancholic songs were suddenly swathed in tragedy, while the
rollicking up-tempo tunes took on an epic poignancy. It was almost
unsettling, listening to the music of these doomed artists who at the
time had no way of knowing what was to befall them. In essence, they
were singing their own death song.
Sure, we have our Kurt Cobains and Janis Joplins and Jimi Hendrixes,
but these foreign superstars were the first I knew of who had died
because of the music they created. Our tragic artist-heroes tend to
fall victim to their own excesses.
I've since researched Sin Sisamouth a bit. I learned that as a singer
and song-writer he helped usher in a whole new modern culture for his
country, developing an innovative style that combined rock'n'roll with
the more traditional classics of his heritage. He wrote more than a
thousand songs over his career and is perhaps most beloved for his
odes to the ecstasies and agonies of love. Classic hits like "Champa
Battambang" have become part of Cambodia's heritage. But to this day,
there is no clear evidence as to how his life came to an end.
During the dark and bloody days of the Khmer Rouge, vanishings were
not uncommon and the infamous Killing Fields were put to frequent use.
Celebrities made easy targets. While the scenario described to me of
Sin Sisamouth's death has been widely circulated, there are other
reports that he was, in fact, tortured and that his famous tongue was
cut out. By all accounts, it seems he had too sweet a soul to survive
this brutal era. Sin was only 40 years old when he is believed to have
His old singing partner Ros Sereysothea also vanished during the
Yeah, I know - not exactly a story in keeping with the holiday spirit.
But Americans taking their liberty for granted is a well-worn cliche
by now, and all too often it takes stories like these to sort of snap
us into reality. We live in a country where singers, poets, artists,
writers and moose hunters are free to express their thoughts and
feelings through their talents and creativity without fear of
imprisonment or torture. Think about how lucky we are.
The simple shock we experience when hearing tragic tales like the fate
of Sin Sisamouth - and the songs haunting us afterward in a foreign
tongue - remind us how alien such circumstances may be for most of
D Allan Kerr describes himself as a struggling novelist and former
newspaper reporter based in the United States. He may contacted
through the_culling@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx e-mail address is being protected
first appeared in the Portsmouth Herald newspaper in New Hampshire,
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