Reviving and reinventing the fevered Cambodian pop of the 60s and 70s.
Jon Lusk 2009
Named after an extremely nasty, mosquito-born viral disease, Dengue Fever are an oddball six-piece from Los Angeles dedicated to reviving and reinventing the fevered Cambodian pop of the 60s and 70s, which was effectively extinguished by the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid 70s. This CD/DVD set documents the band's 2005 tour of Cambodia, the traditional musicians they met and performed with, and the pop stars that have inspired them. About half the material is their own, much of it drawn from their first two albums. For those slightly underwhelmed or nonplussed by their third album Venus On Earth (2008), this compilation provides an illuminating context for their work and will probably be more interesting.
The core of Dengue Fever is Zac Holtzman (guitar, vocals, novelty beard) and his brother Ethan (keyboards), but their undisputed star is the golden-voiced Chhom Nimol. She's their only Cambodian member, and once performed for the Cambodian royal family. Singing in Khmer and English, she tackles original material and several covers of hits by Khmer rockers such as Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea, both of whom are thought to have perished under Pol Pot. Thankfully, some of their original recordings are included.
The title track is an evocative opener, featuring a lovely vocal by Chhom Nimol. Then it's straight into the retro source material, with Dondung Goan Gay by Meas Samoun. He was Cambodia's first comic singer, but it's the unrestrained organ and vocal chutzpah that will appeal most if you don't speak Khmer. Another Khmer rock highlight is Mou Pei Na, a dayglo duet between Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea, which recalls Indian 'filmi' music at its cheesy best.
Cambodian pop and traditional music aren't exactly close cousins, so it's to Dengue Fever's credit that they're able to play along with the two featured traditional musicians, Tep Mary and Kong Nay – the second of whom may be familiar from his recent UK tour. On Tip My Canoe, Zac Hotzman even manages what sounds like a passable Khmer vocal, accompanied by Chhom Nimol.
There are several instrumental interludes of varying merit by Dengue Fever, and they even do a cover of a piece by Ethio-jazz maverick Mulatu Astatque. This may seem surprising at first, but it's music from the same period in history and like Khmer rock, was inspired by foreign sounds and suppressed by a murderous regime. Also, it's a cool keyboard workout opportunity for Ethan. The other key original track is One Thousand Tears Of A Tarantula, an extended wig-out that provides a welcome contrast with the more economic pop of the past.
It all makes more sense once you watch the DVD. Even if it is about something that happened four years ago. Here’s a bunch of Americans and a Cambodian expat visiting Cambodia with a fresh spin on music originally
made by Cambodians, which itself was based on American
surf/psychedelia/garage…bringing it all back home, again, as it were. Neither the irony nor the sentiment seem lost on the locals.