Music News

Dengue Fever Finds a Second Home in Cambodia

What with airfare prices the way they are, and wages for musicians the way they are, it's not often folks in bands get to hop on planes, for work or otherwise.

International touring's always a high point of being in a band, but it's also something that seems inaccessible. Despite the realities of dealing with thickets of customs forms and complicated itineraries, the glamour's still there — at least a bit — and going global marks a band as having reached a certain level.

But for Dengue Fever, a 2005 trip to perform in Cambodia was something of a homecoming — even though most of the band had never been to the country in Southeast Asia.

The Los Angeles-based Khmer rock six-piece plays Cambodian pop music from the '60s and '70s, heavily influenced by American psych and surf rock from the time. Dengue Fever's first trip to lead singer Chhom Nimol's homeland was filmed and turned into the documentary Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which has toured film festivals and was released on DVD in 2009.

As its reputation as cultural ambassadors grew, the band headed back to Southeast Asia, returning last year from its third tour of the region. This time, the visit was sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassies in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and included club dates, massive outdoor festival shows, charity performances, and workshops.

A performance by a Western band in Cambodia is a rare thing, and Dengue Fever's first visit was even rarer, as it was easily the first time an American band had performed classic Cambodian rock 'n' roll in the land of its origin. Much of the music and the culture that gave birth to it had been repressed and nearly exterminated by the harsh Maoist regime of Pol Pot beginning in the late '70s.

"That first tour, basically we were hanging out, and Nimol brings up that [she was] going to Cambodia for a few months so we shouldn't book any shows," says bassist Senon Williams, who also plays in The Radar Bros. "And we all just say, 'Well, why don't we all go to Cambodia with you?' So she thought that was a pretty good idea, but cash flow was the hard part. We had to figure out how to get there, especially since once you get to Cambodia, there's not really the expectation of making money. So we thought up the idea of calling up our friend John, the filmmaker, and seeing if he'd be interested in coming with us."

The band — Chhom (vocals), Zac Holtzman (guitar, vocals), Ethan Holtzman (Farfisa organ), Williams (bass), David Ralicke (horns), and Paul Smith (drums) — recruited friend and filmmaker John Pirozzi, who had contacts in Cambodia from working there as a cinematographer, to direct. They played festivals and small venues throughout the country, and were greeted enthusiastically by locals (before moving to California, Chhom was a well-known singer in Phnom Penh in her own right, coming from a musical family a little like the Cambodian version of the Carter Family).

"We would be in tiny villages in Cambodia, [where they] would charge a generator with a car battery to watch a TV, and we'd come through these villages and they'd get out and know us, recognize us," says Williams.

The band's upcoming date in Phoenix is only its third stop on the current tour, on which they're co-headlining with Secret Chiefs 3, the genre-hopping instrumental band fronted by Mr. Bungle co-founder Trey Spruance. The collaborative traveling is natural, as Spruance released Dengue Fever's debut studio album in 2003 on his Web of Mimicry label, and members of the two bands have played together in various other California acts over the past decade.

Dengue Fever's been together for 10 years, releasing four full-length albums and two EPs. The latest offering is a killer full-length called Cannibal Courtship, released last April. The band's also taken up the role of curator, spearheading the release of Dengue Fever Presents: Electric Cambodia, a disc compiling 14 rare tracks culled from cassette tapes collected over the years. And though the band plays music that fit a specific niche, Williams credits the Internet with helping nurture the band's growing popularity.

"I think, because information is so available to everybody, that people are getting interested in things from far away that they might never have heard of," he says. "You know, you could have a doctor somewhere watching Bollywood films one minute, then putting on a Circle Jerks video the next. People aren't pigeonholing themselves, and there's so much available out there that you'd have to be really stupid to limit yourself in terms of culture and music and style." — Chris Hassiotis

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Chris Hassiotis