Psychedelic Cambodian Rock Actually Pretty Inspirational

Before MTV's journey around the globe, fans of American rock music got their fix on the radio. As the music mutated into the psychedelic sounds of the Doors and the Who, it struck a chord across Pacific Ocean. A new CD compilation called Electric Cambodia features psychedelic rock from Cambodia, recorded before the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. Host Scott Simon speaks to Ethan Holtzman and Chhom Nimol, members of the band Dengue Fever, about the music that inspired them.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

America exports its music. Now, thats easy in an era of iPods and digital downloads. But even before MTVs journey around the globe, rock fans got their fix on the radio as the music mutated into the psychedelic sounds of The Doors and The Who - traveled even further from the West, across the Pacific Ocean.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)

SIMON: This is psychedelic rock from the 1960s and 70s from Cambodia. The song and others were found on old cassette tapes and now theyre on a new CD compilation called Electric Cambodia. Were joined now by Ethan Holtzman and Chhom Nimol, who are in a band called Dengue Fever. They joined us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ETHAN HOLTZMAN (Dengue Fever): Thanks for having us, Scott.

SIMON: We should explain, Nimol, youre the lead singer; Ethan, you play the keyboards. Where did you find this whole music?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: I found this music when I was backpacking around Southeast Asia, and Cambodia was one of the countries that I visited. And I just bought a bunch of cassette tapes on my travels, then when I came back home I just kind of became obsessed with it.

SIMON: Nimol?

Ms. CHHOM NIMOL (Dengue Fever): Yeah?

SIMON: So when he brought these cassettes back, was that the first time you heard this music?

Ms. CHHOM: I think that song I heard it first time, but the music I heard when I was the kid because theyre from the CD that I was born (unintelligible) yeah.

SIMON: In Cambodia, right?

Ms. CHHOM: In Cambodia.

SIMON: Any idea how Cambodians heard this music?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: I think a lot of the music just kind of bled across the borders during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War, you have all these GIs and, you know, they have their radios and their cassette tapes back then or their vinyl. And theyre listening to The Doors and The Beatles and Booker T and the MGs, and artists like Sensamuth(ph) and Rosarie Sethia(ph) and Penron(ph); they were the main vocalists in Cambodia during this time. They were inspired by this music and they just took it in a slightly different direction.

SIMON: Well, whats this song were listening to?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: This song is Sna Ha, and its the Cambodians take of Bang Bang, which was a big hit that Nancy Sinatra did.

SIMON: Nancy Sinatra did a version and so did Cher. Is this a Khmer translation of that song or something else?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: They were heavily inspired by it and they kind of rewrote their own lyrics.

SIMON: What was it about this music that reached the both of you?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: It really just was exciting for my ears to hear it. The organs, the surf guitar and the vocals mainly, theres they're really something else. The Cambodian language being sung, its its own instrument.

SIMON: Lets just do another song if we can, I Want to Shout.

(Soundbite of song, I want to Shout)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: You know, you go over some of the song titles, there are things like, as we play it, I Want to Shout, Give Me One Kiss.

Ms. CHHOM: Yeah, Give Me One Kiss.

SIMON: Well, it just strikes you that these song title sounds so innocent at a time we know of mass murder.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, well, this music was right before that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Phnom Penh was like the jewel of Southeast Asia prior to 74, 75, when the Khmer Rouge came in and really took over. If you look back at some of the footage that survived, you could see what the capital city of Cambodia was looking like. It was really thriving and it was a good place for art and film.

SIMON: Speaking with Ethan Holtzman and Chhom Nimol of the band Dengue Fever. And they have a new CD of music compiled from 60s and 70s Cambodia called Electric Cambodia. When I first listened to this music, I guess theres no guessing around the fact that you kind of figure everybody youre listening to probably died in one of historys great holocausts.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Pol Pot's ideology if youre a doctor or a teacher or you spoke languages or played an instrument or, you know, anything creative that would go outside the norm, they felt it as a threat. So most of these people were killed. On a positive note, Electric Cambodia, the proceeds, what Dengue Fever, what were doing is were raising a little bit of money and were giving it back to Cambodian Living Arts, which is an organization in Cambodia that helps keep traditional song and dance alive.

We traveled back to Cambodia in 2005 as a band. We worked with this organization, we performed with the kids, and it's just really cool to see them learning traditional instruments - that some of the people survived, you know, they probably had to go undercover and not play their instruments during the Khmer Rouge regime.

SIMON: Where the artists were considered untrustworthy. Nimol?

Ms. CHHOM: Yeah.

SIMON: Im told you come from a very famous musical family in Cambodia.

Ms. CHHOM: Yes, I do.

SIMON: And tell us a little bit about it, if you could, please.

Ms. CHHOM: My parents, they are traditional Cambodians, like, they sing from the wedding. Its not like rock and roll, but my sister, she is famous in Cambodia in 1980s until right now. So a lot of Cambodian people, they know, they know my family very well. The (unintelligible) they are important for my family. So right now Im here with Dengue Fever. Were traveling around the world and then a lot of people like us and enjoyed the music.

SIMON: Let's listen to another song, if we could - Jasmine Girl

(Soundbite of song, Jasmine Girl)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language).

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language).

SIMON: Is it hard for Americans to appreciate how much of Cambodias arts, how much of its culture was destroyed during the reign of the Khmer Rouge?

Mr. HOLTZMAN: In Cambodia, they didnt destroy all of it - you know, there was enough there to inspire our band to form and now I think hopefully theres going to be a resurgence of this because its an interesting cultural exchange.

SIMON: I was about to say despite the history, that maybe its because of it, its a very well, the CD makes you feel happy.

Ms. CHHOM: I remember the last year we're on tour in in New York City, and I think it's old, (unintelligible) but I think she is my moms age. She come up on stage, sing with me, you know, its the song we call Im 15, and she told me about it, she cant wait for that song because it reminds her when she's the teenager at that time and she comes up on stage to sing with us.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, its a lot of fun. At our live shows we get a lot of different Cambodians from all the generations. There'll be little kids and grandparents, and sometimes, you know, sometimes the grandparents will turn on their kids to Dengue Fever and theyll all come out to the show and theyll get there, like, four hours before we play. Its funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. HOLTZMAN: Thank you so much for having us, Scott. Its always a pleasure to be here.

Ms. CHHOM: Thanks so much, Scott. Talk to you later. Thank you for having us.

SIMON: Just our pleasure. Ethan Holtzman and Chhom Nimol, who are members of the band Dengue Fever. Theyve collected old Cambodian rock songs and put them on a new CD called Electric Cambodia.

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