Dengue Fever breathes new life into vintage Cambodian pop
While backpacking with a friend through Southeast Asia in 1997, Ethan Holtzman, organist for Los Angeles-based band Dengue Fever, had a revelation—all thanks to a mosquito.
“Traveling by bus somewhere between the ruins of Angkor Wat and the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, Holtzman’s traveling buddy was going through the symptoms of Dengue Fever,” explains friend and fellow band member Paul Smith. “Each time Holtzman made his way to the front of the bus to check in on his friend, a kind of music he had never heard before came blaring from the tape deck of the bus driver, leaving him hungry for more.”
The songs featured farfisa organs pumping with a raga-like cadence alongside the flourishing roll of drum phrases. On top of this more traditional Cambodian rhythm formula, the electric guitar washed with a grunge tone, and the verve of 1960s psychedelic surf rock.
Armed with a list of names from the bus driver, Holtzman embarked on a musical exodus into the world of ’60s Cambodian pop, which would end up becoming the basis for his band, Dengue Fever, formed in 2001.
Music by “The Golden Voice,” Ros Sereysothea, and the “Godfather of Cambodian pop,” Sinn Sisamouth, became his guide. Their work together in the 1960s founded the symbiosis of Cambodian tradition and culture through the prism of rock and roll, and gave birth to a new music scene in the country.
While Sisamouth made a name for himself performing traditional Cambodian music, he was attracted to the music coming through the pirated frequencies of the United States troops’ radio in war-torn Vietnam. Soon, blues and rock music by the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd began to simmer in the musical pot of Cambodia, and Sisamouth was able to color Cambodian cadences and phrasing with the emotion and drive of the outside influences.
He tried out his new pop sound at the nightclubs in the then-bustling metropolitan capitol of Phnom Penh, and a scene quickly developed around it. But it would all come to a brutal halt when an air assault led by the Nixon administration over neutral Cambodia allowed the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodia) to gain support and take over the country.
“Many Cambodians called that time ‘Year Zero.’” says Smith. “The documents and files of the people were destroyed. Teachers, musicians, writers, anyone who had a western education were rounded up in the capitol to be executed.”
The arts of East and West may have merged into a new species of music, but politics and war would quickly take it away.
“People suppressed that music, and felt they had to hide it away with the memories they wished they could leave behind altogether,” explains Smith.
Over the years, the music of the ’60s and ’70s became a mark of cultural pride and identity. Although decades of strife, a fallen regime and civil war caused the demise of musical performance, Cambodians began listening to music again, not long before Holtzman’s visit to the country. The music remained a direct reflection of the people, and they weren’t the only ones who could relate to it.
Holtzman’s brother Zac of San Francisco’s Dieselhead, Smith (drums), Senon Williams (bass) of the Radar Brothers, and sax-man Dave Ralicke came together with Holtzman in Los Angeles to further explore the “Electric Cambodia” sound as a band.
“I had a gig as a recording engineer at one of the studios here in L.A,” says Smith. “But the music Ethan had going was so much fun to play. The invitation was irresistible.”
The band sought out their own “Golden Voice” to accompany their songs as Sereysothea had done for Sisamouth. In Long Beach, Calif., they found their inspiration in a small Cambodian dinner bistro called the Dragon House. There, Chhom Nimol was belting out emotional ballads with a silk-like flow. Holtzman knew she was the missing piece of the puzzle.
“It took us quite a few attempts for us to get her to one of our rehearsals,” says Smith. “The idea that we were these five Americans that played Cambodian pop wasn’t quite believable to her. We also had the language barrier. Finally, she showed up with this entourage of Cambodians—probably more for her own safety concerns—and just rocked it. She’s just so good. The sound was amazing.”
In 2005, the group released a self-titled four-track EP, Dengue Fever—which featured a compilation of cover songs from the ’60s with the Khmer language at the forefront—to critical acclaim.
That same year, the group traveled to Cambodia for the first time to perform, and was featured in John Pirozzi’s documentary, Sleepwalking through the Mekong.
“The experience was incredible,” recalls Smith. “I never thought I’d have the chance to do something like this in my musical career. To be able to go there to share this music and learn from these great musicians was something else. We would perform at schools, in the capitol, and in the countryside, set up by shanty towns and farm fields, and these people would come out and listen and dance.”
With the sensitive history of music in Cambodia, the band was determined to tread softly while touring the country. “We were a little nervous, because this was a music they purposefully hid away,” says Smith. “The Khmer Rouge would kill on sight for [the playing of] this music. Great talent and people had been killed for it. But as we played, people were happy, and dancing. They were proud to see their music being performed.”
They have recently returned from their third tour in Cambodia, fresh off the release of their latest album, Cannibal Courtship. This time, they were granted status as cultural ambassadors by the U.S. embassy, and traveled throughout the country—from schools to rural towns.
“We continue to add a couple new influences into the mix each album we dive into,” says Smith. “You can hear a bit of dub, hip-hop, jazz, and we’ll keep making music that we find exciting and creative. This music isn’t going to afford us a Learjet to travel around in, so we want to make sure we remain honest to its integrity and our own as we continue to ride it to new influences of the world’s music.”
Dengue Fever plays at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $16/adv, $20/door. For more information, call 479-1854.
Photo: Lauren Dukoff