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[MUSIC] Dengue Fever - A Cambodian Psychedelica Band

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  • madchinaman
    A catching fever Dengue Fever (http://www.denguefevermusic.com/) shakes it up with a truly eclectic, multicultural, psychedelic mix. By Susan Carpenter, Times
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 22, 2004
      A catching fever
      Dengue Fever (http://www.denguefevermusic.com/) shakes it up with a
      truly eclectic, multicultural, psychedelic mix.
      By Susan Carpenter, Times Staff Writer

      If you can imagine a band where a Cambodian beauty queen shares the
      stage with Rasputin, Barry White, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Hutchence
      and Brian Wilson, you'd have a pretty good idea of the group Dengue
      Fever. That is to say you'd have absolutely no idea what the band is
      about unless you heard it.

      A well-executed experiment in eccentricity, the Silver Lake six-
      piece is the sound of two cultures — and eras — colliding. Sixties
      surf and pop songs may be the group's source material, but add the
      stunningly acrobatic vocals of a modern-day Phnom Penh pop star
      singing in her native tongue and the result is oddly striking.

      During a show at Santa Monica's Temple Bar last week, Dengue Fever
      surprised more than a few listeners with its East-meets-West retro
      pop. Leftover audience members from the Chilean singer-songwriter
      who'd warmed up for the band couldn't wipe the smiles off their
      faces as singer Ch'hom Nimol danced around the stage in what
      appeared to be a too-tight bridal gown, belting out lines in Khmer
      and talking to the crowd in broken English.

      The band was not surprised. Crowds always "go nuts" at their shows,
      band members say. In 2002, when the group made its live debut at
      hipster hangout Spaceland in Silver Lake, even "guys with tight
      pants and baseball hats were dancing," said Senon Williams, who
      plays bass for the band.

      Indie rock fans are not known as dancers, but there's something in
      the combination of Dengue Fever's driving rhythm section and Nimol's
      innocent effervescence that inspires. To look at the audience during
      a performance is to see dozens of faces admiring Nimol as if she
      were some sort of exotic-animal import.

      The 23-year-old singer is Cambodian, not Cambodian American. She
      came to the country a couple years ago with her brother to perform
      for a New Year's celebration — and never left.

      She'd probably still be performing at Long Beach nightclubs in
      Little Phnom Penh if she hadn't been recruited into the band by
      Ethan and Zac Holtzman, who were trawling the area for a singer —
      the missing piece in their Cambodian psychedelic rock band.

      Ethan, who plays farfisa for the group, had wanted to start such a
      band since 1997, when he visited Southeast Asia and got hooked on
      the local music. Zac, who plays guitar, had been listening to some
      older Cambodian psychedelia on his own.

      Teaming up, the two brothers went on a dozen fruitless outings,
      eventually finding Nimol at a restaurant/bar called the Dragon
      House. According to Zac, "As soon as we saw Nimol singing, we
      said, 'That's the one!' "

      There was just one problem: Nimol did not speak English. After two
      years in the band, she still doesn't speak very good English, but
      she's taking classes and is improving.

      "It slows things down, but at the same time it forces us to come up
      with solutions. Sometimes when you have to change something, it ends
      up better," Zac said.On the band's self-titled debut record, there
      are only two original songs. The rest are covers from the '60s.
      Written in English, all of them are translated into Khmer with the
      help of a translator in Washington state.

      The band had been using translators in L.A., but they "were taking
      forever and they didn't have a good musical sense of syllables."
      Five syllable lines would be returned as 20, making them unplayable.
      And some songs weren't even translated; they were entirely rewritten.

      Having a non-native lead singer has been problematic in other ways.
      Last summer, Nimol and Ethan were driving in San Diego when the
      police pulled them over on a random check during a terrorism-induced
      Orange Alert. Nimol, who had overstayed a two-week visitor's visa by
      two years, was thrown in jail and threatened with deportation.

      Only recently was the situation resolved. She now has a two-year
      visa, thanks to the work of a lawyer who was hired by the band and
      paid through various benefit concerts.

      With Nimol's legal status now in the clear, the band is hoping to
      travel. In the past, it had to turn down invitations to tour Europe,
      Russia and Cambodia. This spring, upon the release of its first
      record on Slash, the group plans to play Europe. This Fall, the band
      hopes to return to Nimol's home turf, playing the Cambodian Water
      Festival in November.

