When you live in Siem Reap you stop taking things for granted like electricity not going out for days at a time, and not having to spray on mosquito repellent most every day. You don’t wanna’ risk getting dengue fever. But then, being me, and liking to go against the grain just to get a different perspective, I up and decided there was no way I was going to skip catching Dengue Fever this season, and my quest was successful.
If you don’t know who Dengue Fever are, you’re in for a treat, assuming you like music and have somewhat eclectic tastes. I discovered them back in 2003 when my favorite radio station (WFMU) played their song, Lost In Laos. The singer is Cambodian, usually sings in Khmer, and their style pays tribute to the innovative Cambodian rock of the late 60’s and early 70’s that fused local Cambodian musical styles with Western influences, such as surf, psychedelic, and garage rock. This mysterious style briefly flourished until the year zero and was only resurrected on an international scale with the re-release of choice discovered period songs in a 2003 compilation called Cambodian Rocks.
The initial inspiration for the band arose when two American musician brothers fell in love with Cambodian rock after one visited Cambodia. They sought an authentic Cambodian singer and discovered, to their great fortune, Chhom Nimol, singing in a nightclub in “Little Phnom Penh” in Long Beach. They adopted a few more band members, covering all the bases of guitar, organ, drums, bass, singing, and even brass. They started off with exceptional covers of classic Khmer songs – which was already interesting – and slowly integrated their own musical ideas (English vocals, spooky keyboards, wild brass…), resulting in a unique texture that’s very cool, sophisticated, and sometimes sublime.
Here’s a very beautiful song with that distinct Khmer flavor, and vocals to give you moist eyes and goosebumps.
And here’s a good example of their mature style, and maybe my girlfriend’s favorite song by them:
Much as I love the more overtly Cambodian songs, some of my favorites are the songs with English lyrics, where guitarist Zac also sings, and they tell stories. These pieces are definitely a funky amalgam one won’t find anywhere else, including in their imitation band, Cambodian Space Project. A great example is “Tiger Phone Card”, which is about long distance relationships. Note that at first I was put off by the English singing, as I guess I was rather a purist, didn’t need it, and thought it might compromise the authenticity of the roots of the music. But over time I really gravitated to it, and when they played Tiger Phone Card live last night, I had to choke back the tears that were welling up in my eyes.
Speaking of the unanticipated, and unforeseeable vicissitudes of life, this afternoon my girlfriend and I popped into an ice-cream shop downtown. Sitting by the door, looking out the window was a guy with a long beard who looked more than suspiciously like the guitarist, Zac. I stopped in my tracks and looked at my girlfriend, and back at him. He’d noticed us recognizing him. and there was this unspoken understanding that, yeah, he was who we thought he was, and we were who he thought we were (fans who’d seen the concert). I’m not really the type to intrude on other people’s private universes, but since I’ve been following this band for over a decade and introduced several other people to them, and he wasn’t trying to play incognito, I’d just share with him how much I dug his music. My students never believe I’ve ever been at all shy, but I’m not great at talking to strangers unless I’m in the right mood or have had a few drinks. But as an artist, knowing how nice it is to get the rare real note of appreciation, I thought it was worth overstepping my slight inhibitions.
[Below is Zac with his custom “Mastadong” combo Cambodian “chapei dong vong” long-neck guitar, plus a Fender Jassmaster.]
I had an opener, though, because probably unlike most people they encounter, I’ve been following them since the very beginning. I think my exact words were, “I’ve been following you guys since 2003”. It occurred to me later, if you genuinely dig someone’s art, you already share a lot in common, because you are into their main thing. We had surprisingly more in common. I mentioned I discovered them, when I lived in NY, through independent radio. He said, “WFMU”. Those four letters, for lovers of eclectic music, mean a lot. I liked WFMU so much that I was a regular contributor when their fund drives came about, and the station manager gave me the back-door pass to the online archives of their shows. The DJs at WFMU have amazing musical breadth and knowledge, and I’ve never found anything that can rival them as a source for new and awesome musical discoveries. And he mentioned Rob Weisberg, whose show is Transpacific Sound Paradise, and undoubtedly the venue where I first heard Dengue Fever.
