The diminutive vocalist, draped in shimmering sequins, seems dwarfed by the 6’6″ bass player lunging at the heaving, cheek-by-jowl crowd. Until, that is, she opens her throat and from somewhere deep within unleashes what sounds like Sanskrit chants running through a reverb machine.
Doors-esque vocals swirl around raging guitars and wild drum beats, the bass player bounding ceaselessly from one end of the stage to the other. Towards the front of the stage, a young, sharply dressed Khmer woman is singing along with great gusto: “I know all of these songs!” She is not alone: for this is Dengue Fever.
The Kinks’ Ray Davies hailed them “a cross between Led Zeppelin and Blondie”; Matt Dillon asked them to record a Cambodian version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now for his directorial debut, City Of Ghosts. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett picked One Thousand Tears Of A Tarantula – homage to legendary chanteuse Ros Sereysothea, forced by the Khmer Rouge to strip naked and sing under the merciless Cambodian Sun until she dropped dead from exhaustion – for the number two slot on his Rolling Stone magazine Best Music Of The Decade ballot.
Dengue Fever, the Los Angeles-based sextet who take ’60s Cambodian psyche rock and stuff it through a blender, made a triumphant return to their spiritual homeland last week, playing to a packed FCC Phnom Penh at the start of their week-long tour. Here to headline the Memory Heritage film festival, the band burst onto the FCC stage less than 24 hours after jetting in from the US. If anyone was suffering from jetlag, it was well disguised: they whirled, twirled, hooped and hollered throughout, showering hundreds of watching bodies with arcs of sweat.
True to their roots in Khmer psychedelia, Dengue Fever’s set list included several classics by long-lost Cambodian singers Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, both of whom fell victim to the murderous regime of Pol Pot (the father of the band’s lead singer Chhom Nimol once sang alongside Sisamouth on a movie soundtrack during Cambodia’s ‘Golden Era’).
The band’s beginnings on a dusty road en route from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh in the late 1990s have long been the stuff of legend. Farfisa organ player Ethan Holtzman, a Californian hipster backpacking through Southeast Asia, had hitched a ride in a beaten pick-up truck along with a friend who’d contracted the viral disease from which the band ultimately took its name. For eight hours, Ethan caught the captivating melodies of ’60s Cambodian rock wafting from the radio every time he poked his head through the window to check on his friend’s condition.
By the time Ethan returned to LA, his suitcase crammed full of Cambodian cassette tapes, his brother Zac had discovered the genre on his own while living in San Francisco. Zac took lead guitar and Ethan keys, adding saxophonist David Ralicke; drummer Paul Dreux Smith and bassist, Senon Williams. Chhom Nimol, their alluring lead singer whose father sang with the great Khmer pop singer Sinn Sisamouth, was discovered at Dragon House in the Cambodian-American enclave of Long Beach. “When we first witnessed the power of Nimol’s voice filling the hall,” Ethan has said of that moment, “My brother and I were floored. We knew that she was the one.”
When the microphones finally clicked off, having blasted everything from Durian and Tiger to Cement and Mr Orange, the band was mobbed by folk eager to get close to those whose story has become the stuff of local legend. Backs were slapped; hands were pumped. Hugs were given and received with glee. Backstage, still in her sequins, Nimol was helpless with laughter: “Amazing! Amazing! So much fun!”