Dengue Fever spreads Cambodian rock

Boston Globe, January 20, 2007

Dengue fever is a fairly nasty, mosquito-borne tropical disease. But the spread of an infectious new strain in the United States should be no cause for alarm. Dengue Fever, the Los Angeles band, transmits itself through music and results in nothing worse than 1970s surf-rock flashbacks and a sudden urge to explore Cambodian culture.

Perhaps we should take a step back. Ten years ago a California rocker named Ethan Holtzman took a trip to Cambodia with a friend. The friend picked up dengue, the disease (he recovered). Holtzman picked up a bunch of cassettes of 1970s Cambodian rock and, by way of his pal’s misfortune, a quirky name for a band.

By 2001, Holtzman not only remained obsessed with the blend of psychedelia, surf rock, Bollywood, and traditional influences in the vintage Cambodian sound he’d discovered, but had convinced a posse of like-minded rock eccentrics – brother Zac Holtzman on guitar, Paul Smith on drums, bassist Senon Williams, saxophonist David Ralicke – to join him in resurrecting the sound. And thus was born Dengue Fever the band.

Now Dengue Fever has hit the big time: Its second album, “Escape From Dragon House,” has crept since its 2005 release into the heads of both indie-rock and world-music critics. Tomorrow, the band will appear at a New York annual showcase that consecrates the international bands du jour. But first, in a bow to its origins, Dengue Fever will stop tonight in Lowell at Pailin City Restaurant for a gig in the heart of the Massachusetts Cambodian community.

The charismatic force that holds Dengue Fever together is a Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, whom the band recruited after scouring the scene in Long Beach – the Los Angeles-area port city that is home to the country’s largest Cambodian population – for a frontwoman to interpret the Khmer-language songs that so compelled them.

Chhom was, to say the least, surprised at the interest from a group of Western guys with no prior connection to her culture, she recalls on the phone.

“I think the first time I did not trust them so much,” she says. She came to the United States in 2000, and her English remains heavily accented. “I was thinking, what are they doing, how come they care about Cambodian music?”

She brought an entourage to the audition and first practices. Her sister translated. Her friends sized up the band, their intentions, the lyrics of the original songs they proposed to translate into Khmer and have her deliver.

When Chhom arrived at the audition, the other candidates scattered. Chhom had been a big star back home after winning a televised contest in the early 1990s; her reputation was just as strong in the diaspora.

The bizarre pairing worked. Chhom grew comfortable with the band. “The first time we played together I was nervous,” she says. “More nervous than before I came to America.” But Cambodians and Americans alike grooved to her singing, high-pitched and melodic with overtones of Asian pop against edgy American guitars and keys.

And the band found this glamorous woman with stunning outfits and limited English was no prima donna but an eager, tenacious bandmate, says drummer and producer Smith.

“We thought we’d be on diva patrol,” Smith says, “but she turned out to be a trouper.”

If Dengue Fever has caught on, Smith speculates, it is in part because of Chhom’s charisma and talent, but also because good songs have universal appeal.

“Well-written pop songs tend to have an emotional center,” he says. He adds that the songs offer room for some improvisation and introduction of diverse elements from rock and jazz that keep them interesting to perform.

How all of these influences came together in Cambodia 40 years ago is a story in itself. A key factor, Smith explains, was the American and British rock that US Armed Forces radio broadcast during the Vietnam war. The scene shut down abruptly in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge regime took over. Westernized artists were prime targets of repression, and those who could not flee were killed or had to remake themselves as propaganda singers.

When the Cambodian pop scene was reborn in the 1980s at home and in the overseas diaspora, new influences came to dominate – the saccharine pop common in much of Southeast Asia, and later hip-hop and R&B.

The Western guys in Dengue Fever have thus been in the odd position of reintroducing Cambodian youth to some of the vintage music of their parents’ or grandparents’ time. In America, Smith says, he’s seen thugged-out Cambodian gangsters start break dancing to the group’s live performances. As for the chance to play in Cambodia in late 2005, he calls it simply “mind-blowing.”

“We played in a shantytown, on an outdoor stage lit by old car lights, to 800 locals,” he says. “We felt like space aliens coming out from a spaceship. It was one of the most gratifying experiences to have.”

Being labeled “world music,” Smith says, is a “running joke” in the band. “None of us set out to be a world musician. It’s kind of a bad word, though it shouldn’t be.”

Yet without particularly trying to, Dengue Fever has broken at least two of the most tenacious barriers that beset the world-music genre. In Cambodia, they managed to bring together at their shows the usually self-segregated local and expat scenes.

And here in the United States, they are the rare band that is equally at ease playing downtown hipster venues and the immigrant restaurant and function hall circuit.

Not bad for a project that started out like some kind of quasi-accidental fantasy. “I’m just glad it turned out to have legs,” Smith says. The fever is catching.