      In the meantime, the band will continue to delight and surprise
      audiences around L.A. In March, Dengue Fever plays Spaceland's
      Monday residency.



      Dengue Fever has surprisingly universal appeal. Vocalist Chhom
      Nimol, whose family is a pop music dynasty, not unlike a Cambodian
      analog of The Jacksons, regularly seizes the hearts of listeners
      (including the King and Queen of Cambodia). Zac Holtzman (Dieselhed)
      and his brother Ethan on Farfisa organ, Senon Williams (Radar
      Brothers), David Ralicke (Beck) and the seasoned drummer/engineer
      Paul Smith stay remarkably true to the crazy party music spirit of
      the '60's- and '70's-era material they perform, while their
      originals veer off into the darkened corridors of lost love and
      ghostly noir romanticism, dissolving into spaces of genuine
      bleakness and tragedy. Dengue Fever keeps listeners on their toes,
      dancing to their way-out tones.


      Dengue Fever
      Web of Mimicry

      Definitely not for the Putumayo set, Dengue Fever is one of the most
      unique world music experiences one could possibly ever have. It
      blows away any preconceived notions of smooth, Third World sounds
      that ever crabbed your brain. Dengue Fever is more a
      deconstructionist commentary on the globalization of cultural
      commerce than it is a nice, tidy museum piece on disc. A hundred
      years from now, cultural anthropologists will listen to this CD, and
      go, "What the fuck?" You may, too, because this is one album you
      will not know how to handle.

      Dengue Fever is what happens when a spider takes a bite out of your
      ass or when a Cambodian pop star (in this case, Chhom Nimol) moves
      to LA and joins up with refugee musicians from the Radar Brothers,
      Dieselhed and Beck. The end result is a mind-boggling Cambodian
      psychedelica that puts you through some changes. The more
      conservative will go directly into shock and may never recover. The
      more adventurous may shutter a minute but will sooner or later fall
      under Nimol's spell.

      Dengue Fever is freaky, jazzy and fun. There's a bit of kitsch
      that's infectious despite itself. Sometimes, you feel like you're in
      the middle of a Roger Moore Bond bar scene with this Cambodian siren
      singing through beaded curtains and lava lamps. At other times you
      get the feeling that if George Harrison would've said "Peace" to
      Ravi Shankar and kept going east, he would've produced this album,
      and songs like "New Year's Eve" and "Pow Pow" would've become
      anthems if he'd have brought along Dick Dale.

      There's a certain delirium that emanates from your speakers and
      fills your head with glee when listening to this CD. It is utterly
      inexplicable how this album can be as much fun as it is. It really
      shouldn't be. But it is. This is definitely an unbelievably unique
      experience to be treasured. It is the future of all our music as the
      world keeps colliding with its different parts.



      Dengue Fever is a six piece band featuring the Cambodian goddess
      Chhom Nimol. Formerly a Cambodian popstar who performed regularly
      for the King and Queen of her home country, she now lives in little
      Phnom Penh, Long Beach. Her closet is filled with formal gowns of
      all colors which she slips into on performance nights. Her arms
      flowing like dancing cobras are just one part of her many
      traditional Khmer dance moves. Hearing her voice and the songs sung
      in her native tongue captivates and mesmerizes the crowd. The music
      has often been described as late sixties Ethiopian jazz mixed with
      Cambodian psychedelic. The instrumentation consists of saxophonist
      David Ralicke (Beck), guitarist Zac Holtzman (Dieselhed), bassist
      Senon Williams (Radar Brothers), farfisa organist Ethan Holtzman,
      and drummer Paul Smith.


      The Khmer language has complexity, melody, and soul. Nimol's tone,
      expressions, and movement communicate desire, heartbreak, and
      everything in between. Dengue Fever is a Los Angeles band named
      after a tropical disease and patterned after Cambodian psychedelic
      pop groups from the '60s. With fuzzy surf guitar, intricate rhythms,
      and tricky Khmer vocals, their songs provide the missing
      link/tangent between soundtracks to Bollywood musicals and early
      James bond flicks. The melody and flow have head-bobbing, toe-
      tapping familiarity, but the vocals go way beyond tropical rock
      phonics. The band discovered its singer, Chhom Nimol, at a nightclub
      in the Cambodian part of long beach. She moved to long beach from
      Phnom Penh about a year ago, and is learning English. Tonight they
      have returned to the area to catch a performance by her sister-a
      Cambodian pop star in the '80s-and the band has just been invited to
      play a short set.

