Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The Sound of Melancholy and Nostalgia

 

Released in 1962, “Champa Battambang” was a big hit for the composer/lyricist/vocalist Sinn Sisamouth. But the song would be immortalized in the Khmer psyche in the years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge. We’ll get to that part in a moment, but first the song and its title: champa is the name of a flower (magnolia champaca) and Battambang is the name of a province in northeast Cambodia.

“Champa Battambang”
Oh Battambang, heart of my heart
I said goodbye to you, a goodbye full of regret
Since I’ve been away, my heart is riddled with regret and sadness.
Oh Battambang, my fated one whom I’ve forever longed for
If we are to be destined for one another
I wish you would remember our past.
It has been a long time, do you remember?
You still are the breath of my life
It has always been you that I want.
Oh Battambang, how I long for you
When will I ever get to see your face again?
My heart withers away day by day
I want Champa Battambang…

As mentioned above, the song was a big hit when it was first released. It was a hit among the young and the old alike. It remained popular and received regular playtime on radio and television until mid-1975. It was released in a time when the country was in relative peace. The French and most of the Viet Minh forces withdrew just several years back. No air raids or bombings abound, and certainly the term Khmer Rouge had yet entered the public conscience. Life was easy. Even the music was of the easy listening variety, melodic tunes with lyrics mostly dealing with business of the heart. As the 1960s progressed along with the Vietnam war, life became harder in Cambodia, and the music had drastically changed by the end of the decade. Musicians and artists became more familiar with the music brought over by American soldiers. Delightful and easy melodies turned frantic with heavy guitar riffs and high-pitched singing. This new music found a big audience within the younger population, while older people found it displeasing.

Music plays an important part in all cycles of Khmer lives, from cradle to the grave. There is an old saying “music is the soul of our people.” Of course music lives on, even though countless lives ended when the Khmer Rouge plunged the country into the abyss. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted from power and lives returned back to normal, or as normal as they can be, music also appeared back in people’s lives again. Classical and contemporary music, those that were not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, among them Champa Battambang, were back on the radio. And somehow, someway among the survivors inside the country and even those abroad, Champa Battambang came to represent a longing for a country we never got back, just like Sinn Sisamuth longed for the woman he’d never get to see again. The feeling the song aroused in older people had a big impact on the younger generations born after the Khmer Rouge. As a result, everyone in Cambodia feels the same way about Champa Battambang. It’s the song that everyone can instantly hum the melody. I certainly can.

Known as the “King of Khmer music”, Sinn Sisamouth was and still is the most famous name in Cambodian history. Ask a third-grader, he can tell you who Sinn Sisamouth was before he can name the founder of the first Khmer kingdom. Born in 1933 in Stung Treng Province, Sisamouth taught himself how to play traditional Khmer string instruments at a young age. At 16, he left his hometown for medical school in Phnom Penh. Instead of learning medicine, he learned composition, though he did graduate from medical school and worked as a nurse around 1953, but was soon hired as a singer with the national radio. Around that same time, he married his cousin in an arranged marriage. The marriage dissolved later.

By the time he released Champa Battambang, Sisamouth had already established himself as the country’s most popular singer and songwriter. Starting in the mid-1960s, he began writing soundtracks for many popular movies as well. It is confirmed that he had written 1150 songs for himself and others. The number might be higher, but those 1150 songs are the ones that survived the Khmer Rouge. He also recorded many pieces from various writers as well. There’s a handful of foreign songs that he covered, but mostly with his own lyrics. In early 1973, a prominent music publisher issued A Collection of Sentimental Songs that featured 500 of his songs.

Sinn Sisamouth was killed along with his second wife and their two children during the Khmer Rouge Era. His first wife and two of their four children survived.

Postscript: I have to mention this or my grandmother would never forgive me. Not that she would ever stumble on this post anyway, but it’s the principle of things. In the early 1970s, after relocating to Phnom Penh, my family lived several houses down from Sinn Sisamouth. My mother and one of his sons were classmates. And around early 1974 when my great-grandmother and four of her children finally escaped the Khmer Rouge in Kratié Province, they couldn’t find a rental close enough to my family, so he rented out one of his homes to them. Whenever my grandma talks about those days, she always, always mentions they were neighbors.

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  1. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Came to Ricochet for the political writing, stayed for stories like this.

    We have plenty of days open this month. Let your inner DJ out! Share a few pieces of music of any genre in your own playlist. Sign up to write about “Music that makes me . . . .”

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

     

    • #1
    • June 4, 2020, at 11:41 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Thanks, LC.

    • #2
    • June 4, 2020, at 9:39 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A very vivid look at a recent time that’s little known here. Thank you for the fine quote and link to the record album. 

    • #3
    • June 5, 2020, at 12:31 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. The Reticulator Member

    He has a good voice. It’s easy to see why he would have been popular.

    I see from Wikipedia that he died young, shortly after becoming your grandmother’s neighbor. But how is it that he was killed by the Khmer Rouge shortly after your great-grandmother escaped the Khmer Rouge. Was that neighborhood still not such a safe place? Or was it not a matter of geography?

    • #4
    • June 5, 2020, at 7:20 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. LC Member
    LC Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    He has a good voice. It’s easy to see why he would have been popular.

    I see from Wikipedia that he died young, shortly after becoming your grandmother’s neighbor. But how is it that he was killed by the Khmer Rouge shortly after your great-grandmother escaped the Khmer Rouge. Was that neighborhood still not such a safe place? Or was it not a matter of geography?

    The Khmer Rouge didn’t capture Phnom Penh until April 1975. North Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge made their way through large chunks of Cambodia in the early 1970s before capturing the capital. My great-grandmother and her children escaped Kratie province for Phnom Penh since it hadn’t fallen yet by that time. 

    • #5
    • June 5, 2020, at 9:47 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Jim Beck Member

    Afternoon LC,

    I am not sure that when I was in third grade every third grader knew Frank Sinatra, that was 1955. I am not sure there is any name that every third grader knows now. Sometime could you tell us what it is like to live where it is not so atomized as here? In my mind I think that would be wonderful.

    • #6
    • June 5, 2020, at 11:06 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. LC Member
    LC Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jim Beck (View Comment):

    Afternoon LC,

    I am not sure that when I was in third grade every third grader knew Frank Sinatra, that was 1955. I am not sure there is any name that every third grader knows now. Sometime could you tell us what it is like to live where it is not so atomized as here? In my mind I think that would be wonderful.

    I’d say he’s more the equivalent of Elvis in fame. I imagine most kids still know Elvis’ name here. Sinn Sisamouth’s music is still incredibly popular in Cambodia now.

    I’m sure in one of the future group writings, I can write something.

    • #7
    • June 5, 2020, at 11:20 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  8. Jim Wright Coolidge

    Thank you, LC.

    • #8
    • June 5, 2020, at 12:22 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. LC Member
    LC Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    One of his popular pieces for a movie soundtrack

    “Number One Barber”

    Haircut, would you like a haircut?
    Haircut, layered style? Do you want bangs?
    Can’t decide? How about shave your head instead?
    Haircut, layered style? Buzz cut?
    I can give you all kinds of styles.
    I am a barber; people refer to me as the best barber
    in the land.
    But my father calls me a disgrace.
    Studied but went nowhere,
    Barely getting by as a barber.
    But I keep going, living my karma and my fate.
    Haircut, do you want a haircut?
    Don’t dally too long.
    Your hair is shoulder length now, not a single woman would
    look at you twice.
    Haircut, if you want to attract women, get a man bun.
    Do you want man buns?

    • #9
    • June 5, 2020, at 7:30 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
    • This comment has been edited.