April 27 2011 10:07 AM

Singing in Khmer and English, Dengue Fever channel retro Cambodian pop music

Ethan (second from right) and Zac Holtzman (bearded) recruited a singer from Cambodia.
Photo by Lauren-Dukoff
When Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol first met brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman, she must have wondered if she was making the smartest move joining their new band, Dengue Fever.

“Her sister told her not to do it,” laughs guitarist / vocalist Zac Holtzman—the one with the epic facial hair. “It was right after 9/11, and there I was with my crazy beard.”

What the Holtzmans had in mind was a fusion like the music that ignited Cambodia in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a riff on the Nuggets-era rock that reached Cambodian airwaves as it was broadcast from U.S. troops stationed in neighboring Vietnam. Ethan, who plays the Farfisa organ in the band, had returned from a trip to Cambodia with a cache of cassettes.

“The music had two things going for it,” Zac explains. “It’s familiar—you recognize the surf and garage and psychedelic elements that I tend to like—and it’s also exotic with the Cambodian style of singing and they’d mix in some of their traditional instruments, too.

“The female singers do a lot of this technique that they call ghost voice,” he continues. “It’s like a Cambodian yodeling: They crack into a higher register and touch on notes an octave or two higher and then drop down to wherever they were singing before.”

The Holtzmans, based in L.A., decided to recruit a singer from Long Beach’s vibrant Cambodian community. Chhom Nimol—a wedding singer who’d performed before the king and queen in her native country—hailed from Battambang, a town that produced some of Cambodia’s most legendary singers and composers, including Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. Like most artists with western influences, they perished under Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-’70s.

“It’s kind of like they’re living on through Nimol,” says Zac. “We always show respect to [their legacy]. In one sense, we feel like we’re carrying the torch, but we also like adding to [the music] in whatever ways we want and growing it.”

Dengue Fever’s self-titled 2003 debut, which featured covers sung in Khmer, was an instant sensation in indie land.

“We never thought of ourselves as a cover band, though,” Zac points out. “It was just easiest for Nimol, who didn’t speak any English.”

Since then, the band has focused almost exclusively on originals, with lyrics written in both Khmer and English, sung by Nimol and Zac. At first, they used translators but now rely on dictionaries and friends.

“Something’s going to be lost [in translation], but something else is added,” Zac says of the process. “A typical phrase that has eight to 10 syllables in English ends up having 20 to 22 syllables in Khmer. You have this perfect thing and you have to hack it apart to translate it. You get rid of all the extraneous words and get it down to the essence of what’s needed. It’s like a haiku.”

Members of Dengue Fever—a sextet that includes bassist Senon Williams, drummer Paul Smith and saxophonist David Ralicke—hate being pigeonholed. They picture themselves as “an indie-rock band with a Cambodian singer,” Zac says, but their influences don’t stop there.

The band just released its fourth full-length, Cannibal Courtship. “I think Cannibal Courtship has all the original elements we’ve had since the beginning, but it’s taken those trails and gone really far and gotten lost in the forest,” Zac says. “We’ve gone deeper and figured out things that work.”

The song “Uku”? “We just let the trippy Cambodian psychedelicness happen,” he says, while “the more poprock songs get more focused and concentrated.”

And African music—always a component of Dengue Fever’s sound—takes prominence in the track “Only a Friend.”

“We joke around that it’s ‘Afro-Beatles,’” Zac laughs. “It has Afrobeat influences, and the choruses are kind of Beatles-esque, with Ringo drumming.”

But their hearts will always belong to Cambodia, where they are active with various charities, including Cambodian Living Arts, which teaches traditions to kids. In 2005, Dengue Fever’s first Cambodian tour was captured in the documentary film Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, and the band recently returned to play a show for the U.S. Embassy as part of its 40th anniversary of good relations with the country.

“There were 10,000 Cambodians filling the plaza,” Zac says. “As far as the eye could see. It was pretty incredible.”

Dengue Fever play with Maus Haus and DJ Claire at The Casbah on Friday, April 29. denguefevermusic.com