Agony Shorthand

Sunday, March 21, 2004

The story of the "CAMBODIA ROCKS" compilation CD and the sub-story of Cambodia Rocks tribute band DENGUE FEVER are both pretty compelling in their own right – and even better, the music’s great as well. The March issue of MOJO brought it to life again with a little piece on both. I mean, when I think of Cambodia in the 1970s, I think abject misery, suffering and genocide on a Stalin-like scale. I don’t conjure up twisted, psychedelic pop music with gorgeous, shimmering female vocals sung in a baffling Asian tongue, but there it is, accidentally captured for posterity by a thrill-seeking white dudes riding taxis in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. This fella, LA resident Ethan Holtzman, was able to discover tapes of a pre-Pol Pot rock-inspired scene listening to Cambodian cabbies’ tapes and asking the right questions. This inspired some feverish hunting through the flea markets of Phnom Penh and Long Beach, CA's Little Cambodia, and what he turned up after much scavenging, editing and quality control was the terrific 2000 "Cambodia Rocks” CD on Parallel World records. His biggest find was ROS SEREYSOTHEA, who presided over a warped hybrid of girl-group pop, netherworldly Cambodian traditional music and a small dash of UK/US psych. Her tracks alone are worth the price of admission – not that you’d know which ones they are, since Parallel World were unable to provide a track listing that would’ve made a smidgeon of sense to a non-Cambodian. Believe me, this isn’t one of those “ha ha, look at the funny foreigners playing rock music” comps that were hot a decade ago (Japan, Mexico, Turkey etc.). This is a truly visionary glimpse into a – that’s right – parallel world, a world that was violently eliminated and buried by the murderous maniacs who took over the country in the mid-70s.

But Holtzman was so inspired by his find that he returned to Los Angeles and formed his own band with his brother Zac in tribute, picking up a local Cambodian immigrant (rumored to be a former pop star in her home country) to interpret Ros Sereysothea‘s songs with her own distinctive set of pipes. And in the mother tongue, no less. The result is DENGUE FEVER, and having heard their shtick, I tip my cap. It’s very faithful, not too wink-wink about the source material, and probably a real hoot live. And as jarring as the language is for those of us not accustomed to it, it is sweet and lilting when placed in the hands of singer Chhom Nimol and her muse, Ros Sereysothea. Dengue Fever are trying to make sure they play in front of Cambodian audiences at coffee shops and ethnic-neighborhood bars at a 1:1 ratio with indie rock clubs, but they’re somewhat bemoaning the fact that they’re building a fan base almost entirely reliant on the latter. Native Cambodians in the Agony Shorthand audience – go see this band!