By: Stephen Rose
Dengue Fever is a band from the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles that performs Cambodian pop music from the sixties with a contemporary rock sensibility. They combine world music with surf, psychedelic and garage rock to make exotic music accessible for American audiences.
Dengue Fever was formed in 2001 by brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman. Ethan Holtzman plays organ, and Zac is a guitarist and vocalist formerly with the alt-country band Dieselhead. They were inspired to form the band after Ethan returned home from a visit to Cambodia in 1997 with cassette tapes of 60’s Cambodian pop music. [The name Dengue Fever comes from a disease spread by mosquitoes which Ethan’s traveling companion contracted during their trip.]
They recruited Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol (“ch-ON NEE-mall”), already a well-known karaoke singer in her homeland, as their lead vocalist after discovering her singing in a nightclub in the Little Phnom Penh (“Cambodia Town”) neighborhood of Long Beach, California – home to the largest Cambodian community in the United States (approximately 50,000 residents). Chhom Nimol and her family reunited with her sister by moving to Long Beach in 2000 from Thailand, where they had lived after fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Rounding out the band are David Ralicke on flute and sax, Senon Williams on bass, and Paul Smith on drums. Ralicke has played with Beck and Ozomatli, while Williams was previously a member of slowcore band the Radar Brothers.
In 2002, Dengue Fever won LA Weekly’s Best New Band award. That same year, their Khmer version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” was included in Matt Dillon’s film “City of Ghosts.” [The band gives thanks to Matt Dillon in the liner notes of their first album.]
Disaster nearly struck when Chhom Nimol was arrested in San Diego in accordance with the stringent, post-9/11 INS policy. She had originally arrived in the U.S. on a two-week visitor’s visa and never returned home. She spent three weeks in jail and it took the band’s lawyer nearly a year to secure her a two year visa.
Dengue Fever’s eponymous debut was released in 2003 on the Web of Mimicry label run by Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance. All of the lyrics are sung in Khmer, and many of the songs are covers of 1960s Cambodian hits by pre-Pol Pot stars such as Sinn Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Ros Sereysothea. The album pays close tribute to the source material making it almost indistinguishable from the originals. It has an authentic vintage 60’s vibe, with only the improved production, musicianship, and that always elusive cool factor distinguishing it from the cassettes that Ethan Holtzman brought home from Cambodia.
In an album full of quality performances, standouts including the opener “Lost in Loas,” “Hold My Hips,” “Pow Pow,” and concert highlight “New Year’s Eve.” Other notable selections include “I’m Sixteen,” “Flowers,” “Glass of Wine,” “Shave Your Beard,” and “Connect Four.”
On their second album, “Escape From the Dragon House,” the production is slicker and the sound has begun to evolve and take on a more distinctive character. The band rocks a little harder and the album includes more original compositions, first written by the Holtzmans in English then translated into Khmer for Nimol to sing.
Escape From the Dragon House is somewhat new wave-ish and experimental in nature, especially “Saran Wrap.” It also includes two tracks where Zac Holztman takes the lead vocals. Highlights include the concert staple “One Thousand Years of Tarantula;” the title track “Escape From The Dragon House;” “Tap Water;” and the opening two tracks “We Were Gonna” and “Sni Bong.”
Amazon named “Escape From the Dragon House” their record 1 International release of the year. In 2006, Mojo (U.K.) included it in their Top 5 World Music releases of the year.
In 2005, the band toured Cambodia becoming the first Western-based group to perform Khmer rock music in Cambodia since Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975. A documentary film, “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong” captured the band’s concerts in Phnom Penh and other Cambodian cities.
In 2008, Dengue Fever released their third album “Venus On Earth” on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records label. All of the compositions were written by Zac Holtzman with contributions from the rest of the band. Gordon “Nappy G” Clay contributes on percussion. Several songs are in English and feature the call and response vocals between Chhom Nimol and Zac Holtzman that have become part of the band’s trademark, including “Tiger Phone Card” and “Sober Driver.” Other highlights include the opening two tracks, “Seeing Hands” and “Clipped Wings,” and the closing track “Mr. Orange.”
Venus on Earth was selected as one of the best world music records of 2008 by the iTunes Store.
In 2011, Dengue Fever released their most accomplished album to date “Cannibal Courtship,” on Fantasy Records (a subsidiary of Concord Records). The album contains some of the band’s catchiest original compositions, including the radio-friendly “Cement Slippers,” and concert favorites “Family Business,” “Uku,” “Only A Friend,” “Mr. Bubbles,” and “Durian Dowry.” Other highlights include “Sister in the Radio,” “Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius,” “Thank You Goodbye,” and the title track “Cannibal Courtship.” All songs are written by Dengue Fever, and the album is augmented by The Living Sisters providing vocal harmonies. Gordon Clay returns on percussion.
Dengue Fever supports several charitable organizations in Cambodia including Wildlife Alliance, and the Sweet Relief Fund. In 2010, they compiled an album of pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodian rock music entitled “Electric Cambodia,” with all proceeds dedicated to Cambodian Living Arts.
Dengue Fever interview (Bandwagon, part I)
Dengue Fever interview (Bandwagon, part II)
Dengue Fever Interview (CMJ TV)
Dengue Fever Interview (DMX)
Zac Holtzman explains the Mastadong
Cement Slippers (official video)
Sni Bong (official video)
Uku (Live at Beta)
1000 Years of Tarantula (Live Groupee Session)
Gendjer Gendjer (Quick Hits)
Tiger Phone Card (Radio K Live at SXSW)
Lost In Laos (Live Groupee Session)
Only A Friend (KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic)
Seeing Hands(Later with Jools Holland)
Uku (Troubadour, Los Angeles. 2011)
New Year’s Eve(Fingerprints Music, Long Beach, CA. 2011)
Mr Orange(Aomeba Records, Berkeley, CA. 2008)
Family Business(Moe’s Alley, Santa Cruz, CA. FEB 2012)