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Byline: Emmanuelle Soichet Staff Writer

Silver Lake jam band Dengue Fever was already a supernova on the Los Angeles indie music scene when its members decided to shoot a documentary chronicling their experience playing in Cambodia for the first time.

Then, they became international rock stars.

"After a couple days, my brother wouldn't even hang out with me," Zac Holtzman says with a laugh. Zac and sibling Ethan formed the band, fronted by Khmer pop star Ch'hom Nimol.

"I would just go walking down the street, and everywhere it was 'CTN! I see you! Sing for me! Sing in Khmer!'" referring to CTN, the Cambodian Television Network, their propeller to stardom and Khmer, the language of Cambodia.

For 10 days in December, the band - a retro Cambodian pop rock group - played crammed expat bars in Phnom Penh, taped a two-hour prime-time special on CTN that was rebroadcast several times a day, recorded a soundtrack in the studio with traditional Khmer musicians and staged an impromptu outdoor concert in Bassac, the Cambodian capital's notorious shanty town.

"Between songs, it was silence," bassist Senon Williams recalls of the makeshift Bassac show, where the group's typical dance-happy hipster crowds were replaced by 500 or so shell-shocked Cambodians, "just smiling or just glaring with this look on their face."

Overall, though, Cambodia embraced the band's eclectic East-West fusion. "Every time we turned on the TV," Holtzman says, "there was a good chance they were playing our show. We couldn't go anywhere without attracting attention."

Dengue Fever has been described as a revival of 1960s Cambodian psychedelic pop the eccentric crossover movement that blended Hendrix and Bollywood kitsch infused with everything from West Coast surf rock, soul music and Ethiopian jazz, to hints of "James Bond."

Or, as one reviewer put it, the sound of a "Cubano lounge band out for a morning's surf with a mouthful of peyote," which is about as fair a description as any.

Singing almost always in Khmer, Nimol lays a high-pitched, acrobatic vibrato to the band's groove of sax, flute, Vietnamese string instruments, drums, keyboard, guitars and a Farfisa electric organ, the mainstay for Sin Sisamouth - the late Cambodian King of pop.

Dengue Fever came together in 2001, when the Holtzmans, armed with tapes of Sisamouth and his female counterpart, Roy Serey Sothea, went fishing for their own singer among Long Beach's Cambodian nightclubs.

"We worked our way to the best one at the time, which was called Dragon House," Zac Holtzman recalls. "When we got in, there were, like, six women on the stage, but then as soon as she started singing, I was elbowing my brother saying, 'She's the one - we've got to get her in the band.'

"So we handed her a bunch of '60s Cambodian tunes that we wanted to start off learning. Pretty much all she could say at the time was 'yes' and 'thank you.'"

Little did they realize that Nimol, who had just moved to the States at 23, was already an acclaimed singer back home with a regular audience. They caught on when she showed up at rehearsals with a full entourage in tow, eager to cross-over and make commercially viable music in Khmer.

In the 3 1/2 years since, the group has gone from covering Sisamouth and Serey Sothea on their self-titled debut, to crafting their own songs for last year's follow-up "Escape From Dragon House." And, in the process, they have cultivated a rapt following along the indie circuit, beginning with their 2002 debut at Spaceland, to the West Coast tour they wrapped up last month with five days of performances at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas.

The band is exhausted and the documentary still isn't finished, but Williams the group's make-it-happen man is already raising money for another Cambodia trip and planning an expanded tour for the summer, that he says will include Las Vegas.

"Vegas?" Holtzman asks. "Why?"

"Why? I dunno," comes the response. "OK, fine - forget Vegas. But Cambodia, yes."




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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 5, 2006

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