CATCHING THE MULTICULTURAL WAVE Dengue Fever

 

Haunting Cambodian
fever dreams, the funky strut and shuffle of James Brown and the psychedelic
garage rock of 1960s bands.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Zac Holtzman used to play guitar in Dengue Fever but now
he plays the Mastodong.

 

No, not the Ice
Age hairy elephant; don’t be silly. Holtzman’s mastodong is a double-necked
guitar, the top half a Fender JazzMaster, the bottom a traditional Khmer lute
known as a chapei dong veng. The instrument, which can be seen on the front of
Dengue Fever’s fourth and latest
album
Cannibal Courtship, is a
metaphor for Dengue Fever’s globe-trotting syncretism. The band is anchored by
Holtzman and his Farfisa-toting brother Ethan, both of LA, but fronted by
singer Chhom Nimol, a striking and graceful woman born in Cambodia and
schooled in a native Khmer music and dance tradition. Supported by bassist
Senon Williams (also of Radar Brothers), horn player and multi-instrumentalist
David Ralicke and drummer Paul Smith, Dengue Fever brings on the haunting fever
dreams of Cambodia’s octave leaping ghost singing, the funky strut and shuffle
of James Brown and the psychedelic garage rock of 1960s bands like Love and 13th Floor Elevators.  

 

“The songs on Cannibal
Courtship
are about struggling in relationships, about people in relationships
that are feeding off one another,” says Zac Holtzman, who uses the double-neck
for songs like “Uku,” off the new album, where he has to switch quickly between
Western and Cambodian axes. “But that’s a theme that also seemed to make a lot
of sense with what we do. We are inspired by and feed off each other’s cultures.
As a band, we are inspired by Cambodian culture and by Cambodians being
inspired by garage and psychedelic music. So it all seemed  to make perfect sense.”  

 

Dengue Fever began in the early ‘00s, when Zac and Ethan
Holtzman discovered a shared love for Cambodian surf rock, a genre that was
born in the 1960s and 1970s when American GIs stationed in Indo-China
introduced rock and soul into the local mix. Soon, traditional Cambodian singers
were layering their high vibrato-laced folk tones over the brash textures of
surf guitar. Stars like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea emerged. But then,
as the Pol Pot regime took hold in the mid-1970s, Western styles were banned
and many prominent musicians were imprisoned or killed. The style died out,
too, as recordings were destroyed and performances banned.

 

Ethan Holtzman had travelled to Cambodia in the early 1990s,
collecting cassettes and LPs in the hybrid style. Zac Holtzman discovered the genre
at Aquarius Music in San Francisco,
where he had been working.    

 

“We started thinking about all those musicians that were
probably wiped out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and just thinking of how great
a style of music it was,” says Holtzman. “It was such a really unique blend of
Western garage, psychedelia and surf, along with these beautiful Cambodian
styles of singing.”

 

One of the most arresting effects in Cambodian traditional
singing, he explained, is the ghost voice. “It’s kind of like Cambodian
yodeling, where they crack into a higher register,” he says. “The singers will
l touch on a higher note and then they’ll come right back down to the lower
note. And so that’s one of my favorite things that they do.”

 

The Holtzman brothers’ fascination with the style led
them, finally, to Long Beach,
where a thriving Khmer community supports a Cambodian scene. “At the time, we
only knew one Cambodian person and he didn’t speak any English, but he kind of
gestured his hand in a dancing motion in the air, and said ‘La Lune…Long Beach…La Lune,'”
says Holtzman. The Holtzmans found a nightclub named La Lune in Long Beach and found, for
their first time out, a disappointingly mediocre singer. But they continued to
search and finally found themselves at the Dragon House. “And that’s where we
saw Nimol for the first time,” he recalls. “She was singing on stage with a
really good Cambodian band and about six singers.”

 

Chhom Nimol had been singing in the traditional Khmer
style since childhood, building a following in her homeland and  even performing regularly for the King and
Queen of Cambodia. But she was a recent immigrant to America when the Holtzman’s met
her, speaking little English and without a car. She had little background in
contemporary indie rock and at first questioned the idea of singing in a rock
band.

 

“I was like, ‘Are you sure you want me singing in the
band?’,” says Chhom. But then the Holtzman brothers won her over by playing and
talking about the singers she loved. “I told them, ‘Yeah, I know that song. I
know the singer.’ “

 

Chhom had a friend who had been in the country longer and
who spoke better English. She asked her what to do.  The friend encouraged her to give the rock
band a try. “‘You never know,’ she said,” Chhom remembers. “Maybe they’ll be
good.”  The friend drove her to the first
rehearsal and Dengue Fever began.

 

Chhom says she still feels more comfortable with the
traditional Khmer style, which she augments, in shows, with traditional hand
movements and dance.  “I think for Cambodians,
it is very easy to sing. You know, I can sing the high E. But the American rock
is really hard for me to sing. But it’s fun, especially when we get to travel. I
just want to see the people around the world. I like to play with Dengue Fever.”
 

 

Dengue Fever’s first, self-titled album was mostly
Cambodian covers, but in later releases they have balanced the exotic tones of
Khmer traditions with a driving, soul-and-psych inflected brand of indie rock. Their
new Cannibal Courtship, issued by Fantasy
Records, balances both sides of the band, putting beach party rockers like
“Cement Slippers” right next to exotic, dub-inflected “Uku.”

 

“We had about 20 songs when we were done recording, so we
had to figure out which ones to use, and we didn’t want the album to be too
heavily weighted in one direction,” says Holtzman. “I guess we do search for a
balance. We don’t want it to have too many of the ones where Nimol is only
singing in Khmai, then we alienate certain parts of our Western audience. But
still, we pretty much do whatever we want.”

 

The album benefited, he adds, from an extended production
process, where, because they now have a home studio, the members of Dengue
Fever could record and re-record the songs for Cannibal Courtship.  “We got
to spend a lot of times recording the songs and then stepping back and looking
at it and saying, you know what?  This
one would be better a little bit more uptempo. Or this one we should slow down.
Or this one needs a bridge here. Sometimes you record your record and then
you’re touring on it, and then two months into the tour you realize, man, we’re
playing these songs so much better than when we recorded them. I don’t think
that’s going to be the case with this one.”

 

Cannibal Courtship also got some extra flavor from a
group of vocalists known as the Living Sisters – Inara George of the Bird and
Bee, Becky Sharp from Lavender Diamond, Eleni Mandel and Alex Lilly. “They only
planned on singing on five or six of the songs, but they were so professional
that, before you know it, we were getting them into all of them,” said Holtzman.
“I especially like what they do on the first song, ‘Cannibal Courtship.’  Their “ba-ba-da-da-dah” is really sweet, and
they kind of layer the harmonies so that, at first you get hit with a single
“ba-da-da-dah” and then there’s a second harmony and a third harmony.”

 

As we speak, Dengue Fever is gearing up for a series of
shows, starting on the West Coast and moving through Texas,
the Midwest and the East Coast. The band will
be playing The Meltdown Festival on June 12 in London, an event curated by their newest,
most famous fan, Ray Davies of the Kinks.

 

“We played Jools Holland, and Ray Davies was his special
guest. When Jools Holland turned to Ray Davies and was trying to talk to him
about his future plans and everything, he was like ‘Never mind me, what about
those guys…Dengue Fever. Don’t take this in the wrong way, but you guys remind
me of Blondie meets Led Zeppelin,'” remembered Holtzman. “And we were like, can
we quote you on that?  We love that.”  

 

[Photo Credit: Lauren Dukoff]

 

Dengue Fever is on
tour in Texas
this week – dates at the official website.

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