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07 décembre 2008

1960s Cambodian rock alive and well in America

By VANESSA FRANKO, The Press-Enterprise, 12-3-08
Few American indie bands are playing 1960s-style Cambodian rock these days. And Dengue Fever is the only one to have a documentary made about it. You can check out both the band and the film tonight at Garrison Theater, Scripps College Performing Arts Center, in Claremont, when Dengue Fever performs and the documentary is screened. The film "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong" follows the band on a tour to Cambodia.

Dengue Fever has been climbing the buzzmeter with shows across the U.S. and a recent tour of Europe. The band was signed by Peter Gabriel's Real World Records to release its newest album, "Venus On Earth," outside the U.S. and Canada.

"I thought when the band was starting, I was optimistic locally -- like in Los Angeles and the music scene there. I knew it'd be a lot of fun to play this style at the local clubs where my brother and I live in Echo Park and Silver Lake. ... I knew it would go over well there," keyboardist Ethan Holtzman said. "I didn't know it was going to become our careers."

He and brother Zac Holtzman, who plays guitar, started the band in 2001 after discovering their mutual interest in Cambodian music from the 1960s.

Ethan traveled throughout Southeast Asia about 10 years ago and got into Cambodian pop music and bought cassettes. Around the same time, Zac was living in San Francisco, working at a record store where a colleague turned him onto the music. The brothers were staying together in Los Angeles and Ethan heard some of the music in Zac's collection.

"That's crazy -- I know that stuff," Ethan remembered thinking.

They decided it would be fun to play the music, which has psychedelic rock tones blended with traditional Cambodian music and sometimes lyrics, and formed the band. Saxophone player David Ralicke, drummer Paul Smith and bassist Senon Williams joined and they looked for a Cambodian singer, finding Chhom Nimol singing karaoke in Long Beach.

Nimol, who is from Cambodia, was known around the country and had performed for the king and queen.

Nimol's homecoming is documented in "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong," directed by John Pirozzi, which follows the band on their tour of Cambodia. It was filmed over 10 days in 2005. Tonight, Pirozzi will be on hand for a Q&A after the film.

"We'll remember it for the rest of our lives," Ethan said of the tour.

Some people knew the band before they toured Cambodia. Other recognized them from a television program and spoke to them as they traveled the country. Shows were packed, including one at a bar on a swamp. The owner was afraid would fall into the water.

"It went down in Cambodian history," Ethan said.

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