      "This is the most nervous I've ever been about playing a show," says
      Senon, who plays bass for Dengue Fever. Senon also plays in the
      radar brothers and, like most members of Dengue Fever, wears a suit
      and tie when he performs.

      Dragon house is not like the Hollywood clubs where Dengue Fever
      usually performs. First, the audience, which ranges from 21 year
      olds to grandparents, is dressed up in suits and dresses. Another
      big difference between dragon house and other clubs is that everyone
      dances. Whether the house band is playing Cambodian oldies or Khmer
      versions of "Vacation" or "Achy Breaky Heart," the crowd leaves
      their lazy susans, and hits the dance floor to show off snaky hand
      motions and traditional "circle dancing" techniques. ("They are
      better dancers, " Nimol notes through a friend who translates.)
      Finally, the audience actually understands what the band is singing.
      The house band gets off the stage and now it's dengue fever's turn.
      Senon grabs the bass guitar, Zac picks up a guitar that is stuck on
      flange, Ethan switches the keyboard from African percussion to organ
      mode, and Paul familiarizes himself with the fancy drum kit. There's
      no sax for Dave and Nimol is not wheeled in on a cyclo as she
      usually is. The music starts and the audience pauses before Chhom
      Nimol slides behind the microphone.

      Then they start grooving in a large circle around the dance floor.
      The second song is a duet called "shave your beard," and it's doubly
      interesting because Zac has a beard that reaches his stomach and he
      sings in passable Khmer. The stupefied audience checks him out, then
      dances once more.

      Later, I intercept the band. Everyone agrees that the equipment was
      rough and the food was overpriced, but playing Cambodian songs for
      Cambodians was a rite of passage.

      About half of their songs are from the '60s and the other half are
      original, written in English and translated into Khmer. Nimol says
      the new songs are harder for her to sing. "the melody and the way
      it's sung is more the diaphragm; it's more like normal speaking,
      whereas Cambodian songs are more poetic and based on form. Both
      types of songs are about love, though."

      The other members of dengue fever explain that they're not just dumb
      love songs. In Khmer, Nimol calls one of the new songs "rain," but
      the others call it "connect four." Zac explains, "every bar in
      Thailand ad Cambodia has games set up and the girls that work there
      are masters of it. You go and sit down, order your beer, and they
      get four in a row every time."

      The band realizes that most of its audiences won't understand the
      lyrics anyway. Ethan says, "when the crowd doesn't speak Khmer,
      Nimol needs to move them in a different way, and I think she does."

      It's true. The Khmer language has complexity, melody, and soul, and
      Nimol's tone, expressions, and movement communicate desire,
      heartbreak, and everything in-between. Her singing makes more sense
      than the Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Frazier or even Chet Baker.

      Nimol, who misses her family in Cambodia but appreciates freedom and
      cute boys in the United States, says, "It is hard because I don't
      speak English, but I wanted to try something new. It really touches
      my heart."


      Dengue Fever
      Dengue Fever
      [Web of Mimicry; 2003]
      Rating: 7.9

      Ten chubby digits clapped midline in positive affirmation, as a rare
      toothless grin beamed up at me in the midst of plush toys and pink
      linens. The fussiest critic I had available to me, my barely two-
      month old cousin Caitlyn, would soon unwittingly answer a recent
      musical query-- whether the enjoyment of sound was hinged upon
      recognizable cultural structures like language and tonality, or
      whether there was something inherently deeper present in all music,
      from which pleasure could be equally derived independent of age,
      sex, or ethnicity.

      To establish a baseline of response, I previously exposed Caitlyn to
      countless hours of the Nuggets compilation, which she particularly
      enjoyed. I was now ready to present her with the "experimental"
      recording-- Dengue Fever's self-titled debut, released on Trey
      Spruance's (Mr. Bungle) Web of Mimicry label.

      "Alright Caitlyn," I said, with babbling affectations sprinkled
      throughout, "I need you to listen to this album, and give me your
      honest response regarding every note you hear." I prompted her to
      squeeze my index finger in acknowledgement before continuing to
      supply her with some background information on the group. "The band
      consists of some real top-notch musicians: the brothers Holtzman,
      Zac on guitar and Ethan on farfisa organ-- the former of Dieselhed
      pedigree-- saxophonist and Beck-collaborator David Ralicke, drummer
      Paul Smith, and bassist Senon Williams of the Radar Brothers. The
      story on the female lead-vocalist, Chhom Nimol, is pretty incredible
      as well, the singer getting her start as a Cambodian pop star who
      frequently entertained requests from the royal palace for private
      concerts with the king and queen."

