28 May Dengue Fever’s effortless grace in “Sleepwalking through the Mekong” epitomizes Asian American synthesis
I’ve written about Dengue Fever before, but didn’t get a chance to see the show when they played Denver on a tour. So I’m glad this documentary has been released.
The film follows the band on a 2006 visit to Cambodia, where singer Chhom Nimol was born. She moved to the U.S. where she was discovered singing in a karaoke bar in Long Beach, south of LA, by the Holtzman brother, Zac and Ethan. The Holtzmans had fallen in love with old recordings of Cambodian pop and rock music during a trip to Southeast Asia and had decided to perform that music in America.
Since they — and the rest of the band — are white, they went in search of someone who could sing in the Cambodian language, Khmer, and came across Nimol, who’s an enchanting singer with a strong voice and an undeniable beauty that practically glows whenever the camera focuses on her.
Together, over four albums, two EPs and now this documentary film, the group has recorded a body of work that’s consistently interesting, compelling and challenging, with its dreamy mix of psychedelia, folk-rock, surf music and Cambodian melodies.
The end result, for me, is a perfect expression of that tired cliche, “East meets West,” or better yet, a reflection of one aspect of Asian America.
In one sense, the white members of the band — Zac Holtzman on guitar and vocals, Ethan Holtzman on Farfisa organ, Senon Williams on bass, David Ralicke on horns and Paul Smith on drums — are Asiaphiles, and Asiaphiles are sometimes accused of shallow infatuations with Asian exoticism. But I don’t think that’s the case here.
I haven’t interviewed them, but their love of, appreciation for, and respect towards Cambodian music and culture is pretty sincere and very apparent in the film. The band isn’t just there to party and act like big rock stars, even though they seem to be treated with a lot more glory than they are in the states, as an indie bar-band.
For instance, they’re shown on a Cambodian TV show, the equivalent of the old Ed Sullivan show in the US. And after playing a club not unlike one they might play here on tour, and then what appears to be a house party, they end the film with a gig at an outdoor festival, and the crowds love them, and are agog at the sight of these giant foreigners led by the diminutive Cambodian singer.
But the documentary follows the bandmembers as they mingle with people on the streets, absorb Cambodian culture, ride around on scooters through the crazy Phnom Penh traffic (reminds me of scenes from the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!”).
There are some moving scenes of Nimol explaining how hard it’s been for her to leave Cambodia to try and make a living in the United States. There are some tragic scenes of Cambodian musicians on traditional instruments, explaining how they couldn’t play those instruments during the reign of terror of dictator Pol Pot, for fear of being killed or worse, dragged off to one of the prison camps that are most remembered by Americans today from the powerful 1984 movie “The Killing Fields.”
The members of Dengue Fever learn some Cambodian songs, and teach the curious musicians and children in one village scene some of their music, which may have began life as a Cambodian pop song but has been Americanized. Later, in the street festival concert, the village children are on stage with the band, singing the song. It’s hard to imagine a lot of American indie bands playing a festival in the U.S. and bringing up a group of kids from a nearby town to song with them.
During one scene in a record store, Nimol describes the stars of Cambodian pop that inspired Dengue Fever — Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, who each have one song included on the “Sleepwalking through the Mekong” soundtrack CD. The weight of the tragedy — these artists who recorded incredibly exciting interpolations of American rock and roll, pop and soul music were all murdered during the genocide of the Pol Pot years — is almost crushing when you see how the living culture of the country was almost snuffed out.
That’s why I think Dengue Fever is not only authentic in its own evolution of the Cambodian pop sensibility, but by bringing it all back home again, it may breath life back to the music scene there. That would make the band Asian American Asian. How cool is that?
Here’s another clip from the movie: