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Southeast Asian Music Fits Southwest American Band

  • Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Los Angeles is home to immigrants from around the world, who've brought with them the language and culture of their home countries. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez introduces us to a Cambodian immigrant who couldn't have imagined she'd meet several LA musicians who'd bring her closer to her roots in Southeast Asia.

Here's the formula to follow to form a rock band. Start with a guitarist and someone on keyboards. In the case of the band Dengue Fever, that would be brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman.

Zac says they were raised around a lot of music. "When I was a kid, my dad used to have a summer camp, and he played guitar for all the kids in the camp."

Bring in Senon Williams, an African-American bass player who fell in love with music after he sneaked into clubs to listen to rock bands a quarter century ago. "My sister was a pretty hard core punk rocker," he recalls, ticking off some of the bands she liked, "Untouchables, Haircuts That Kill, 45 Grave… I think I started going to punk rock shows when I was 11, 12 years old, 'cuz of my older sister."

Add a vocalist the Holtzman brothers found performing at a Cambodian restaurant in Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles. Chhom Nimol was born in Battambang City, Cambodia, and brings an authentic southeast Asian sound to the band.

Their mix of instruments and singer might follow a formula, but their music doesn't. On its third album, Dengue Fever blends Cambodian melodies with ethereal guitars and keyboards.

Seven years ago, the Holtzman brothers traveled to Cambodia and fell in love with its pop music from the 1960s. That sound's inspiration came from American rock played by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. The Cambodian music inspired the Holtzmans to start a new band and give it their own sound.

Senon Williams said yes when Zac Holtzman asked him to play bass for this new band. Williams says he was reading the autobiography of jazz musician Charles Mingus at the time. "Mingus was talking about how it's music, it's not jazz, it's not rock, it's not whatever, it's just music," Williams explains. "So, going into this project I didn't think of it as strange… just another fun thing to do, another way to express myself musically."

William's favorite song on the new Dengue Fever album is Seeing Hands. He says he likes the laid back sound and vocals. "The lyrics are pretty cool because it's in a sense a love story between mother earth and man, and mother earth saying, if you're good to me, I might let you stay on this planet."

At rehearsal, Chhom Nimol sings a bit from her favorite, the song Tooth and Nail. She says she likes it because it's in English and Khmer, the language she grew up speaking in Cambodia.

The band, which also includes drummer Paul Smith and David Ralicke on horns, toured Cambodia a few years ago. Chhom Nimol says people there congratulated her for transforming her American band mates into Cambodians. They can now sing back-up in Khmer. A documentary of the tour, called Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, is making the rounds of film festivals, including one in San Francisco this month, and in Denmark at the end of March.

These days, Nimol says, most audiences who come to see the band are non-Cambodians. "[They are] dancing and laughing and smiling, enjoy with us, I feel like, wow! I'm singing in Khmer, that's my language they don't understand, but they so enjoy it." And that's a contagious formula for success for any band.