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*This article was altered on May 31.
California is no stranger to cultural overlap. For a state that has been part of three countries, home to myriad indigenous peoples, and a cauldron of languages, multicultural is California’s middle name. Yet few bands represent the polyglot of California better than Dengue Fever.
Gleaning the psychedelic haze of late-1960s Cambodian rock, Dengue Fever have earned accolades as an imaginative reconstruction of the golden age of South Asian pop music. The six-piece retropop band create a sound that is familiar, yet foreign. A Farfisa organ evokes the surfpop revolution, rolling drums and reverbed guitar swing of a ’60s dancehall. And of course, there’s that voice. Dengue Fever would just be another throwback-rock act without the beautiful songbird Chhom Nimol. Her voice soars, wavers and drops, dancing across musical scales like a finch playing in an updraft. Her lyrics shift from English to Khmer, the language of her homeland, Cambodia. But the feeling in her voice is universal. Heartbreak and homesickness, adulation and ecstasy all exist in the cadences of her delicate voice.
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The band are in Vietnam for a festival, and bassist Senon Williams is sitting on the balcony of their hotel, enjoying a warm Hanoi afternoon. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been here last,” he says. The band last toured Southeast Asia while shooting the documentary Sleepwalking In the Mekong. In it, Dengue Fever travel to Cambodia to showcase Nimol’s transformation to her fans back home. Instead of rejecting her return to retro sounds, her family, friends and fans accepted the band as something truly international, a multicultural homage to the glory days of Cambodian culture. But things have changed since then.
“There have been a lot of changes in Vietnam: more cars, fewer bikes. I hope we can come back here, but we have to write a new album first,” Williams says. “There’s a lot different with us, too. For one, Nimol speaks English now. Well, speaks it better.”
Despite Dengue Fever’s evolution, their original Cambodian dream is impossible to shake. It all started in 1997, when keyboardist Ethan Holzman traveled to Southeast Asia. While traversing the country, he heard the hybrid sounds of Cambodian rock. Like California’s melting pot, Cambodia’s music scene was the product of cultural confluence.
In the late 1960s, when American G.I.’s were stationed in South Asia during the Vietnam War and subsequent “secret” wars in Laos and Cambodia, the sounds of the American rock explosion accompanied the soldiers, who packed Jimi Hendrix and Doors albums along with their fatigues and rifles. American radio stations on-base broadcast surf rock and Motown, which subsequently wafted from the radios into Cambodian living rooms and nightclubs. Local musicians translated American pop into Cambodian hits. Yet, like most musical hybrids, they landed halfway, mixing traditional Khmer vocal styles with American chord structure.
When Holzman returned to America, he set out to replicate the sound, enlisting his brother Zac on vocals and guitar, and later found bassist Williams.
With the band assembled, Dengue Fever started the search to find a singer who did not just cover the Cambodian sound, but also lived it. They turned to Long Beach’s Little Phnom Penh, also known as Cambodia Town, where many of the countrymen had settled, fleeing the upheavals in their home country in the ’60s and ’70s.
After a lackluster session with prospective singers, Williams says, they got lucky.
The band had no knowledge of Nimol’s background, but her competitors instantly recognized her as a singer famous back in Cambodia. “They all knew who she was,” Williams recalls. “At the time, we had no idea that she was this well-known singer in Cambodia. The singers all stepped back from the microphone, and when they heard her vocals, the other singers were, like, sprinting out the door.”
The band today have developed a sound that capitalizes on the evolution of their Southeast Asian influence—from the faithful, near-cover songs of Escape From the Dragon House to their latest, Venus On Earth, which departs slightly from their throwback act. Dengue Fever try to break the mold, even when it is of their own making.
“Nimol’s Cambodian, but I’m not. The band’s not,” Williams says. “We just want to make music; we don’t care about the nationality.”
Dengue Fever perform with Pocahaunted at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $15. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Fevered Dream: Cambodian? American? Surf pop? Rock? Dengue Fever blur the boundaries of language, musical genre and nationalit."