      I checked all corroborating factors-- food, diaper, and temperature--
      once more before signaling to the babe that I was ready to begin
      when she was. With the drop of her arms I pressed play, prompting
      the sultry melody of "Lost In Laos" to begin, my eyes trained
      intensely upon the glib expressions the child would soon issue.

      Observation #1: Initially little response, but after a minute and a
      half, head shaking was exhibited.

      Though the sax-infused opening tune left her a bit cold, the
      swelling tones and tinny-warm guitar line soon made Caitlyn swing in
      her crib, while Nimol's high-pitched and wavering voice fit in
      harmoniously with the perforated rhythm section. This excitement
      continued through to "I'm Sixteen" and "22 Nights", songs equally
      influenced by Khmer heritage and the surf guitar of Dick Dale. The
      tracks focus on the vertical aspect of the music also had a pleasing
      effect on Caitlyn, causing her to spit up in excitement over a sound
      so rich in harmonic engorging.

      Observation #2: Subject covers her eyes while concurrently moving
      legs up and down in a rhythmic manner.

      A brass skeleton, "Hold My Hips" is a decidedly meaner track
      focusing on the darker aspects of dance music that is only
      occasionally punched through by island flourishes of bright
      instrumentation. "Flowers" continues this theme with a droll
      dialogue established between the saxophone and organ, creating a
      melody not completely unlike something spawned by The Hollies or The
      Byrds ca. Younger Than Yesterday. The many stops and starts
      juxtapose nicely with the near fugal progression of "Thanks-A-Lot",
      which develops over the period of its brief life from a sparse fuzz-
      guitar driven tune into a liquid cool melody complete with male-
      female harmonizing vocals. "New Year's Eve" rounds out this
      relatively sinister portion of the album with a creeping bass line
      that increases in tempo exponentially until finally progressing into
      a high-register dance song with psychedelic underpinnings,
      ultimately plummeting back toward its roots in the quagmire of
      languid silence.

      Observation #3: After a brief episode of crying, subject returns to
      happy state, with erratic movement of all appendages.

      I had an inkling of the notion prior to viewing her expressions of
      glee, but by the song's end it was confirmed that funk is part-in-
      part the universal language. "Ethanopium", an instrumental take on
      one of the Ethiopiques series' jewels, begins with a thumping rhythm
      bound high in the mix, but the true worth of the song lies in the
      continuous and-- I have to say it-- sexy bass, that draws a straight
      line directly to the soul-funk of early-60s James Brown. "Glass of
      Wine" sharpens up the mood a bit with a more traditionally foreign
      sound that provides a pleasantly flush backdrop for Nimol's ensuing
      conversation with a wavering guitar and a simple organ melody.
      Creeping psychedelica inevitably returns to the surface of the album
      though, on both the chromatically playful "Shave Your Beard" and the
      sax-lullaby "Pow Pow". The groove ultimately finds its resting place
      among the South Pacific dreams of "Connect Four", an original Dengue
      Fever-tune that glides along like a percolating Stereolab on beach

      Not content to merely providing glorious pop-tunes in easily
      digested song-wrapped packets, Dengue Fever choose the high road of
      cultural exposure, forcing the hand of the listener in a bid to
      fully comprehend their art. Though the lyrics are readily available
      online for those that choose to follow the stories along with the
      music-- and I recommend it-- one does not have to understand the
      content to appreciate what it means to have a good time. As Caitlyn
      and I discovered, as long as it's of a quality design, novel
      experiences such as Dengue Fever can prove to be just as-- if not
      more-- exciting than that which you may readily call comfortable or
      normal, though it may require the unexpected help of a humble and
      uninformed perspective.

      -Andrew Bryant, July 22nd, 2003


      Holiday in Cambodia
      Dengue Fever pitch Southeast Asian garage rock this New Year's Eve.
      By Will York

      GOOD BANDS NAMED after diseases are rare, but Los Angeles-based
      Cambodian rockers Dengue Fever are one of them. "My brother's friend
      got dengue fever when they were in Cambodia," says Dengue Fever
      guitarist-vocalist Zac Holtzman, who was once a member of sadly
      defunct local country-rockers Dieselhed. It's transmitted by
      a "daytime, low-flying mosquito," he continues, laughing loudly in a
      tone that seems to acknowledge that human suffering and great comedy
      are not so far apart from each other.

