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There’s a one-mile stretch of Anaheim Street in Long Beach, California, that in July 2007 won an official designation as Cambodia Town, and for the surrounding area’s community of over 50,000 Cambodian expats—the largest congregation of Khmer-speaking people in the Western Hemisphere—it’s been an event to celebrate. For the founding members of Dengue Fever, who have known Cambodia Town for years under that name, the news more likely triggered memories of a journey that began when two brothers from southern California were first exposed to classic Cambodian pop.
“I never could understand any of the lyrics,” says Ethan Holtzman, who plays Farfisa organ in the band, “but that didn’t matter because the music and the vocals were so great, you could just feel it.” Ethan first visited Cambodia back in 1997 and had his mind blown by the music he heard—an improbable mix of psychedelic rock, lo-fi Bollywood-style orchestration and the ear-busting vocal range of popular Cambodian radio stars. Meanwhile, back in California, his brother Zac was playing guitar and singing in the alt-country punk band Dieselhed, and had been stockpiling his own cache of cassette tapes. “We were familiar with the sound from the Cambodian Rocks series,” Zac explains, “and had also picked up a bunch of tapes from Cambodia Town.”
The heyday of modern Cambodian rock extends from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s. The music is an electrifying hybrid of traditional Khmer folk and American psychedelic surf rock that relies on inventive composition and star turns from a gifted (and often female) vocalist. The universally acknowledged king of pop, Sinn Sisamouth, along with his partners and collaborators Pan Ron and Ros Serey Sothea, flourished in this period, writing and performing literally thousands of songs. With the rise of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, virtually every Cambodian pop artist of significance was either killed or “disappeared,” while the popular songs that were their legacy were banned from the airwaves by the ruling regime.
In seeking to resurrect a musical style that had essentially been wiped out, the Holtzman brothers were in a quandary. They weren’t too impressed with the overly-produced karaoke-style live performances of the music that were common throughout Khmer-American and Southeast Asian expat communities. But vivid recollections of Ethan’s trip to Cambodia, along with persistent visits to Cambodia Town, steeled their resolve to bring new life to the tradition, and Dengue Fever was formed.
The major missing component, of course, was a female lead singer—in particular, a Cambodian native who would lend the band some much-needed street cred. “We auditioned for a vocalist throughout Cambodia Town,” Zac recalls, “but we put out a special request to Chhom Nimol.” Well-known as a performer both at home, where she had already won the Cambodian television equivalent of American Idol, and in America, Nimol’s audition wowed the band, and they were overjoyed when she decided to join forces.
Part of what makes Dengue Fever tick, in fact, is the conversation that the band initiated between East and West. There is no feeling of exploitation or appropriation in what it does—only a deep reverence for a sound that, in the musicians’ skillful hands, has taken on a new life in a poly-cultural crucible, and continues to remain vital (and mutable) for an ever-expanding audience.
“Maybe 15 years ago,” Zac says, “I’m not sure we’d have been as well-received and well-treated as we have been. But with the internet and a more mobile world culture, people seem to be more open to things outside their experience. And I don’t feel like we’re excluding anyone by singing in Khmer—n