Dengue Fever Master the Cambodian Sound and the Mastadong
The Golden Voice of Cambodia was a singer from the city of Battambang by the name of Ros Sereysothea. She was beloved and dubbed as a national treasure by the king. Her voice was high and clear, careening above ballads and love songs with a gem-throated vibrato. By the 1970s, American music had reached South Vietnam and Cambodia. Sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Tina Turner inspired the region's players to experiment with driving '60s garage-psych-rock arrangements. Sereysothea's singing rang out with it, and her career blossomed until the Khmer Rouge took battered capital Phnom Penh in April 1975. Sereysothea was a known musician—a prime candidate for extermination during Pol Pot's mindless genocide killing regime/machine. Shortly thereafter, she went missing and was never heard from again.
In 2001, brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman were traveling in Cambodia and became stirred by the music there. When they returned home to Los Angeles, they began forming a band in homage to this Golden Voice rock vein. In the Little Phnom Penh district of Long Beach, they found Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol. She sang in Khmer and possessed exactly that similar high, bell-rung voice they craved. After a month of courting her, she decided to join, and the band Dengue Fever was born. Ten years later, they have released four full-length albums, have the backing of Peter Gabriel, and tour in Cambodia and Vietnam as cultural ambassadors, helping to preserve and spread a sound. Ethan Holtzman spoke from a van en route from Phoenix to Los Angeles for a show.
You just toured Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. What American music is popular right now?
[Asks Nimol] Cambodians like Beyoncé and some hiphop. Korean pop is huge in Cambodia. You hear stuff like "Hotel California" and Santana, as well.
What about gangster rap?
[Asks Nimol again] She says no. No nasty words are allowed.
Where does the title for your song "One Thousand Years of a Tarantula" come from?
Off the road, one of the strange delicacies in Cambodia is fried tarantula. The song is about Chhom Nimol being born in Battambang and relating to Cambodian singers like Ros Sereysothea. There's a story that one of the singers from Battambang was forced to strip naked under the sun and sing in circles until she dropped dead. Our song sort of pays tribute to that, crossing parallels to Chhom being from there as well.
What does tarantula taste like?
It's pretty good. Tastes kind of like puss?
Puss? Is that like chicken?
[Laughs] It's fried and crispy.
How was the tour?
Incredible. We were part of a US Embassy arts grant. We did exchanges during the day and concerts at night. The exchanges raised money for charities. One was for deaf children and the handicapped. There's a center that helps them do art and dance. We did a concert there. They preserve Cambodian music and instruments. Because of the genocide that happened there, some of the native instruments almost became extinct. In some cases, there's only a couple surviving master musicians.
How did the deaf children interact with your music?
They danced for us and performed. When we played, they got onstage and danced and went crazy. It was cool. One of the kids put a Styrofoam cup against the speaker and put his ear to it and could feel the vibration. He played a keyboard a little. It was a great and different exchange. We also went to an animal sanctuary where they are saving the sun bears. We got to get really close to some tigers. There was an elephant that had a prosthetic leg.
How big was the elephant's prosthetic leg?
It was huge. It looked like a tree trunk.
Your brother/guitar player, Zac, has such an amazing beard. It has such froth. Such solid beard plume. He could weave it into a face and make it say words like "Mothra." He must have difficulty eating scrambled eggs. Does his beard ever drive the van?
No, his beard just plays Star Wars on the Xbox [laughs]. He's pretty good at keeping food out of it. One time, it got caught in a power tool and it ripped half of it off his face. Now he ties it up when he works with power tools.
Talk about the custom double-neck guitar instrument Zac plays. The second neck has two strings. What is that?
It's called the Mastadong. It's half Jazzmaster guitar, half chapei dong veng, a traditional Cambodian two-stringed instrument.
Did you say Mastadong?
[Laughs] Yes. Mastadong. My brother's friend Mel built it for him. We have it with us, and Zac will be playing it on a couple songs.
Talk about Dengue Fever forming.
It was about 10 years ago, and we based it on the music I came across in Cambodia when I was traveling there in the early '00s. My brother and I decided to put a band together and were inspired by rock music out of Cambodia from the 1970s and '80s. The band needed a singer, and we learned there was a large Cambodian population in Long Beach, so Zac and I went down there to scout the scene. We met a lot of singers at the nightclubs, but they didn't really fit. Then we met Chhom Nimol at a club called the Dragon House. She was incredible. We asked her to come sing with us to see how it sounded, but she didn't speak English. Chhom is a well-known Cambodian singer, and her family is well established in Cambodian culture. People were telling us there was no way she was going to sing for our band. She showed up one day at our rehearsal space after a month of us going to Long Beach asking her to sing with us. It jelled quickly.
What is some good music coming out of Cambodia?
There's an organization called Phar. They have some of the best Cambodian musicians we've ever come across. They play like 10 hours a day. We jammed with them and recorded it. They also have a sort of circus training school. It's a music/art/circus school in Battambang, where Chhom was born. There are amazing singers from that city.
What's the Cambodian circus like? Are their clowns doing freaky shit?
They had trapeze. There was tightrope. I didn't see any freaky clowns. Maybe I'd eaten too much tarantula.