Dengue Fever is a Los Angeles-based band that features a glamorous Cambodian-born singer and five American alt-rockers. Their sound is as unique as their partnership is incongruous—a mix of Cambodia’s psychedelic rock, Ethiopian groove and Bollywood beats.

The band was formed when Ethan Holtzman, an organ player, travelled to Cambodia in 1997. There he discovered the country’s unheralded 1960s-era music, which mixed shrill but mesmerising Cambodian voices with Beatles and Beach Boy rhythms. Chhom Nimol, Dengue Fever’s lead singer, is a product of that short-lived movement. Her father had sung alongside Sinn Sisamouth, a leading Cambodian crooner of the time who was later brutally killed by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge in their crusade against foreign-influenced culture in the late 1970s.

Photo by Kevin Estrada

From their modest start in LA clubs—and Nimol’s even humbler beginning as a wedding singer in Cambodia before she moved to Long Beach—Dengue Fever has gone viral, hypnotising international audiences with a singular sound that well surpasses the feel-good banality of most “World” music.

Most remarkably, this group is also the only popular custodian of a lost golden era of Cambodian music, performing a sound that has not yet been revived in the country itself. While today’s leading Cambodian singers turn out pale hip-hop interpretations and karaoke ballads, these Americans have assiduously burnished a musical gem that was allowed to sparkle only briefly.

Dengue Fever recently played a series of concerts in Phnom Penh as part of their international tour. During breaks from the sweltering heat, Chhom Nimol (speaking mostly in her native Khmer), organist Ethan Holtzman, bassist Senon Williams and drummer Paul Smith sat down with More Intelligent Life to discuss their unlikely origins, their polyglot influences and the project of cultural preservation inherent in their music.

More Intelligent Life: There’s an almost psychedelic story behind Dengue Fever’s origins.

Ethan Holtzman: I discovered Cambodian rock‘n’roll when I was backpacking in South-East Asia in 1997. It was the Cambodian music that stood out the most. My friend was sick with dengue fever when we were driving from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh and the driver was listening to a cassette tape. My friend was hallucinating and felt terrible but the music was great and the driver scrawled the bands’ names down in Khmer for me. When I got to Phnom Penh I looked around and they had these ghetto-blaster tape machines that duplicated cassettes. At home, I listened to them and picked out the songs I liked.

It took a trip to Cambodia for me to discover this music and then took a weird idea for us to form this band and find Chhom Nimol. As we grew as a band, we learned more and more about the history behind the music—the way that Cambodia was thriving in the 60s and then destroyed later.

MIL: Nimol, how did you first join the band?

Chhom Nimol: I sang at a club called the Dragon House in Long Beach Los Angeles before Zac and Ethan approached me saying they were looking for a Cambodian singer to join their band. They tested me on the Cambodian classics and I knew most of them. I wondered why Zac and Ethan chose this music—two American guys with strange appearances wanted to sing Ros Sereysothea’s songs. But thanks to them and thanks to Sereysothea, I can be here today. It’s been about eight years that we’ve been together and we have made three records now and I’m very happy I could make it with the band.

MIL: How would you describe Cambodia’s ’60s rock and its appeal?

Senon Williams: The Cambodians did psychedelic rock differently than anyone else did. They would sing in the microtonal Cambodian way, then they’d bring in a traditional Cambodian instrument but record it through a broken mic, so it sounded like it was being recorded in the bottom of the sea.

Holtzman: It’s like upbeat garage rock mixed with psychedelic, with these Khmer vocals that are snaky and hit higher notes and then crack and fall into a lower register. There is something very unique about what they’re doing but it’s also very familiar. They were heavily inspired by rock‘n’roll from Europe and the States. You can even hear some songs that they clearly just rewrote. There’s this song called “Snigh Ha” [“Lover”] which is clearly “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”. We just put it on a compilation called “Electric Cambodia” and it’s 14 rare songs from the ’60s and ’70s.
MIL: Before she died under the Khmer Rouge—from exhaustion in labour camps or from execution, depending on the account—Ros Sereysothea was the golden girl of Cambodian rock. How would you describe her voice?

Holtzman: There’s so much emotion in it. It’s velvet silk. It was the kind of voice I had never heard before and it was just so good.

MIL: Cambodian ’60s rock has been the foundation of your music, but there’s a lot of other elements going on. Could you break it down?

