An infectious blend of indie rock and world music rocked La Fête de Marquette when the LA-based Cambodian-American band Dengue Fever took the stage Saturday. The band is on a North American and European tour promoting their newest CD, "Venus on Earth." It's part of an odyssey that began more than 10 years ago, when California rocker Ethan Holtzman visited Cambodia with a friend. The friend caught dengue fever (and recovered). Holtzman caught a passion for Cambodian rock of the 1970s and returned with a collection of cassettes and an idea (and a name) for a band.
In 2001 he formed a band with like-minded friends, and they looked for a singer in the large Cambodian community in Long Beach. They hit the jackpot with Chhom Nimol (shown after the band's Saturday night show), who had been a well-known singer in Cambodia and in 2000 moved to the U.S., where she started singing in Cambodian clubs.
The Boston Globe described her first meeting with the band.
"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?"The joyous, exuberant music we heard Saturday night has poignant roots. The mix of influences in the band's music came together in Cambodia 40 years ago, when the Vietnam War brought with it armed forces radio broadcasts of American and British rock, influencing local musicians, and giving rise to a thriving Cambodian rock scene -- which was shut down by the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal regime.
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.
After Cambodia recovered from the Khmer Rouge nightmare, the music was largely forgotten, both in Cambodia and the overseas diaspora. Drummer and producer Paul Smith described to the Globe what it was like to bring the music back.
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."