      But getting back on topic – Cambodian rock. This is where I should
      pause for those of you who don't have any idea what I'm talking
      about. If you do, it's probably because you either saw Dengue Fever
      the last time they played the Make-Out Room or heard the Cambodian
      Rocks album on Parallel World.

      Cambodian Rocks is a collection of anonymous – or at least,
      uncredited – recordings laid down during the late '60s and
      early '70s but not released in the United States until the mid '90s
      (more recently, it was reissued in 2000 on CD with additional
      songs). The specifics of it may be a mystery, to most of us, anyway.
      But whatever the case, it's a great album, full of genuine parallel-
      world – the pun is unavoidable – takes on late '60s acid-psych-
      garage rock, as filtered through the prism of an entirely different
      culture. At the risk of oversimplifying, it's sort of like the
      midway point between Bollywood and the Nuggets compilations – a real
      East-meets-West hybrid.

      "It's kinda like their classic rock," Holtzman says, referring to
      how enthusiasts he's met in the Cambodian community of Long Beach
      feel about the music. "You play them one of those songs, and they'll
      go [in unimpressed tone], 'Yeah....' But there's some other ones
      that are more obscure that they get more excited about."

      Dengue Fever's other instrument-playing members – Holtzman's
      brother, Farfisa organist Ethan, bassist Senon Williams (who also
      plays with Radar Brothers), drummer Paul Smith, and saxophonist
      David Ralicke – have spent a lot of time tracking down such obscure
      recordings in supermarkets and other unglamorous locales in Long
      Beach's Cambodian neighborhoods. ("The biggest Cambodian population
      outside of Cambodia," 50,000 strong, resides in the city, according
      to Holtzman.)

      "Luckily, [the tapes] only cost like $2 each," Holtzman notes. "Most
      of 'em suck and you can barely listen to 'em, but then every once in
      a while at the very end there's like one good song."

      One of those songs, which shows up on the four-song EP the band has
      been selling at recent shows, is "Will You Shave Your Beard?"
      Despite the almost too-perfect facial-hair allusion – Holtzman has
      for years worn a long, shaggy beard of ZZ Top proportions – the band
      didn't have any clue what the song was about when they first heard
      it. Vocalist Chhom Nimol's translator filled them in.

      "We just thought it was a really beautiful song," Holtzman
      says. "[Nimol] really looks at me when she's singing that song, and
      no one really knows why. It's because the song's about some guy
      who's growing his beard out, and the girl's nervous that he's
      growing his beard out for some other girl."

      A well-known singer in the Long Beach Cambodian community, Nimol
      performed with her sister for royalty in her native country before
      the pair moved to the United States. "She was our dream pick,"
      Holtzman says. At first, Holtzman and his bandmates were skeptical
      about their odds at getting Nimol to join their band, while the
      vocalist, who speaks little English, was initially skeptical of
      their motivations for asking her in the first place.

      "At first, she was like, 'Why do these American guys want to play
      Cambodian music?' " Holtzman says. "But she's getting more and more
      comfortable with us. Now we don't have to drive her back to Long
      Beach every time [after practice] – she's stayed over at our house.
      She trusts us."

      Dengue Fever may sound like the ultimate niche-market band, but
      their music is not exclusive by any means: it's fun to listen to,
      and audiences have recognized this, both outside and inside the
      Cambodian community. Several months ago, the rest of the band
      attended one of the Long Beach clubs where Nimol still performs on a
      weekly basis and eventually wound up joining her onstage for a few

      "One of the songs was a duet where I sing with Nimol. I don't really
      know what it means," Holtzman confesses in reference to the song's
      lyrics. "But I sang it slowly in front of people, and they said that
      all the words were pretty much right. It was just crackin' everybody
      up to see some white guy with a beard up there singin' in Khmer."


      Reverb 2002
      East of the Moon
      by Chuck Mindenhall

      Dengue Fever:
      The adventure begins . . .

