By Evan Gottesman
A half-century ago, Phnom Penh was a major hub for rock and roll. Cambodians turned out to concerts and tuned into their radios to hear the music of Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea. The rock scene in the capital thrived for over a decade, producing a musical genre that combined local styles with Western influences.
But everything would change in 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge rose to power in Cambodia. The new regime pursued a brutal societal cleansing, killing over 2 million people. Artists had no place in the Khmer Rouge’s ideal civilization and great talents like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea did not survive the genocide.
Its most prominent contributors lost, the unique Cambodian style might have been lost to history. Thanks to a band called Dengue Fever, Sisamouth and Sereysothea are making a comeback—not just in Cambodia, but around the world too. World Policy Journal spoke with Ethan Holtzman, an American musician, who started Dengue Fever.
“Well, what if we put together a set of this old Cambodian psychedelic rock?"
Ethan Holtzman posed this question to his brother Zac after backpacking through Southeast Asia in the late 1990s. The Holtzman brothers were already planning to launch a band when Ethan returned. On his trip, Ethan had encountered the Cambodian music of the pre-Khmer Rouge era for the first time.
“It really, really was amazing stuff,” Holtzman says, describing the appeal of the music he found. “It was familiar but it was also exotic.” Asked what makes Cambodian rock different from its Western counterparts, Holtzman answered: “The vocals.”
“The vocals that [Sinn Sisamouth] was responsible for, and these female vocalists like Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron, they were the best,” Ethan reflects. “That was what made it sound so different.”
Because vocals were so critical to Cambodia’s rock music, Holtzman knew he could not replicate the style on his own. Accordingly, he sought out Chhom Nimol, a Cambodian signer already famous among a large immigrant community in Long Beach, Calif.
The Holtzman brothers met Nimol at the Dragon House, a Cambodian nightclub in Long Beach where she performed. The club’s manager was impressed with the Holtzman’s project and Chhom Nimol soon joined the band. Dengue Fever was born.
BACK TO CAMBODIA
Though the band originated in the United States, Dengue Fever made sure to give back to Cambodia. In 2005, the Holtzman brothers, Chhom Nimol, and the rest of the group toured in the Southeast Asian country. Ethan Holtzman recalls the weight of that task.
Holtzman explained that during the genocide, the music scene “came to an abrupt halt.” Though the Khmer Rouge suppressed the music of artists like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, many Cambodians remain familiar with their work.
“Some of the vinyl made it to France,” Holtzman added. “I’ve met a couple of record collectors there who specifically collect Cambodian vinyl.”
In Cambodia itself, some saved music on cassette tapes. After the Khmer Rouge government fell, people started selling the tapes at open-air markets. “[Cambodians] kept listening to it, as soon as they could.”
“When we went over there as a touring band, it was a little scary,” he describes. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
When Dengue Fever first toured in Cambodia, Holtzman recognized that he and his bandmates might be judged as outsiders: “Our singer [Chhom Nimol] is Cambodian and we’re all these Americans.”
“We played in front of a couple thousand [Cambodians],” Ethan told World Policy Journal. “It was a little scary at first, especially after you stopped playing the songs, because there was this dead silence. They don’t just applaud like they do here [in the United States].”
“They liked it,” Ethan Holtzman added. Dengue Fever has since returned to Cambodia several times on tour to a very positive reception. “Now that we’ve toured there several times, it’s kind of changed,” Ethan observed of the band’s Cambodian audiences. “You play, and they go crazy and dance and clap.”
In addition to touring, Dengue Fever helped facilitate education in Cambodia about the country’s unique rock music style through Cambodian Living Arts, a non-governmental organization. Holtzman explained the importance of this work: despite the popularity of its rock music, Cambodia is at risk of losing this musical heritage because so few of the original artists survived the Khmer Rouge regime.
“Because of what happened with the history, a lot of the musicians and the singers were killed," said Holtzman. "So basically, there’s only a couple of instruments and there’s master musicians. CLA will find one of the survivors who knows how to play, say, the Roneat, and they will get them to teach children how to learn that instrument, so it keeps it alive.”
Holtzman also remembers one occasion on which the band visited a Cambodian school for deaf children.
“We did a concert for them.” He recalls, “They would go up to the speakers and feel the vibrations. And then they performed for us. They did some dancing and played instruments. It was all based on the vibrations they could feel from the speaker.”
In the interest of preserving the music of Cambodia’s rock and roll era, Dengue Fever released an album of original recordings from the period. Proceeds from the compilation, “Electric Cambodia,” went to CLA.
DON’T THINK I’VE FORGOTTEN
Dengue Fever launched in 2001. The band has since put out several albums, with January’s “The Deepest Lake,” as their newest release. Dengue Fever’s work consists both of Cambodian classic rock covers along with original songs inspired by that style
In 2007, director John Pirozzi released a documentary, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which followed Dengue Fever. Pirozzi returned to the subject last year, coming out with Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. For the second release, Dengue Fever’s Chhom Nimol joined Sinn Sisamouth’s son Sinn Chann Chhaya, along with elders of the Cambodian rock heyday, like Drakkar.
Drakkar is also one of a handful of musicians who survived the genocide and an even smaller number who are still alive today. Despite this, the music he and his colleagues produced decades ago is not lost. Thanks to the work of Nimol, the Holtzman brothers, Pirozzi, and others like them, the Phnom Penh scene of the 1960s promises to remain a source of entertainment for audiences in Cambodia and across the world.
Evan Gottesman is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Dengue Fever]