Yes, Dengue Fever is a terrible disease that causes suffering and death in tropical countries. But it’s also a kick-ass band that takes the concept of world music to another level – a mix of American musicians and a Cambodian singer.
After traveling in Cambodia and discovering the rock music movement that was almost completely obliterated by the Khmer Rouge, brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman met Cambodian karaoke singer Chhom Nimol at a nightclub in Long Beach, California. They invited her to join their surf-rock indie band, and Dengue Fever was born.
She and guitarist Zac share lead vocals, often telling stories from both sides of a couple, such as in Tiger Phone Card, one of my favorite songs from their album Venus on Earth. Communication problems between a Cambodian Girl in Phnom Phen and her boyfriend in New York City cause conflict but ultimately bring them closer together.
Another cool song with this dynamic of opposing viewpoints is Sober Driver, also from Venus on Earth. A drunk girl calls up a guy from a party, and he suspects that the only reason she called is because he is sober and has a car.
Original angles like this, with the strong, distinctive vocals of the singers, are sung over a vintage-sounding Cambodian-rock influenced band that along with bass and drums includes a saxophone, keyboards and percussion.
I saw them live a few years ago in a small bar. The band was loud and tight, and Nimol’s powerful voice came through strong and clear. She ran around the stage, encouraged the audience to dance and chatted in her native language with a few Cambodians in attendance. Dengue Fever is an interesting, truly unique band that crosses genres and creates good music. Count me as a fan.