Cambodian Rock Night
Khmer Fusion Project
Films – Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, The Golden Voice
Knitting Factory, August 14, 2007.
Given the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles and New York, it was bound to happen. With Latino crossover bands like Ozomatli and Los Abandoned now an accepted part of the pop pantheon, Asian or Cambodian American music was the next untapped territory. Dengue Fever applied the musical heritage of L.A.’s growing Cambodian subculture into rock ‘n’ roll. A six-member band based in the Long Beach and Silverlake section of L.A., Dengue Fever was established in 2001 by brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman. With an interest in doing something different after Ethan’s trip to Cambodia, they set out to audition female Cambodian singers and found many potential singers in Long Beach’s growing Cambodian community. As soon as they met charismatic songstress Chhom Nimol, the band was complete.
Nimol speaks little English (but she’s learning).An interesting point: the band writes some songs in English and then translates them to Khmer. Their self-titled 2003 debut consisted of covers of Cambodian pop songs. After Nimol spent three weeks in jail in 2003 after being arrested for having an expired visa, the band went on involuntary hiatus for awhile. Completed in 2005, their second album “Escape from Dragon House” contains the band’s most popular song “Sni Bong” and other original compositions.
If you announce Dengue Fever’s concept and show a picture of the band to an average music fan, they might say, “Oh, no this is too esoteric for me.” However, initial appearances can be deceiving. One listen and suddenly it’s not so weird. Even though Nimol sings in Khmer, the accompanying music, which hints of surf guitar, happy Bollywood beats and funky bass, make it accessible even with the language barrier. Plus, Nimol has a smooth, sexy voice that’s interesting to listen to even without a translator.
Due to its eccentric, but amenable nature Dengue Fever’s music seems like a natural for soundtracks. One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula appeared on the cable series “Weeds”, and the band’s version of Both Sides Now was featured in City of Ghosts , the 2003 Matt Dillon film about a con man’s travels in Cambodia, and their music has even appeared in a mainstream vehicle like Must Love Dogs. Dengue Fever’s sound evokes the lush, kitschy TV and movie themes of the ‘60s and early 70s. In concert, the band gives you a lot to look at as well as listen to, with five band members (including a saxophonist) and Nimol, usually attired onstage in colorful Cambodian garb, some of which she designs herself. They’re obviously having fun onstage and this translates to the audience.
The night began with two film screenings.
The first film, “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong” by John Pirozzi, documents Dengue Fever’s 2005 Cambodian tour. Zac Holtzman relates a story about learning details of Khmer language by talking to a taxi driver and writing song with him. The band sets up a stage in the middle of a shantytown and delights residents with their performance. As they travel through Cambodia, playing Khmer music with schoolchildren and master musicians alike, we learn more not only about Cambodian history, but about the universal language of music and how it connects different generations and cultures.
The triumphant tone of “Sleepwalking” provides a contrast to the night’s other film. “The Golden Voice”. Greg Cahill’s short film, chronicles the tragic last days of ‘60s Khmer singing star Ros Sereysothea.
Before the Killing Fields and the regime of Pol Pot and Khmer Rogue, Cambodia had a vibrant music and arts community. The diminutive Sereysothea, along with her occasional singing partner, Sinn Sisamouth, the Cambodian Elvis, were Cambodia’s reining rock stars. Imprisoned in a work camp after the Khmer Rogue took power, she was forced to sing communist worker songs for the other prisoners. Sereysothea disappeared shortly after an arranged marriage to a party official. This effecting 25 minute film reveals a little known facet of Cambodian history to outsiders, and it made me want to read up more on Cambodian culture of the 1960s and early 1970s. Sophea Pel portrays Sereysothea with equal amounts of vulnerability and strength and Narin Pot gives a poignant performance as her confidante Chenda
San Francisco based Khmer Fusion Project opened the music portion of the show with their rekindled Cambodian jazz.
Vocals- Chhom Nimol
Saxophone- David Ralicke
Bass- Senon Williams