      ON A SIX-MONTH SOJOURN THROUGH ASIA IN 1997, Ethan Holtzman had a
      revelatory moment by the ruins of Angkor Wat, near Phnom Penh.
      Holtzman's Scottish traveling companion Russ had been bitten by a
      mosquito, and during their ride to the ruins Russ turned pale and
      began to sweat. Their driver was blaring Cambodian oldies from
      the '60s, a buzzy psych-rock with eerily provocative female vocals.
      And Holtzman, a multi-instrumentalist with an ear for musical
      texture, fell into a trance.

      Russ was also entranced, though his was a condition that would later
      be identified as dengue, an infectious fever spread by mosquitoes
      that's common to tropical climes. Russ would eventually recuperate;
      Holtzman would not recover, however, from that exotic fusion of
      static-guitar, fuzzy Farfisa organ and metallic percussion, or from
      the melodious soul of the Khmer language shining above it all.

      The vanguard '60s Cambodian music scene boasted as much sheer
      invention, verve and breakthrough technology as anything in the
      States at the time, but it was nipped in the bud by the war in
      neighboring Vietnam, as well as the Cambodian civil wars that took
      place in the early '70s. Cambodian society is now undergoing the
      slow process of being re-defined, and is currently not blazing the
      musical trails it had been back then. Holtzman, stocking up on as
      much vintage Cambodian pop as he could find (much of it on French
      labels), began plotting its revival.

      When Ethan's brother Zach returned to Los Angeles after 10 years in
      San Francisco, where he played guitar and sang in the countryish
      indie-prog band Dieselhed, the two began scouring the Little Phnom
      Penh scene in Long Beach in the hope of finding a Cambodian singer
      for their new project, Dengue Fever. Last summer, at a club called
      the Dragon House, they found their woman. Rather, they saw a goddess
      named Chhom Nimol, fresh from her native country, where her family
      members are famous as performers. Radiant from head to toe in an
      elegant evening gown, Nimol spoke very little English, yet hearing
      her graceful, enigmatic voice, Ethan knew he'd discovered his sound.

      "We were blown away," he recalls. "We approached her at the end of
      the set. She didn't trust us at first. We did all we could to lure
      her, made all kinds of promises. Eventually she joined up."

      Through laborious, pantomimed rehearsal, Nimol and the Holtzmans
      developed a repertoire, beginning with traditional Cambodian covers
      such as "The New Year's Song" and "Glass of Wine." Zach, an avid fan
      of Ethiopian jazz, brought like-minded friend Dave Ralicke from the
      band Brazzaville aboard to play saxophone, and the two added
      experimental dimensions behind Nimol's heartfelt Khmer vocals.
      Bassist Senon Williams (of the Radar Brothers), who'd also spent
      time in Cambodia, and drummer Paul Smith rounded out the lineup.
      After a handful of icebreaking live performances, the band began to
      have fun, finding that, despite Nimol's Khmer-language lyrics, the
      crowds delighted in the universality of her yearning voice.

      A YEAR LATER, DENGUE FEVER'S THEATRICS are as eclectic as the
      Cambodian-modeled music itself. A regally dressed Nimol is
      occasionally ushered through the audience and onto the stage in a
      cyclo. Music that was inspired by a semi-life-threatening disease
      has become a klezmerish psychedelic surf-garage-spacesuit-jazz
      compound. Zach's Khmer-language backing vocals, the Farfisa and
      Optigan and spare sax heaves brilliantly soak the open spaces.
      Sometimes the band wear full silken Cambodian regalia, so as not to
      pale next to their star. "Senon said, 'Our singer looks like a
      million bucks, and we look like 10 cents,'" says Zach. "Now we try
      to dress up a little."

      Nimol's English is getting better, so much so that one of Dengue's
      newer songs, "Hummingbird," was left untranslated into Khmer. But
      despite the band's crossover limitations, Dengue Fever are dedicated
      to leaving Khmer at the fore. The language itself, they believe, has
      an instrumental integrity, and a vitality that befits the whole.

      "The lyrics are stories, usually about love in one form or another,"
      Ethan says. "Or about something specific, like a beard, or drinking.
      Or a virgin -- the Cambodians have sequels to songs; one of our
      covers, 'I'm 16,' is a follow-up to one entitled 'Wait Ten Months.'"

      With a self-titled four-song EP under their belts, the Holtzman
      brothers are now writing original songs in English that Nimol
      translates into Khmer. "We write the songs and give them to the
      translator," explains Ethan, "and she works with Nimol to get it
      straight . . . We're really not sure if Nimol uses our lyrics or
      not." Well, with one particular song called "Connect Four," about
      the barmaids in Cambodia who can defeat all patrons at the strategic
      game, you can hardly blame her. Nimol calls the song "Rain," and
      somehow more is gained than lost in the translation.