I’d always thought WFMU was just MY best portal to the music world, but now I rather think it may be THE best place to expand your musical horizons. I’ve never met anyone before who listened to Transpacific Sound Paradise, but I suppose the surprising thing isn’t that he did, seeing as they played on the show – live in the studio – several times, but that I listen to it. I’m not even a musician, unless you count my computer/instrumental experimentations.
Zac turned out to be a very friendly and accessible guy. He smiled and his eyes smiled, genuinely. We got to talking about some of the songs, and, yeah, all those songs that I thought were about him and Nimol were more about universal themes, and using them as examples. That’s right, he’d asked us where he could buy a bracelet made from a landmine for his wife, and I naively said something about the singer being his wife. THAT is a common misconception, I quickly learned. The songs are personal, and that’s why they are convincingly about real relationships, but rather than literally being about him and Nimol, they combine each of their relationships with other people, so that the fiction is weaved from multiple lived truths.
There’s a bit of a touchy subject, which is the Cambodian Space Project, who came out about 7 years after Dengue Fever, and seem to have modeled themselves on the older band. We’ve all heard that imitation is the highest form of flattery, bus does it dilute your originality when another act uses a similar formula to the one you forged yourself? I’ve said for a while that if there were no Dengue Fever, there’d be no Cambodian Space Project. Now there isn’t just one rock band playing Cambodian classics and their own music, with a female Khmer singer, anymore. There are two. As an artist myself, I wouldn’t be very keen on having someone copy my work. I got the impression Dengue Fever is a bit ambivalent about CSP. On the bright side, when even a knock-off band is quite good, it’s testament to the quality of the original recipe.
The most important thing I took away from the chance encounter with Zac was our shared knowledge of fairly obscure international music, which is almost a greater coincidence that running into him at all. He recommended the Cameroonian musician, Francis Bebey. We were speaking the same language with the same vocabulary, because I’m a big fan of Bebey, and his weird and wonderful, “Pymy Divorce” is one of my favorite all-time songs.
Then he mentioned another of his treasured rare discoveries, William Onyeabor. Yeah, I’ve got a half dozen of his songs in my collection.
He recommended the Etheopiques, who I don’t know, and I encouraged him to check out the Tanzanian, Hukwe Zawose.
When I first became a fan of Dengue Fever I don’t think I’d been to Asia yet. 2003 is the year I first went to Thailand, but towards the end of the year around my birthday. I never envisioned back then that I’d move to Asia, live in Thailand, China, Vietnam, or Cambodia. I remember reading my roommate’s copy of Off the Rails in Phnom Pehn, and looking at a simple street shot of Phnom Pehn, with a Khmer woman walking down the street, and I couldn’t envision myself placed in that environment. My one regret in life at that point was that I hadn’t traveled and seen much of the world. Going someplace like Asia was not something most people I knew ever attempted, or thought about attempting. For you non-Americans, when you get one week of vacation a year, tops, including the weekend, your vacation plans tend to be limited. I never envisioned I would speak three Asian languages. And I certainly never envisioned I’d live in Siem Reap, go to a Dengue Fever concert here, or run into the guitar player (and singer) in an ice-cream shop and talk about the Transpacific Sound Paradise.
I also don’t know where I’ll be in a year, or two, or three.
If you happen to be in Phnom Pehn this Friday or Saturday, you can catch them at FCC, and they’ll be touring in America during March and April. One of the surprises of the live act is the wild performance of the sax and flute player, who contributes a lot more than I’d noticed just listening to the music. These guys are everything I’d hoped for live, and I highly recommend them.
And here’s a sample of what you can expect from a live performance.
Oh yea, the graphic at the top is by me, y’know, milking the double-entendre of the band and the illness.
For those that are curious, see some of my best art here.