This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
Before the singer-songwriter Sinn Sisamouth disappeared, he had become a fixture on radio programs and in nightclubs in Cambodia and beyond. For more than two decades, from the 1950s until the mid-’70s, fans praised his smooth voice and evocative lyrics about love and the Cambodian landscape.
He and his bandmates — most notably the singer Ros Serey Sothea — stood out for their versatile repertoire of jazz, rock ’n’ roll and popular Khmer ballads, among other styles. Sometimes they would use the melody of a Western song — the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” for example — while adding orchestration and writing original Khmer lyrics for it.
They played a major role in defining the sound of Cambodia’s popular music industry, with Sinn Sisamouth emerging as one of the country’s most revered stars.
Then, in 1975, the Khmer Rouge seized power, enacting a four-year campaign of execution, forced labor, disease and famine that killed at least 1.7 million people. The work of artists and intellectuals was brutally repressed, and Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea were among the many Cambodians who disappeared amid the violence and upheaval.
Even now the circumstances of their deaths are unclear, though family members are certain they are no longer alive. Sinn Sisamouth’s granddaughter Sin Setsochhata said that, based on research by her father, her family believes that Sinn Sisamouth disappeared in the southern province of Kandal, which borders Vietnam. Some believe he died in a labor camp. The Guardian reported in 2007 that he had been shot. By some accounts, before his execution, believed to be in 1976, he pleaded to sing one last song.
Many of Sinn Sisamouth’s recordings survived, however, and they still exert a deep influence on Cambodian culture.
“He was a pioneer,” the Cambodian musician Mol Kamach said in “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll,” a 2014 documentary film, by John Pirozzi, about Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and other musicians. “He was an example to other professional singers that singing modern is like this.”
Sinn Sisamouth was believed to have been born on Aug. 23, 1933, in the northeastern province of Stung Treng. (Some accounts list his birth year as 1932 or 1935.)
His father, Sinn Leang, was a prison warden; his mother was Sib Bunloeu, according to a 1995 article in The Phnom Penh Post.
At the age of 7 or 8, Sinn Sisamouth moved to the western province of Battambang, where his uncle helped him develop an early interest in playing traditional Khmer music on stringed instruments like the tro khmer, a type of fiddle, and the chapei, a lute.
Sinn Sisamouth arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital, when he was 17 and enrolled in a medical school there with the goal of becoming a hospital nurse, but he never lost his love of music. He performed for sick patients to help them relax, his granddaughter said, and spent his breaks playing his mandolin under a tree.
He later began performing live at the headquarters of Cambodia’s newly established national radio, and his profile rose.
“When it came to singing technique, Sinn Sisamouth was king,” Prince Panara Sirivudh, a member of the Cambodian royal family, said in the documentary. “His voice was so beautiful, and he wrote very sweet songs.”
Popular Western music was imported to Cambodia as early as the 1940s by the royal palace and by Cambodians who could afford to travel to Europe, and the country’s rock ’n’ roll scene began in earnest in the 1950s, according to a study by LinDa Saphan, the associate producer of the documentary and a professor of sociology at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York City.
The sound blended high-pitched, operatic singing with the distorted electric guitar solos that were popular in American music at the time.
Sinn Sisamouth became representative of this new style because he had an ability to write both ballads and upbeat rock songs, Saphan wrote, but the voices of Ros Serey Sothea and other female vocalists on his recordings were the “final touch that made this Cambodian mix so enticing.”
Early in his career, Sinn Sisamouth was invited to perform with Cambodia’s royal ballet; he appeared in dapper suits and bow ties, his hair combed back. He also traveled overseas — to India, Hong Kong and beyond — with a traditional band formed by the queen’s son, Norodom Sihanouk, a composer and saxophonist (and future king) who played a major role in developing the country’s cultural industries in the postcolonial era.
It was a hopeful time in Cambodia’s history: The country had achieved independence from France in 1953 and was shaping its identity and culture.
As Sinn Sisamouth’s popularity grew, his former neighbors in the countryside marveled at hearing his songs on the radio. Some referred to him as “golden voice” or the “Elvis of Cambodia.”
“A medical student — how can he sing?” the villagers said at the time, his sister recalled in the documentary.
He met Ros Serey Sothea when she was 17 at the national radio station and recorded with her for more than a decade.
Though they were never romantically involved, “their musical conversations were love stories filled with a sense of yearning and despair, of palpable loss, yet holding out the possibility of reconciliation,” Saphan wrote.
By the early 1970s, amid a scene of go-go bands, big hairdos and youthful exuberance, the duo had produced several hit songs, including a few for Cambodian films. Sinn Sisamouth also wrote and directed the 1974 film “Unexpected Song,” which included some of his original music and a performance by Ros Serey Sothea.
The duo’s music has received renewed interest. Sinn Sisamouth is the subject of a forthcoming documentary film, “Elvis of Cambodia,” and Ros Serey Sothea is the subject of a graphic novel, “The Golden Voice,” which is scheduled to be published next year.
Sinn Sisamouth married one of his cousins, Khao Thang Nhoth, and they had three sons and a daughter, according to The Post. One of his sons, Sin Chanchhaya, also became a musician.
For all of Sinn Sisamouth’s performing prowess, he was an introvert who spent most of his time alone, his granddaughter said. Often after having dinner with his family he would retire to his studio to compose.
“All the emotions — the spirit, the connection, the interior feelings — were expressed through his music,” she said.