      Cross-Pollinated Bop
      Prepare for Cambodian pop by way of Long Beach.

      A six-piece L.A. ensemble with an expansive worldview, Denque Fever
      draws heavily on the jazzier side of popular Cambodian music from
      the 1960s. They also delve into the smoky realms of Ethiopian jazz
      from roughly the same time period, and reflect the American surf and
      psychedelic trends that informed Cambodian pop.

      The band formed after Farfisa organist Ethan Holtzman experienced a
      revelation in the back of a taxicab in Cambodia as his travel
      companion was struck with dengue fever, a common tropical illness
      spread by mosquitoes. As the story goes, the radio was on in the
      taxi, and Holtzman realized at that moment that he needed to start a
      band that used Cambodian music as its template.

      After returning to L.A., he enlisted his brother Zac, who'd been
      living in San Francisco and playing in Dieselhead for about a
      decade. Together, the pair searched the Khmer community of Little
      Phnom Penh in nearby Long Beach. (Khmer is synonymous
      with "Cambodian." Little Phnom Penh, according to Zac, is home to
      the largest concentration of Cambodians outside of Cambodia.) After
      watching a number of singers, their search eventually led to the
      Dragon House nightclub, where they discovered vocalist Chhom
      Nimol. "She's the one," thought Zac. The brothers didn't know it at
      the time, but Nimol was already famous throughout the worldwide
      Cambodian diaspora.

      While the band's component parts ask for overanalysis, it's the self-
      titled debut album that will speak ultimately for the band. Recently
      released by Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance on his Mimicry label,
      Dengue Fever consists mostly of covers of Cambodian pop standards.
      From the opening strains of "Lost in Laos," the listener is
      transported not only to another place, but another time as well.
      American audiences will recognize the familiar jazz basis in the
      arrangements, but the expression of Asian and North African
      ingredients will no doubt sound exotic to most ears.

      Nimol sings exclusively in her native language, Khmer. (She has
      lived in the U.S. for less than two years.) Though somewhat
      experimental, the band adheres closely to the pop idiom popularized
      in Cambodia in the 60s (before Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot executed
      nearly all pop musicians as a way of purging the country of Western
      influence). Part of what makes Dengue Fever compelling is that they
      are re-interpreting someone else's interpretation of American music.

      If their choice of musical styles seems somewhat unusual, Zac
      explains that, at least as far as he's concerned, the jazz sounds
      from Ethiopia and Cambodia fit together naturally. Nimol, he says,
      responded to the heavy groove foundation in Ethiopian jazz because
      she loves dance music. The band references this music most obviously
      on "Ethanopium," a cover tune, but traces bubble up throughout the
      other songs as well–the Holtzmans, sax player David Ralike, bassist
      Senon Williams and drummer Paul Smith all share an affinity for
      Ethiopian jazz. No doubt this adds an element of exoticism for Nimol
      as well.

      "They call it jazz," he explains, "but try to find the jazz–it's not
      like be-bop or cool or, like, free." He pauses, at a loss to
      describe the music. Then he starts to sing lines into the phone.
      When that doesn't get the point across, he just says, "You should
      check it out."

      He highly recommends the Ethiopiques compilation series from the
      Buda Musique label.

      On the album, Dengue Fever creates just the right aura of drama,
      enhanced by the authentic approach. The songs sound like they're
      being performed in a dance hall or cocktail lounge–the natural
      setting in which you're likely to encounter music such as this.
      Proponents of music as a "universal language" will find
      substantiation in Nimol's singing, as it's obvious from her aching
      tone that she's spinning tales of longing and love. Meanwhile, the
      band provides a bouncy backdrop for her dour affectations.

      That the music is so evocative of a particular time period is both a
      blessing and a curse. It's too easy to dismiss this stuff as period-
      piece soundtrack fare. The temporal exoticism is likely to attract
      listeners, but it is just as likely to confine Dengue Fever to
      novelty status if those same listeners are attracted by superficial
      aspects. Which would be a shame. Dengue Fever's music is fun and
      easy to bop to. It also works well when you want to just kick back.
      Yet another example of musical cross-pollination at work.
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