“I was traveling in Southeast Asia, and I got a one-way ticket to Bangkok.” So began the adventures of Los Angeles musician Ethan Holtzman that led him to form the band Dengue Fever.
“You get the best deals on flights from Bangkok,” he says. “When I went to Cambodia, it was in the late ’90s; it was a little unpredictable. You really didn’t know if it was safe or not. You’d have to read the paper to see if there wasn’t a political election, because things could get out of hand.”
But it was in Bangkok that Holtzman picked up tapes of Cambodian pop music that had been rubbed out by the ruthless Khmer Rouge’s social engineering policies. Artists, musicians and creative thinkers of all kinds were targets. Many musicians in the country sang only pro-Pol Pot propaganda songs for fear of persecution. “They had to sing for the government in order to survive,” Holtzmann says.
This is a rather heavy origin for as breezy and seductive a band as Dengue Fever. Holtzman and his brother Zac, who had independently discovered this music while exploring the racks of San Francisco record stores, wanted to capture the groovy, lounge-ready vibe of this lost art, but they needed the right singer.
“There was this Cambodian guy at our local bar named Tom, playing on the pool table every night,” recounts Holtzman. “We asked if he had a sister who sang. He kept saying ‘La Lune’ and making these hand gestures like dancing girls. We were like, ‘La Lune in Long Beach?’ We called information and found the place and asked if they had singers.” They rehearsed a number of singers they met through the club but none truly clicked.
Eventually they found the magic with Chhom Nimol, a chanteuse singing at another club, the Dragon House. “Her voice filled the whole room,” Holtzman recalls. “I looked at my brother and said, ‘She’s the one!’”
While the Holtzman brothers’ heady surf groove is formidable on its own, Nimol is the nucleus of the group’s sound. On Cannibal Courtship, the band’s seventh release, Nimol is a coy ingénue, transcending every Asian lounge music cliché with her rich, beguiling vocals in English and Khmer.
“Cannibal Courtship is about how cultures feed off each other,” Holtzman says. “How, here we are in America, inspired by this culture in Cambodia, and in Cambodia, they were inspired by Western rock ’n’ roll.”
Dengue Fever performs live at Manship Theatre Friday, Nov. 4. Visit manshiptheatre.org for tickets. myspace.com/denguefevermusic