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Dengue Fever: East to West and Back Again

The interest in non western musics that began, in part due to the reduced restrictions on spreading music around that came along with the internets, found an unlikely pairing a few years back. On a trip to Cambodia, Los Angeles dweller Ethan Holtzman, an organ player, found a taste for Cambodian pop music, which sounds like its been suspended in time and doused with a heavy dose of Nuggets. Intuitively, Holtzman recruited his brother and set about working to assemble a line up comprised of players from around the LA area. The musicians were finally assembled, but none could conceive of fronting a band that worked in a different language seeing as it wouldn’t, most likely, come off as too authentic.

Luckily for the folks that would eventually comprise Dengue Fever (which is actually some virus transmitted by mosquitoes) there’s a section of Los Angeles that’s referred to as Little Phnom Phen. And apart from having some good food (that’s assumed), there were also a number of places that featured music. So, the boys headed down that way in search of a singer. Fortune soon deemed it appropriate to unite the Holtzmans, their musical cohort and Chhom Nimol.

Nimol, who wasn’t too sure about joining the newly constituted ensemble, was apparently a performer of some prowess in her native country, counting a familial lineage in show biz. That not withstanding, the band set about learning some covers and composing a few originals. Soon garnering favor amongst the hipped, international set in and around LA, the band began releasing full lengths, which eventually resulted in a documentary film being constructed around a Dengue Fever tour that saw them performing in Cambodia. Subsequent to releasing three albums and being featured in that film atop of hailing from one of the entertainment capitols of the world, the group’s latest release has easily become its highest profile effort.

Sleepwalking Through the Mekong first came to my attention as a result of Dengue Fever providing the sound track – performed live – for a film at a San Francisco film festival. And while it sounded too interesting to miss, I missed it. But that only resulted in my endless search for the group’s work. That effort certainly paid off. And after tracking down the disc, tossing it on and taking a cursory listen to it, my only perception of the whole affair was a positive one.

The job of recreating a rock sound based on a model began roughly forty years ago is daunting on its own. But then adding the problem of adding a non western sheen to it all and working in another language (for the most part) should have made this an endlessly difficult task. Further complicating matters is the group’s predilection for West African funk and rock music as evidenced on “Ethiopium.” And while that track isn’t too removed from the eastern pop that Dengue Fever generally works in, there is still a bit of distance between the funk and soul heard through the filter of that dark continent and eastern psych. No matter the difference, though, it works. And it works well.