Home > Entertainment > Dengue Fever revives and revamps the sounds of Cambodia

Dengue Fever revives and revamps the sounds of Cambodia

Dengue Fever (from left: David Ralicke, Zac Holtzman, Senon Williams, Paul Smith, Chhom Nimol, Ethan Holtzman) builds its sound on Khmer pop and surf rock.

SAN FRANCISCO — Dengue Fever didn’t set out to earn the elusive title of Southern California’s quintessential 21st-century rock band, but with “Cannibal Courtship,’’ the sextet’s fifth album, released in April, it makes a convincing bid for the crown.

There are other strong contenders, mainly Ozomatli, Linkin Park, and System of a Down. Dengue Fever stands out through the sheer wondrous strangeness of its cultural synthesis, a Pacific Rim sound built upon vintage Khmer pop and surf rock. Launched in 2001 by brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman, the group united around their mutual love of Cambodia’s ebullient psychedelic movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the Southeast Asian nation boasted a giddily creative scene sparked by surf rock, soul, and garage-band hits broadcast by US Armed Forces Radio to troops in Vietnam.
Dengue Fever, which performs tonight at Brighton Music Hall, started out by reappropriating music that had already gotten the funhouse mirror treatment, interpreting anarchic anthems by pop stars such as Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Ros Sereysothea.
“When we started the band, our idea was not to just play all these songs, it was to make new music based on old music,’’ said bassist Senon Williams while cooling off with a beer after an April performance at the Fillmore Auditorium. “At that time in LA there was a lot of shoe-gazer rock. The lead singer would never sing into the mike. He would sing next to it. We wanted to break out of the mold, do something a little bit more bold and fun.’’
Early on, some critics took to describing the band as an exercise in kitsch. But Dengue Fever embraced Khmer pop with no emotional distance. Indeed, the project didn’t come together until the guys discovered Chhom Nimol, a rising Cambodian pop star who decided to try her luck in the United States, while she was performing in karaoke clubs in Long Beach’s Little Phnom Penh district. Hailing from an esteemed musical family, she grew up hearing her parents sing traditional Khmer songs, while her older sister Chhom Chevin was one of the country’s biggest stars in the 1980s.
“When I was kid, my sister is the one who taught me how to sing and supported me all the time,’’ said Nimol, a diminutive figure given to bounding around the stage and spontaneously synchronizing steps with Williams, who towers over her. “I’m not good for traditional music, though. My sister was, but when I tried to sing, it was bad for me, too many notes and too many different keys.’’
With each album, Dengue Fever has increasingly sublimated the Khmer sound, so that on “Cannibal Courtship’’ (Fantasy/Concord) it’s but one stream flowing into an increasingly expansive stylistic palette. Last year the band played several dates in Asia with Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, and there’s an unmistakable Afrobeat groove on “Only a Friend,’’ one of the album’s standout tracks. 
Dengue Fever has also generated more original songs with English lyrics, a move pushed by Nimol.
“It’s hard, because there are a lot of words, but I’m enjoying it,’’ she said. “My teacher is Zac, though everybody in the band helps. I want to sing in English because I want to connect with the audience, so people can understand it and jump with us.’’
As Dengue Fever’s sound has diverged from its initial Cambodian sources, the band has forged increasingly deep ties to the nation, which is still struggling to overcome the legacy of the Khmer Rouge’s late 1970s genocide when Pol Pot’s regime wiped out about a fifth of the population, concentrating with particularly brutal efficiency on artists and professionals.
“If you were famous for playing this music, you were first to get a knock on the door,’’ Williams said. “Along with architects, professors, doctors, lawyers, artists, and politicians.’’
Returning to Cambodia in 2005 with Dengue Fever, Nimol found that audiences loved the band’s distinctive spin on the Khmer rock sound. Last year, the band orchestrated the release of “Electric Cambodia’’ (Minky Records), a CD featuring 14 vintage Cambodian rock tunes culled from the band’s precious stash of cassettes, including tracks by artists such as Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea, and Dara Chom Chan (none of whom are known to have survived the genocide).
For filmmaker John Pirozzi, who captured Dengue Fever’s triumphant tour with his documentary “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,’’ the band’s journey represents Khmer rock’s power to seize the imaginations of distant people. While Dengue Fever absorbs new influences, the band’s impact on Cambodia endures.
“When I first met the band, they didn’t necessarily know the history,’’ said Pirozzi, who’s finishing “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll,’’ a documentary about the scene annihilated by the Khmer Rouge. “They assimilated the culture through the music. In Cambodia, young people know all the songs, because they hear it in their homes. But to have an American band arrive and play these hits, it made quite an impression.’’

Globe Correspondent 

Categories: Entertainment
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