It is a well known fact that in the twentieth century, the century of "Modernism," Western artists sought out to discover the art of non-Western cultures in order to inject fresh inspiration into the incestuous maelstrom of the West's historical influences. What is not so well known is that there was a reverse process that was similar in result to what came out of this search: Around the globe, non-Western societies wishing to become more "modern" Westernized their indigenous artistic traditions either by adding Western traits to traditional forms or by adopting Western forms and adding indigenous flair. It is the latter occurrence that relates to our subject: Imagine a band from the most Western place on earth, Los Angeles, that is, in prime post-modern fashion, being influenced back by that which was influenced by us (U.S.), oh so long ago. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Back in the fifties, sixties and seventies (that's in the 1900's, kids) in places like Ethiopia, Cambodia and Indonesia, there were locals reinventing good old Rock'n'Roll in their own likenesses. There is something about this music that is hyper-real, more akin to Blues or European folk music than to their progeny, Rock'n'Roll. Perhaps this is because the West often came to their countries in the midst of crisis or catastrophe, bringing war, aid or religion. Cambodian "modern" music in particular was born in the time of the Vietnam War, when psychedelia and surf rock slammed into Southeast Asia with a drug addled, love-you-long-time vengeance.
Flash forward thirty years to a new generation of Westerner travelling in the same region: young men there of their own volition, instead of conscripted by the US military. They are there to discover ancient culture in a different land, to absorb what is indigenous to this region, instead of desperately trying to change it into something that feels "like home."
Picture two men in particular, travelling to Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument located a couple hundred miles out of Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. One is sick with what turns out to be Dengue Fever, a mosquito delivered disease that is by all accounts pretty nasty. The other is about to discover something that will change history (well, the history of LA club music at the very least). This time it is the Westerner that is influenced by "Cambodian Oldies" from the sixties, blaring from the radio of the car in which they are travelling. What he heard sounded like surf rock with a tinge of psychedelia blended with horns and a female vocalist singing in the native Khmer tongue. This man was (and is) Ethan Holtzman. When he came back to the States he told his brother, Zach Holtzman (founder of the indi/country/prog rock band Dieselhed), about what he had heard and how it had influenced him. They decided to form a band.
But wait, there's another twist: The formation of this band is not only about a journey of a Westerner to the East; it is also a story about an Easterner journeying West! Chhom Nimol is a member of a famous pop-star family in Cambodia. Think of a Khmer version of the Jackson family (perhaps without all that abuse and dysfunction). She and her sister would regularly perform for the King and Queen of Cambodia. Nimol now resides in "Little Phnom Penh" in Long Beach, California. According to Zach, it's home to more than 50,000 ex-patriots, the largest Cambodian population outside Cambodia. She's famous there, too! So respected and well renown, in fact, that the Holtzmans only dreamed that they would be so blessed as to have her as their singer. Their pessimism was justified. Nimol was at first very reluctant to sing with these American guys: What did they want? How could they be serious? Luckily for them (and all of us), she agreed to join and the rest is, as it were, history.
Aside from the Holtzman brothers, Ethan (Farfisa organ) and Zach
(guitar), and the Goddess Chhom Nimol (vocals), Dengue Fever consists of bassist Senon Williams, who concurrently plays with Radar Brothers, Saxophonist (and flutist) David Ralicke, who has toured with Beck, and drummer Paul Smith.
At first, the band covered songs from the Cambodian Rock era, most of which were written and originally sung by "The Queen of Khmer Music," Ros Serey Sothea, who is also known as "The Goddess of Cambodian Garage." These songs are enthusiastically performed by the band and exquisitely interpreted by Nimol's high-pitched, nasally voice. Then they started writing original material which has been slowly added to their repertoire. The original songs, with one exception, are penned by the band and given to Nimol to translate into her native Khmer tongue. After a recent show at the Silverlake lounge, Zach, sporting his trademark ZZ Top beard, told me that they are not sure if she's singing their words or not. The aesthetic of the traditional Cambodian language, however, is seen by the band as integral to the Dengue Fever sound, so there will be few songs sung in English any time soon. The one exception is a recent addition to their set called "Hummingbird."
So what does Dengue Fever sound like? It's Cambodian sixties Rock'n'Roll. It's shadowy noir lounge. It's psychedelic garage meets Balinese gamelon. It's falsetto microtones and surf guitar. It's The Animals go to Bollywood.
If you'd like to hear for yourself how all this sounds, you can check out their self-titled album on the Web of Mimicry label. (One of the songs on this album actually showed up in a recent episode of The Sopranos in Tony’s dream sequence.) Also, the first cut on the City of Ghosts soundtrack is performed by them. One caveat, however: Even though the Dengue Fever CD is very good and definitely gives one the flavor of the band, it does not capture the raw energy of their live performances. The original "Cambodian oldies" that they are so influenced by have that "live" sound because they were recorded live using 1960's technology. The tracks on the CD suffer from cutting edge recording techniques and are a bit over-produced. If you really want to know what they sound like, attend a live show, which yields other, aesthetic benefits.
So what's it like to see Dengue Fever perform? Well, for one thing, singer Chhom Nimol is beautiful. She's decked out in resplendent traditional Cambodian gold and silk, sometimes arriving on stage in a cyclo, the ubiquitous three wheeled taxi of Cambodia's Phnom Penh. The other band members try their best not to look too shabby in comparison. The band's central visual figure, however, is not just pretty to look at. Her delivery, phrasing, and tonality are riveting. And her traditional Khmer dance moves are downright sexy.
The overall effect is almost overwhelming. Dengue Fever is at once distinctly contemporary yet their spell makes one feel transported to another time. A time when the minglings of the West with the East were fresh and neither side was particularly degraded. In fact, Dengue Fever seems to contain all that's good about both cultures, and is made all the better by contrast to more brutal realities.