March 22, 2008
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.