California Band Strikes a Cambodian Chord

With the hypnotically sultry Chhom Nimol on stage, singing in Khmer to music from an eclectic Cal­ifornian quintet, Dengue Fever is no typical cover band.

At Maxine’s bar in Phnom Penh Thursday, the floor undulated as a packed house bounced to the beat of 1960s Cambodian rock and roll classics, as well as original tunes that touched on that aesthetic but took on a flavor of their own.

Dengue Fever flawlessly recreated the lilting whine, wailing saxophone and haunting, wandering mel­odies of Cambodia’s tragically short rock and roll period.

While three of the band’s Amer­ican musicians are in Cambodia for the first time, Chhom Nimol is returning home for the first time since she moved to the US state of Cal­ifornia five years ago.

She left a life of full-time singing in Cambodia and adoring fans for En­g­lish classes in the US, a weekend gig singing in a Long Beach Cam­bodian restaurant and relative anonymity.

She said America still feels only 60 percent like home to her, and mused on the possibility of returning to Cambo­dia for longer than her current vis­it.

“In Cambodia it’s more fun,” she said. “Americans have a lot of money, but they pay a lot of mon­ey too.”

Dengue Fever is moving forward musically and Chhom Nimol said she is gradually adding En­glish-language songs to her repertoire, though guitarist Zac Holtz­man is still trying to perfect a few songs he has been learning pho­net­ically in Khmer.

Chhom Nimol often sings the classic “Anupheap Ney Pokmoat,” meaning “Power of the Beard,” to Holtzman, whose chest-length beard has proved—along with bass­ist Senon Williams’ towering stature—a marvel to locals.

The band also incorporates in­fluences of psychedelic rock into their own songs, and during their current visit members are recording with Cambodi­an musicians on traditional instruments.

“At first we didn’t know each other or understand each other, but after a while it got good,” said 73-year-old Cambodian traditional xylophone master Tep Marie at the end of a Sunday afternoon recording session with Dengue Fever.

“The master musicians, they’re so good, but I don’t think they’re used to improvising,” said band organist Ethan Holtzman, a brother of Zac Holtzman.

Blind chapai master Kong Nay adopted a blues-like sound to negotiate a mid­dle ground with the band, he added.

Though the band has been well received, the visit to Cambodia has not been entirely smooth sailing.

One scheduled show for a mostly foreign audience was canceled at the last minute after approximately 100 people had already paid $5 at the door Sunday night at the Peace Pub in Phnom Penh.

The pub’s owner, David Finch, said Monday that he believed the band had simply walked out be­cause Chhom Nimol’s voice was strained and the band didn’t want to play.

Zac Holtzman, however, said the band showed up in good faith.

“A week ago I told [the bar’s management] about the equipment we needed…. All there was was half-a-drum set and this tall stage that was all rickety” when the band arrived, he said.

And though the show was supposed to be free, the bar charged a cover at the door, he said, adding that the band is working on a possible Friday show at an undetermined venue to make up for the can­cellation.

   (Additional reporting by Kim Chan)

 

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