[MUSIC] Dengue Fever - A Cambodian Psychedelica Band
- 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
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.
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
[Web of Mimicry; 2003]
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
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
-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
"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
"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."
East of the Moon
by Chuck Mindenhall
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.
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
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 wellthe 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
"They call it jazz," he explains, "but try to find the jazzit'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 loungethe 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.