Friday, April 24, 2009
By JOHN WIRT
Long-distance passion that won’t be denied erupts brilliantly in Dengue Fever’s Cambodian-spiced, mini-epic love song, “Tiger Phone Card.” Separated by oceans and continents, an American boy and Cambodian girl express the anguish of separation and ecstasy of reunion.
A duet starring singer-guitarist Zac Holtzman and Cambodian native Chhom Nimol, “Tiger Phone Card” is track No. 3 on Dengue Fever’s latest album, Venus On Earth. In another radio era, the song’s Asian-American ’60s psychedelic pop-rock sound might well have made it a Top 40 hit.
“I wouldn’t have been complaining, that’s for sure,” Dengue Fever bassist Senon Williams said of such speculative success.
Inspired by Cambodian pop-rock music of the 1960s that was, in turn, inspired by American pop and rock broadcast from South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman co-founded Dengue Fever in 2001. Seeking authenticity, they auditioned singers in Long Beach, home to a large Cambodian community.
The band found Chhom Nimol. A star in her homeland who’d performed for Cambodian royalty, she spoke no English.
“Nimol thought we were really strange,” Williams said. “Whenever we rehearsed she’d bring three to 15 people along to these little rehearsal spaces down in Long Beach. There were people on the couch, reading books, playing cards. Nimol brought her posse to make sure nothing strange happened.”
Chhom eventually grew more trusting of her American band mates but even now she lives primarily in her Cambodian community and speaks English only when she’s with the band.
Dengue Fever’s 2003 debut, featuring remakes of Cambodian classics from the ’60s, is a tribute to Western-influenced musicians who were killed during dictator Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge regime. The band’s 2007 follow-up, Escape from Dragon House, contains original songs sung in Khmer while 2008’s Venus On Earth features several songs in English.
Dengue Fever’s latest release, DVD-CD set Sleepwalking Through The Mekong, offers a documentary film about the band’s 2005 visit to Cambodia.
“The best thing about the film is that it’s not a bunch of us running around with a video camera shooting ourselves,” Williams said. “We worked with a small Cambodian crew and an experienced filmmaker. It’s a really beautiful film.”
Of course, there were challenges.
“In Cambodia, they just say, ‘Show up and it will be fine,’” Williams said. “We were like, ‘Well, we need to know that we have a show, a stage, PA system.’ They said, ‘Don’t worry. Just show up.’ We realized that we weren’t gonna be able to arrange things through phone calls and emails, so we sent Zac out there two weeks early to set things up.”
The band’s investors also required a shooting schedule. The musicians and director John Pirozzi crafted a plan that they knew might have little to do with reality.
“Everybody thought we had a movie before we thought we had a movie,” Williams said.
The reality Dengue Fever found, including a televised performance from the country’s most watched television station and a concert in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac ghetto attended by thousands who learned of the show strictly through word of mouth, transcended expectations the band may have had.
“Things turned out differently than the plan but also beautifully,” Williams said.