Yes, iPods are everywhere and CDs are all you can buy anymore, but when it comes to cultural exchange, one should never underestimate the power of the compact cassette. It was the humble pre-recorded cassette that brought all the great Cambodian pop music of the 1960s-music that was nearly rendered extinct by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge-to Echo Park, where brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman’s started their highly successful band, Dengue Fever. Dedicated to the music and memory of those musicians who were sacrificed in the purges of the Pol Pot regime, Dengue Fever have grown from their covers-only first album-sung completely in the Cambodian language, Khmer-to an all-original third release, Venus On Earth, which features some great new songs in English.
The Holtzmans’ best discovery since Cambodian pop has been Dengue Fever’s singer, Chhom Nimol. They found her singing at the Dragon House on Alamitos Avenue in Long Beach. Nimol comes from a distinguished Cambodian musical family, and her songs were familiar to the brothers long before they ever tracked her down and offered her a role in their group. Since then, the band have taken off, winning L.A. Weekly’s Best New Artist award in 2002, and claiming the number-one international release of the year title from Amazon.com in 2005 thanks to their second record, Escape from Dragon House.
The sound of Cambodian rock comes from a half-dozen different influences, all somehow familiar. The echoing surf guitars and passionate soul vocals of the American 1960s were broadcast over Armed Services radio into Cambodia, only to emerge clad in bright Southeast Asian harmonies and melodies, and trimmed with fuzz-tone psychedelic fringes. Venus On Earth adds Zac Holtzman’s singing and songwriting to the mix, giving the band’s worldview a dose of intimacy and the kitchen-sink realism of L.A. punk. On “Tiger Phone Card,” a duet between Holtzman and Nimol, the Cambodian girlfriend of the New York hipster musician complains, “You only call me when you’re drunk / I can tell by your voice / It’s the only time you open up / and tell me that you love me.” The last time a Los Angeles band played a duet this memorable was on X’s Wild Gift-and that was in 1981.
In addition to the record, which has a great shot of Zac Holtzman sporting his O Brother, Where Art Thou? beard and zipping along on a scooter with his guitar under his arm and Nimol riding sidesaddle on the back, Dengue Fever also have a documentary film called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. Already a hit at several film festivals, including the prestigious Margaret Mead Festival at the Museum of Natural History in New York, the film chronicles the band’s 2005 tour of Cambodia. The sight of these L.A.-based Americans playing their music, even with the addition of a famous Cambodian lead, is clearly more than a little mind-blowing to the Cambodian spectators, especially those who remember the great purges of the late 1970s. Others, such as the young children who join the group onstage after an afternoon jam session at their school, are unselfconsciously delighted by the opportunity to sing and dance along to songs they know as played by these unlikely visitors.
When I spoke with Zac Holtzman about the trip and the film, he emphasized the historical situation of his Cambodian hosts, saying the film “is not just a rockumentary, or a travelogue, because the real story of the music is in the Cambodian history.” Going further, he showed some of the emotional connection to the culture that has been forged for him by the project, saying, “We are so lucky to have this body of music, first of all because the people who made it originally were all killed by the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1979, anyone with any contact with the West, or with Western culture, was put to death. The music survived in Paris, and in Long Beach, but it is still a shock for Cambodians in Cambodia to hear their music played by foreigners. On the tour, virtually everyone we met had lost someone, often a family member, to the purges, so it remains a sensitive subject; one that you might not want to bring up directly, since there is already so much going on for them just to hear this music.”
And when Dengue Fever arrives at SOhO on Thursday, April 17, don’t worry about bringing any mosquito repellent. Despite the reference in the band’s name to a tropical disease, that’s not the meaning they had in mind when they chose it. “The fever in ‘Dengue Fever’ to us is just dance fever,” said Zac. “It’s the fever of the sweating and dancing that we have at our shows.”
Catch Dengue Fever at SOhO (1221 State St.) on Thursday, April 17, with oso, presented by Club Mercy. For tickets and information, call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com.