When our sax player is playing an African horn line and Zac is playing a surf guitar line and I’m playing more of an R&B bass-line, we’re playing three different things but we’re smashing them together. We all have our own musical influences but Nimol always centres us back to Khmer rock.

MIL: Being associated with World Music has it perils.

Williams: When we played beside Radiohead, Flaming Lips and MGMT at some of these big European festivals, the crowds go crazy. And then when we played WOMAD in England with Sufi, African and Indian musicians and Baltic folk dancers, it seems like they go crazy there, too. So we’re pretty successfully skirting it down the line. I don’t think people are calling it World Music anymore because World Music usually described guys that are playing bongos and jumping around with some fruity pants on.

I think the same people who in the past would be negative about anything categorised as World Music aren’t anymore. Now there’s Vampire Weekend, which college kids love. There are bands like Tinariwen, which plays North African music, that any punk rocker can associate with. There’s too much good stuff out there [that could be called World Music] to be into.

MIL: Your original hits were your own spin on Cambodia’s ’60s rock classics. Yet for the American audiences who love your music, part of the appeal is that it makes them nostalgic.

Williams: It’s their music and culture, too. We are playing surf guitar and American-style psych music, mixed with American R&B, funk and jazz. I know some people thought we were a gimmick when we started out, but then I think they realised these are people who are just playing good music.

MIL: Nimol, are you surprised that this old and mostly forgotten Cambodian music has become so popular with Western audiences?

Nimol: I am very surprised. Everything that’s happened has happened so fast and it’s like a dream. Every time I go on stage, I cry with joy even though the tears don’t come out. When I sing and see so many [Americans and Europeans], I feel very proud of myself as a Cambodian being able to make foreigners rock out to our music. People always ask me where this music is from and I tell them it’s from Ros Sereysothea. If Sereysothea were still alive, she would have improved our culture and our arts even more but everything did not go as planned. All of the famous singers died during the Pol Pot regime.

MIL: You guys have emphasised that at the end of the day you’re just playing music. But, oddly enough, you have become the most recognised custodians of ’60s Cambodian rock, and your music has become a cultural project, too.

Holtzman: It wasn’t a preconceived idea that we were going to become the ambassadors of this Cambodian music, but we’re happy to represent it and take it in a new direction. We were inspired by the music from the ’60s and ’70s but now we’re writing our own songs and going in whatever direction we want to go in. Now as we become more of an international band and Nimol’s English has improved, we’re also going to do some songs in English.

Paul Smith: Our first trip to Cambodia [in 2005] made us aware of the historical weight we had built into this project without us realising it.

Holtzman: The lyrics of the songs that inspired us were of a really happy-go-lucky time in Phnom Penh, where there was a lot of romance, girl-meets-boy love. This music stopped when the Khmer Rouge came in and these musicians died. The song “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula” that we’ve written is about one of the singers who, rumour has it, was forced to strip naked and sing under the hot sun in circles until she passed out and died.

MIL: What’s it like, Nimol, to return to Cambodia now that you’ve been away for so long?

Nimol: When I came to perform with the band in Cambodia for the first time, I felt a mixture of anxiety and excitement. When we play in Europe, we get much more support than we do here. But Cambodians also seem interested.

MIL: John Pirozzi, a filmmaker, is creating a story that parallels your music and explores its historical and cultural depth. He made “Sleepwalking through the Mekong” about your first trip to Cambodia, in 2005, and now he is finishing work on a second documentary, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll.” Could you describe them?

Holtzman: What he’ll have created when he’s finished with “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” is the most thorough documentary on the Cambodian music scene of that era prior to the Khmer Rouge. It also touches on Dengue Fever and the revival of Cambodia’s traditional folk music. “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong” is about Dengue Fever coming to Cambodia for the first time, which was also Nimol’s first time back after staying in the United States on a tourist visa. It’s about playing music that was extinguished.

MIL:  One scene in “Sleepwalking” shows a free concert you put on in one of Phnom Penh’s largest slums. Some people look engaged but lots of others just had blank stares. It must be a challenge to play songs—or a version of them—that used to be such famous classics here but then to have people not recognise them, owing to the legacy of cultural oppression left by the Khmer Rouge.

Smith: It was intimidating. In some ways there is an open wound. Maybe this music is bringing back memories they might not always be ready to have and that they’ve spent more time trying to forget than remember. It’s not that far off from a therapy exercise.

[Published online by The Economist’s More Intelligent Life on July 20, 2010]