Considering Dengue Fever
by Bob Pomeroy
Most of what I know about Cambodia, I learned from movies. Like a lot of people, I learned about the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from the Killing Fields. That movie leaves an indelible impression. Cambodia was hell on earth. It was a land ruled by maniacs who were intent on turning back the clock to the year zero. The Khmer Rouge killed off the politicians and police, the teachers and scholars, the artists and musicians. After seeing the Killing Fields, I couldn’t imagine Cambodia as anything more than an extremely bad dream made real. Then I saw Swimming to Cambodia.
Swimming to Cambodia is Spalding Grey’s monologue about the making of the Killing Fields. Grey had a small part in the movie, so most of the monologue isn’t really about the film, but about his experiences and what he learned about Cambodia while researching his role. Here’s what Grey learned about Cambodia from English film director, Roland Joffe: “Once again, Roland talked to me…He did all the talking again, about what an incredible country Cambodia was before it was colonized, that it had a strain of Buddhism so permissive and so sensual that the Cambodians seemed to have done away with unnecessary guilt. Compared to Cambodia, Thailand was a Nordic country… The Cambodians knew how to have fun. They knew how to have a good time being born, how to have a good time growing up; a good time going through puberty; a good time falling in love and staying in love; a good time getting married and having children… They even knew how to have a good time on New Year’s Eve. I couldn’t believe it.”
The Cambodia that Roland Joffe described to Spalding Grey is largely lost. As anyone who saw the Killing Fields will remember, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge came to power, they attempted to wipe the cultural slate clean by exterminating the ideologically impure; which meant just about anyone with any education or professional skills. As Grey put in in his monologue, it was as if a cloud of evil had settled on the country.
David Hutcheon, writing in Mojo Magazine, reveals that in the 60’s and early 70’s, Cambodia had a “seriously warped Khmer pop industry.” Cambodian stars like Sin Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea mashed up American rock and soul coming across the border on American Forces Radio with local flavors. Even the prime minister, Prince Sihanouk, got into the act doing a Cambodian cover of All Day and All Of the Night in a 1967 movie. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, the most famous singers disappeared into the jungle.
After Pol Pot was finally overthrown, the old pop music began to resurface. In 1998, an American traveling in Cambodia named Ethan Holtzman caught the bug for Cambodian music. He told Hutcheon that, ” I was traveling with a Scottish guy who had dengue fever. He was turning white and we were in a truck on the road to Phnom Penh. Well, there wasn’t much of a road and it was a long, long journey. But all the way, the driver was playing tapes of these old hits, and some of them were incredible.”
When Holtzman returned to LA, he formed a band called Dengue Fever, dedicated to playing Khmer rock. He found a Cambodian singer, Chholm Nimol, and the band was complete. Dengue Fever drew their repertoire largely from the recordings of Ros Sereysothea, which they found scattered over stacks of mix tapes they accumulated. Their self titled CD is a lively, passionate collection. The sound is a disorienting blend of psychedelic rock, jazz and funk. Lost in Laos opens this disc with a spirited tune that somehow feels like it escaped from one of the Ethiopiques collections. (What sort of connection could there possibly be between 70’s soul music from Cambodia and Ethiopia? We’ll probably never know considering what both nations went through. There is a track on the CD called Ethanopium).
It’s hard to put into words how Dengue Fever can sound utterly familiar and completely foreign at the same time. The instrumentalists in the band have a deft feel for this music. They make it swing without ever devolving into kitsch. Nimol sings in Khmer, yet the emotion of songs like Flowers need no translation. (If you want translations, they’re available on the band’s web site.)
Dengue Fever is catching. The band has developed a devoted following on the West Coast and they have played major showcases at South by Southwest and other festivals. While the band has had to cope with adversity, including a run in with the INS and Homeland Security, Dengue Fever continues to infect people with the spirit of a people who, as Roland Joffe said, even knew how to have a good time on New Year’s Eve. In the process, they’re helping people rethink what they thought they knew about Cambodia.