Sept. 9, 2011
Fingerprints Record Store, Long Beach
Friday should have been designated Dengue Fever Day by the City of Long Beach because the Cambodian psych-pop band's double dose of public appearances is the most the band has been seen in these parts since their latest album, Cannibal Courtship, was released in April.
But absence only makes the heart grow fonder, it seems. Early in the afternoon on a supposed workday, a diverse group of fans and cycling activists met up at the Homeland Cultural Center in Cambodia Town for a bike ride and lunch with members of the genre-bending outfit.
The press event was organized by Long Beach's Bike-Friendly Business
District program, which purchases bicycles for use by employees and
patrons in the city's four designated districts. Though Cambodia Town is
the last of the four to get its wheels–which include several commuter
bikes and a people-holding cargo bike–it is probably the only one to
have a band claim the neighborhood as the reason for its existence.
Cambodia Town's large community of émigrés is what attracted singer
Chhom Nimol to move there from Cambodia more than a decade ago. And its
reputation as a haven for Cambodian musicians and singers is what drew
brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman into Dragon House from Los Angeles the
night they discovered Nimol's elevating vocals 10 years ago.
After the short group bike ride and a traditional Cambodian lunch at the
Grand Paradise Restaurant (where Nimol has been known to still
perform), the band members left to get ready for their next appearance
on the list: an in-store performance at Fingerprints.
Scheduled to begin at 7p.m., the crowd was left standing outside of
Fingerprints' East Village storefront until nearly 7:30 before being
ushered into the dimly lit back room. Bass player Senon Williams and
guitarist Zac Holtzman emerged in the same casual garb they'd been
wearing on the bike ride earlier, but Nimol had undergone a glamorous
update for the show. Dressed like a top-tier Cambodian pop star, her
prismatic black cocktail dress with matching heels and sparkling diamond
bangles stood in contrast to the band-dude dress of the others.
Her voice–silky and wraithlike–channeled through an exotic karaoke mic
echo also set her apart from the aggressive noises that materialized out
of the instruments on stage, which in the first few songs alone ranged
from freestyle psych-organs to escalating proto-surf guitar riffs.
Starting in with “Genjer, Genjer”–a once-banned Indonesian protest song
made into a sultry psychedelic space jam–the band played most of the
Khmer-language songs off of Courtship including “Uku” with its extended
acapalla intro sending shivers through the room.
Aside from the fact that every member of the band is a master of their
respective crafts, the genre-blending nature of Dengue Fever is the most
captivating thing about experiencing the band live. Even with knowledge
of their song repertoire, their diverse influences–from Sinn Sisamouth
to Mulatu Astatke–often take familiar numbers into unexpected
directions, pouring tribal beats on top of Khmer chants as if Los
Angeles was created to be a laboratory for such musical explorations.
At several points during the performance, Nimol was left smiling and
dancing as her five bandmates spiraled into a seemingly improvisational
frenzy of bebop saxophone and funky bass lines worthy of a pluralistic
Blade Runner nightclub. Eventually, the chaos would return to Earth with
Nimol's haunting vocals guiding it down the runway.
After 10 years as a band, Dengue Fever is no longer merely reviving
Cambodian rock 'n' roll. As the in-store performance on Friday proves,
they are delving even deeper into their own dizzying mixture of
multicultural compositions, charting new territories in sound and
showing the world what is possible when we take the time to explore the
new worlds residing right next door.
Critic's Bias: I'm kind of obsessed with cultural mixture and Dengue Fever satisfies all of my cravings.
The Crowd: First-generation Cambodian teens, CSULB students, Bluff
Park dads, white girls with bindis, the guy that tattooed Bradley
Nowell's famous “Sublime” back piece.
Random Notebook Dump: Never had Cambodian food before and yum! Like
Vietnamese or Thai but plus jalapeños, olives and pineapples. Where'd
they get all those non-native ingredients?
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.