Fever pitch

Asheville music fans are no strangers to the cross-pollination of genres. From CX-1’s “Bluegrastafari” (bluegrass meets roots reggae) to the “world music, poetry and soul sounds” (mountain standards meet urban jazz) of R.I.S.E (formerly Rising Appalachia), local musicians have fused any number of genre combinations.

East-west fusion: The band’s sound blends California surf music with Cambodian melodies. Photo by Kevin Estrada.

But take one listen to Los Angeles-based Dengue Fever and suddenly fusion—the joining of seemingly disparate influences—takes on a whole new meaning.
“It’s pretty cool because it’s really derived from surf music in the ‘60s,” says bassist Senon Williams in the band’s just-released rockumentary, Sleepwalking through the Mekong. Of Dengue Fever’s sound he continues, “It goes form this California surf music and then it comes all the way over here to Cambodia and is written with Cambodian melodies, so it’s a really cool mix of east and west.”

The brief history goes like this: Keyboardist Ethan Holtzman spent some time backpacking around the far east, during which he picked up a traditional instrument here, a disc of local songs there. “It was the stuff that I heard in Cambodia that really, really sparked an interest,” he tells Xpress. Inspired by the ‘60s-era pop sounds of Cambodian artists Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and Pen Ron, Holtzman returned to California where he convinced his brother, guitarist and singer Zac Holtzman, to start a band.

“It was our idea to put a band together starting with this but knowing that we were going to branch off and do originals and find our own sound,” Holtzman notes. And, as far-flung as vintage Cambodian pop seems, there was a lot to recommend it. Sisamouth and his contemporaries were, according to Holtzman, “inspired by the Beatles, Booker T, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, all these ‘60s psychedelic bands. So they reinterpreted it and they infused their own sounds, their traditional Cambodian melodies. What came out of it was something really unique, and that’s what we were inspired by.”

Dengue Fever’s Zac Holtzman meets his Cambodian fans. Photo from the Sleepwalking.

The Holtzmans held auditions for singers (there happens to be a Cambodian community in L.A.) and found Chhom Nimol, a vocalist known in her homeland for her professional karaoke performances. After perfecting Khmer-language covers and penning original material in this Cambodian-American fusion, Dengue Fever took its act on the road. All the way to Cambodia.

Why would a group of Americans, fronted by a Khmer-speaking chanteuse, attempt to bring Cambodian pop to the Cambodians? Turns out, “Over in Cambodia, they listen to that music, but for the most part they’re doing a softer, poppy-er, kind of Chinese-style karaoke,” Holtzman says. “Nobody’s doing what we’re doing.”

That’s because, during the late-‘70s rule of the Khmer Rouge, a fifth of Cambodia’s population was killed. The radical social-engineering program, intended to eliminate involvement in the free market, targeted nearly all of the country’s artists, including Sisamouth, the noted “King of Khmer Music.”

“It was nice when we went back there because it brought an awareness to the people in Cambodia that their music inspired a band in the U.S.A.,” Holtzman says. The band’s journey, documented in Sleepwalking, includes footage of the lush landscape, marketplace interactions with the locals and a heart-lifting concert held in a shanty town. Though the band members dispute, on film, whether they’re a Khmer band or simply Americans performing Khmer music, Cambodian fans don’t care about the discrepancy. “It’s psychologically healing,” one remarks to the camera.

Senon Willians in a still from the rockumentary Sleepwalking through the Mekong.

The Khmer vs. American point may be mute. For lack of a better label, Dengue Fever is filed under that most dubious of genres: world music. “We’re not afraid to be inspired or influenced by music from anywhere,” Hotlzman says. “Our singer is from Cambodia, so obviously we’re always going to be associated with that country, which is great. But I listen to music from Turkey, I listen to music from Africa.” The band’s third album, Venus on Earth was released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Label. And they’re just back from WOMADelaide, Australia’s World Music festival. (There, they shared a stage with Nigerian performer Seun Kuti of whom Holtzman says, “There’s nobody rocking it that hard right now.”)

These days, Dengue Fever plays more originals than covers and writes in both English and Khmer. While Cambodian pop is still the band’s jumping off point, they’ve culled their own lush, modern sound from well-traveled elements. But still: “There’s an element of world music that’s cheesy,” Holtzman says. “And there are elements of it that are the best music out there. We don’t want to be pigeonholed into anything, but we’re kind of walking a wire and there’s different genres on both sides and we fall in both categories.”
He concludes, “That’s kind of a good thing, right?”

 

who:  Dengue Fever
what: Jazz-rock-world fusion
where: The Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Apr. 19 (9 p.m. $10 advance/ $12 doors. www.theorangepeel.net)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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