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DENGUE FEVER’s psychedelic take on the Cambodian pop sounds of the ’60s makes them one of rock ’n’ roll’s most unique success stories. They draw enthusiastic crowds from L.A. to the UK, from Maui to Moscow, and leave critics rummaging through their thesauruses looking for new superlatives to describe their sound. Their appearance at WOMEX, the world’s largest international music conference, cemented their position as a global phenomenon. Amazon.com named their album Escape From Dragon House the No. 1 international release for 2005. Venus On Earth (2008, M80 Records) is the third chapter in the band’s continuing journey to create a unique fusion of Cambodian and American pop.
Brothers Ethan (keyboards) and Zac (guitar) Holtzman started Dengue Fever in 2001 when they discovered they shared a love for the Cambodian pop music of the ’60s. After adding sax man David Ralicke (Beck/Brazzaville), drummer Paul Smith, and bassist Senon Williams, they went looking for a Cambodian singer. Enter Chhom Nimol, who performed regularly for the King and Queen of Cambodia. Her powerful singing, marked by a luminous vibrato that adds exotic ornamentations to her vocal lines, and hypnotic stage moves based on traditional dances, complemented the band’s driving Cambodian/American sound.
The Cambodian pop music of the 1960s seems an unlikely template for an American band, but that sound captivated Ethan Holtzman during a trip to Cambodia in 1997. Before he flew back to L.A., he picked up every cassette of Cambodian pop from the ’60s he could find. Back home, Zac Holtzman had just returned to L.A. after living in San Francisco for 10 years. He’d been listening to a compilation of Cambodian pop and when the brothers reconnected, they decided to play their version of Cambodian rock. They hung out in the Long Beach Cambodian community to find a singer.
“We saw Chhom Nimol at The Dragon House,” Zac Holtzman recalls. “She was already a star in Cambodia and made a living singing traditional music at Cambodian weddings and funerals.” Chhom wasn’t sure she wanted to sing with Americans, but Dengue’s dedication to the sounds of Cambodia won her over. Dengue Fever was an immediate hit, both in the Cambodian clubs of Long Beach and regular L.A. rock venues. They won LA Weekly’s Best New Artist Award in 2002, and actor/director Matt Dillon asked them to supply a Cambodian version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” for his Cambodian-based thriller City of Ghosts.
The band’s eponymous debut was mostly covers of Cambodian classics, a tribute to the singers and songwriters who were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Their second album, Escape From Dragon House, written almost entirely by the band, was more psychedelic, freer, looser, and more experimental than the debut. The album featured “Ethanopium,” a cover of a tune by Ethiopian singer Malatu Astatke that was used by Jim Jarmusch in his film Broken Flowers. “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula” was later featured on the soundtrack as well as on the Showtime series Weeds.
In 2005, the band toured Cambodia. It was the first time any band, much less an American one, performed Khmer rock in Cambodia since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. The country gave Chhom a lot of respect for “Cambodianizing” the Americans. The band met and played with Cambodian master musicians that survived the Khmer Rouge years and recorded those sessions. They hope to use that music on future albums. A documentary feature film of this trip, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, has received an enthusiastic reception at international film festivals, as well as the Tucson Film Festival, the Silverlake Film Festival in L.A., and the Hawaii International Film Festival, and it had its New York premiere on opening night at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York.