LIKE A GIANT BAMBOO FIST Dengue Fever

With a new DVD in stores and in the
middle of a tour, the L.A.
band is surfing the American pan-cultural zeitgeist.

 

BY JUD COST

 

 

In a few short
years, Dengue Fever, a six-piece rock band from Los Angeles, has accomplished what purveyors
of fusion-jazz could never completely pull off: the successful blending of
musical styles that, on the surface, seem incompatible. The secret ingredient
in this alchemical recipe is America’s
continuing love affair with the Doors, whose music had just enough exotica to be used in the opening
segment of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now. With a few shakes of Jim Morrison & Co. added
to its strangely alluring arrangements (not to mention liberal dollops of surf
guitar in mix), the band, whose lead singer sounds unlike anyone you’ve ever
heard, can make instant converts of an entire clubful of patrons who know next
to nothing of the Far East or its pop music: the group’s exciting hybrid-rock, heartwrenchingly
chirped by vocalist Chhom Nimol in her native Khmer dialect, can grab you like a
giant bamboo fist and wring melancholy and ecstasy from the listener in equal
amounts.

 

Currently in the
middle of an extensive U.S. tour, Dengue Fever continues to capitalize on its
most recent album, Venus on Earth,
which was issued back in January of 2008 and went on to land on numerous
year-end best-of lists. Expect the group’s profile to rise even further with
the just-issued documentary DVD Sleepwalking
Through the Mekong
(M80; www.m80music.com),
an eye-popping document of the band’s 2005 tour of Cambodia and directed by John
Pirozzi (cinematography on Too Tough To
Die: Johnny Ramone
and Leonard Cohen:
I’m Your Man
). Adding to the Apocalypse
Now
flavor of danger lurking around the next river bend, the photos of the
males in this combo, from their three previous albums, could have
come from the “No-Fly” dossier of George Bush’s Homeland Security
boys.

 

Sleepwalking Through The Mekong is a gorgeously colorful, one-way ticket
to a part of the world you may have seen only on cable TV, with celebrity chef
Tony Bourdain zipping around Thailand
on a motorbike in search of fast-food. Instead of curried veg, peanut sauce and
steamed rice, Dengue Fever backs Simol’s enchanting vocals with David Ralicke’s
spell-bindingly morose tenor sax, the pounding jungle drums of Paul Dreux
Smith, the wide-eyed bass of Senon Williams and the snake-entwined keyboards
and guitar of brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman, taking you deep into the heart
of darkness.

 

Beautifully shot
and smartly edited, Sleepwalking will
leave you as baffled by traditional Cambodian stage entertainment as it will
thrilled by the exploits of these six good-will ambassadors, helping to undo
the cultural disaster of the Bush years. Dengue Fever unveils its hypnotic take
on traditional Khmer pop/psych-rock before delighted club audiences, then ventures
out into Phnom Penh record shops to track down vintage albums by the
originators of Cambodian rock: Ros Serey Sothea, Sinn Sisamouth and Pen Ra,
whose music (included on a piggybacked soundtrack CD here) was all but
exterminated by the cruel Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot.

 

At last, you’re
free to enjoy that armchair adventure you couldn’t have taken in the ’70s, as
described in the Dead Kennedys’ ironically titled punk-rock anthem “Holiday
In Cambodia.”

 

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