my day with dengue

September 12, 2011

Zac Holtzman, Chhom Nimol and Senon Williams ride bikes given to Cambodia Town through the City of Long Beach's Bike Friendly Business District program.


Dengue Fever
Sept. 9, 2011
Fingerprints Record Store, Long Beach

Friday should have been designated Dengue Fever Day by the City of Long Beach because the Cambodian psych-pop band’s double dose of public appearances is the most the band has been seen in these parts since their latest album, Cannibal Courtship, was released in April.

But absence only makes the heart grow fonder, it seems. Early in the afternoon on a supposed workday, a diverse group of fans and cycling activists met up at the Homeland Cultural Center in Cambodia Town for a bike ride and lunch with members of the genre-bending outfit.

chhom nimol.jpg

The press event was organized by Long Beach’s Bike-Friendly Business District program, which purchases bicycles for use by employees and patrons in the city’s four designated districts. Though Cambodia Town is the last of the four to get its wheels–which include several commuter bikes and a people-holding cargo bike–it is probably the only one to have a band claim the neighborhood as the reason for its existence.
Cambodia Town’s large community of émigrés is what attracted singer Chhom Nimol to move there from Cambodia more than a decade ago. And its reputation as a haven for Cambodian musicians and singers is what drew brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman into Dragon House from Los Angeles the night they discovered Nimol’s elevating vocals 10 years ago.

After the short group bike ride and a traditional Cambodian lunch at the Grand Paradise Restaurant (where Nimol has been known to still perform), the band members left to get ready for their next appearance on the list: an in-store performance at Fingerprints.

Scheduled to begin at 7p.m., the crowd was left standing outside of Fingerprints’ East Village storefront until nearly 7:30 before being ushered into the dimly lit back room. Bass player Senon Williams and guitarist Zac Holtzman emerged in the same casual garb they’d been wearing on the bike ride earlier, but Nimol had undergone a glamorous update for the show. Dressed like a top-tier Cambodian pop star, her prismatic black cocktail dress with matching heels and sparkling diamond bangles stood in contrast to the band-dude dress of the others.

Her voice–silky and wraithlike–channeled through an exotic karaoke mic echo also set her apart from the aggressive noises that materialized out of the instruments on stage, which in the first few songs alone ranged from freestyle psych-organs to escalating proto-surf guitar riffs.

Starting in with “Genjer, Genjer”–a once-banned Indonesian protest song made into a sultry psychedelic space jam–the band played most of the Khmer-language songs off of Courtship including “Uku” with its extended acapalla intro sending shivers through the room.

Aside from the fact that every member of the band is a master of their respective crafts, the genre-blending nature of Dengue Fever is the most captivating thing about experiencing the band live. Even with knowledge of their song repertoire, their diverse influences–from Sinn Sisamouth to Mulatu Astatke–often take familiar numbers into unexpected directions, pouring tribal beats on top of Khmer chants as if Los Angeles was created to be a laboratory for such musical explorations.

At several points during the performance, Nimol was left smiling and dancing as her five bandmates spiraled into a seemingly improvisational frenzy of bebop saxophone and funky bass lines worthy of a pluralistic Blade Runner nightclub. Eventually, the chaos would return to Earth with Nimol’s haunting vocals guiding it down the runway.


After 10 years as a band, Dengue Fever is no longer merely reviving Cambodian rock ‘n’ roll. As the in-store performance on Friday proves, they are delving even deeper into their own dizzying mixture of multicultural compositions, charting new territories in sound and showing the world what is possible when we take the time to explore the new worlds residing right next door.

Critic’s Bias: I’m kind of obsessed with cultural mixture and Dengue Fever satisfies all of my cravings.

The Crowd: First-generation Cambodian teens, CSULB students, Bluff Park dads, white girls with bindis, the guy that tattooed Bradley Nowell’s famous “Sublime” back piece.

Random Notebook Dump: Never had Cambodian food before and yum! Like Vietnamese or Thai but plus jalapeños, olives and pineapples. Where’d they get all those non-native ingredients?


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