Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
ON A SIX-MONTH SOJOURN THROUGH ASIA IN 1997, Ethan Holtzman had a revelatory moment by the ruins of Angkor Wat, near Phnom Penh. Holtzman's Scottish traveling companion Russ had been bitten by a mosquito, and during their ride to the ruins Russ turned pale and began to sweat. Their driver was blaring Cambodian oldies from the '60s, a buzzy psych-rock with eerily provocative female vocals. And Holtzman, a multi-instrumentalist with an ear for musical texture, fell into a trance.
Russ was also entranced, though his was a condition that would later be identified as dengue, an infectious fever spread by mosquitoes that's common to tropical climes. Russ would eventually recuperate; Holtzman would not recover, however, from that exotic fusion of static-guitar, fuzzy Farfisa organ and metallic percussion, or from the melodious soul of the Khmer language shining above it all.
The vanguard '60s Cambodian music scene boasted as much sheer invention, verve and breakthrough technology as anything in the States at the time, but it was nipped in the bud by the war in neighboring Vietnam, as well as the Cambodian civil wars that took place in the early '70s. Cambodian society is now undergoing the slow process of being re-defined, and is currently not blazing the musical trails it had been back then. Holtzman, stocking up on as much vintage Cambodian pop as he could find (much of it on French labels), began plotting its revival.
When Ethan's brother Zach returned to Los Angeles after 10 years in San Francisco, where he played guitar and sang in the countryish indie-prog band Dieselhed, the two began scouring the Little Phnom Penh scene in Long Beach in the hope of finding a Cambodian singer for their new project, Dengue Fever. Last summer, at a club called the Dragon House, they found their woman. Rather, they saw a goddess named Chhom Nimol, fresh from her native country, where her family members are famous as performers. Radiant from head to toe in an elegant evening gown, Nimol spoke very little English, yet hearing her graceful, enigmatic voice, Ethan knew he'd discovered his sound.
“We were blown away,” he recalls. “We approached her at the end of the set. She didn't trust us at first. We did all we could to lure her, made all kinds of promises. Eventually she joined up.”
Through laborious, pantomimed rehearsal, Nimol and the Holtzmans developed a repertoire, beginning with traditional Cambodian covers such as “The New Year's Song” and “Glass of Wine.” Zach, an avid fan of Ethiopian jazz, brought like-minded friend Dave Ralicke from the band Brazzaville aboard to play saxophone, and the two added experimental dimensions behind Nimol's heartfelt Khmer vocals. Bassist Senon Williams (of the Radar Brothers), who'd also spent time in Cambodia, and drummer Paul Smith rounded out the lineup. After a handful of icebreaking live performances, the band began to have fun, finding that, despite Nimol's Khmer-language lyrics, the crowds delighted in the universality of her yearning voice.
A YEAR LATER, DENGUE FEVER'S THEATRICS are as eclectic as the Cambodian-modeled music itself. A regally dressed Nimol is occasionally ushered through the audience and onto the stage in a cyclo. Music that was inspired by a semi-life-threatening disease has become a klezmerish psychedelic surf-garage-spacesuit-jazz compound. Zach's Khmer-language backing vocals, the Farfisa and Optigan and spare sax heaves brilliantly soak the open spaces. Sometimes the band wear full silken Cambodian regalia, so as not to pale next to their star. “Senon said, 'Our singer looks like a million bucks, and we look like 10 cents,'” says Zach. “Now we try to dress up a little.”
Nimol's English is getting better, so much so that one of Dengue's newer songs, “Hummingbird,” was left untranslated into Khmer. But despite the band's crossover limitations, Dengue Fever are dedicated to leaving Khmer at the fore. The language itself, they believe, has an instrumental integrity, and a vitality that befits the whole.
“The lyrics are stories, usually about love in one form or another,” Ethan says. “Or about something specific, like a beard, or drinking. Or a virgin — the Cambodians have sequels to songs; one of our covers, 'I'm 16,' is a follow-up to one entitled 'Wait Ten Months.'”
With a self-titled four-song EP under their belts, the Holtzman brothers are now writing original songs in English that Nimol translates into Khmer. “We write the songs and give them to the translator,” explains Ethan, “and she works with Nimol to get it straight . . . We're really not sure if Nimol uses our lyrics or not.” Well, with one particular song called “Connect Four,” about the barmaids in Cambodia who can defeat all patrons at the strategic game, you can hardly blame her. Nimol calls the song “Rain,” and somehow more is gained than lost in the translation.
Dengue Fever play at the L.A. Weekly Music Awards, Wednesday, June 26.