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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.
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.Published in