Around the turn of the century (man, it’s still weird to use that phrase in 2008), I started reading about a bootlegged series of cassettes making the rounds, of Cambodian rock and soul recordings from before that country’s dark, post-Vietnam war years under despot Pol Pot. These recordings, I read, were all that were left, like audio archeology, of musicians who had absorbed Western pop and soul and rock during the 1960s and early ’70s, and both covered those songs enthusiastically in their own language, Khmer, and wrote original songs using those sonic elements as their foundation. These musicians had all been slaughtered in Pol Pot’s killing fields, the stories went, and these three-decades-old echoes were all that was left of that creative explosion.
I finally got a hold of some of these recordings (some are now available via legitimate avenues including Amazon.com, no doubt cleaned up and sounding much better than many of the tinny recordings I got). They were exciting, and fun to listen to, but spooky when you realized all the artists were killed within a few years of the recording sessions. Sometimes they were faithful recreations of familiar songs — until the lyrics came in. But whether they were covers or original, the playing and singing had an irrepressible and irresistible spark.
Those recordings were enough to inspire a pair of California brothers to pursue the sound and make their own fresh echoes of long -ago Cambodian pop in a unique group called Dengue Fever, which has over the years evolved from re-creating the sound of the old Cambodian scene to integrating those sounds in a fresh take on world pop.
The band came to be when Zac Holtzman visited Cambodia and heard the long-ago tapes being played by people during his trip. When he came back to LA, he and his brother Ethan decided to play the music… except they needed a Cambodian to sing in Khmer (after all, if they played the styles and sang in English, they’d just be playing interesting American indie rock). They found their voice in the form of diminutive Chhom Nimol, who was singing along to contemporary Cambodian pop songs in a karaoke bar in the an area dubbed “Little Phnom Penh” in Long Beach), and Dengue Fever was off and spreading
Together, they’ve released three full-length albums and two EPs, and toured the world, including Cambodia, playing large outdoor stages and small clubs. The group’s coming to Denver next Wednesday, to a club called the hi-dive. You can preview the show and hear some of the group’s music on the band’s MySpace page.
The music veers between gentle, folk-rock and a psychedelic rhythmic bed over which Nimol soars with her sometime otherworldly wavering vocals and more conventional upbeat pop. Some songs also weave in what sound like world music flourishes from other parts of the globe, and occasionally, retro waves of lounge music. The newer songs also mix in English lyrics.
The band’s an interesting amalgram — a perfect living mashup for the shrinking distance between Asian and American culture. And, a bridge back in time to a lost cultural era.
Who knows, if some of those Cambodian stars of 1972 were still alive, they might be superstars today.
Bonus video: Here’s an interesting 10-minute interview piece from YouTube that was made for APA, the Asia Pacific Arts online magazine of UCLA (a cool site).