Dengue Fever's new album is called Venus on Earth.
During the Vietnam War, American and British pop music was broadcast in Vietnam on the U.S. Armed Forces Radio Network. Those broadcasts reached neighboring Cambodia, as well. And there, the sounds of Western radio inspired a hybrid of American pop and traditional Cambodian styles.
At that time the king of Cambodian music was Sinn Sisamouth. He and his singing partner, Ros Serey Sothea, had many hits, singing in the traditional style backed by music that sounded like psychedelic surf rock. But when the Pol Pot regime took over in 1975, most of the Western-influenced musicians were killed. The music was banned and recordings destroyed.
Decades later, brothers Zac and Ethan Holzman — a guitar-playing singer-songwriter and a keyboardist, respectively — discovered that vintage Cambodian pop and decided to create a band inspired by the music. They found a Cambodian singer with a beautiful voice who had recently moved to L.A. and formed a group they called Dengue Fever.The band's catchy, often dark instrumentations — along with singer Chhom Nimol's Khmer-language soprano vocals — are a compelling mix.
Dengue Fever's first record was mostly covers of Cambodian pop. Their new CD, Venus on Earth, is an all-original album.
Chhom Nimol, lead singer of the Cambodian-American psychedelic rock band Dengue Fever, performs at this year's WOMEX.
Every business has its boondoggles, and for those in the world music trade, the World Music Expo — otherwise known as WOMEX — is it. The five-day event showcases new bands from every corner of the planet.
For the past couple years, the expo has been held in Seville, Spain. That means conference-goers, after tough days spent networking, scamming CDs and doing shots of weird ethnic liquors at the FIBES convention center, spend their nights eating tapas, drinking wine from Rioja and catching shows in the old city. One might wander in on a flamboyant Romanian brass band, like Damian & Brothers; or a streetwise Brazilian brass band, like Siba e a Fuloresta; or a slightly goofy, but very impressive harmonica quartet from Finland named Svang, whose recordings would make great public radio theme music.
Among the hot topics at WOMEX this year were the ongoing nightmare of musicians trying to get travel visas post-Sept. 11 and the general woes of the music industry wrestling with digital distribution. Another big story was the weakness of the dollar. Many acts are skipping U.S. tours because the exchange rate is so bad.
But the artistic story this year suggested it may be the most exciting time for world music since Paul Simon made Graceland. There's a crop of young American acts approaching the genre less as ethnomusicology and more like pop, from the hip-hop collage approach of New York's Balkan Beat Box to the emigre garage rock of Los Angeles' Dengue Fever, who headlined the festival's final night. Truly, you haven't lived until you've danced wildly to '60s-style Cambodian psychedelia with a few hundred drunken Spaniards.
And Africa remains an incredibly fertile source of music. The co-ed group Toumast is one of a number of great rock bands rooted, astonishingly enough, in the nomadic Tuareg tribes of Northwestern Africa.
Then there was the coming-out party for 24-year-old Seun Kuti, the second son of Nigerian music legend Fela Kuti. With members of his late father's band, Egypt 80, playing alongside younger musicians and with the words "FELA LIVES" tattooed across his back, Seun Kuti made world music that completely transcended the term: utterly African, yet thoroughly cosmopolitan.
It was the highlight of the WOMEX festival, which reminded me how the best art can assert cultural pride while promoting cross-cultural unity. It's a pretty good trick, and it's as necessary as ever.