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Dengue Fever - catch it!

Photo courtesy Capitol Records
Dengue Fever is set to make fans sweat and break out with dancing fever when they play their contagious mix of psychedelic Cambodian rock with an African twist at Solar Culture Gallery Saturday at 9 p.m.
By Andi Berlin
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 15, 2005
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Dengue Fever is just like any other rock band. You know, they have a guitar player, drummer, farfisa organ, Cambodian pop star ...

Well, maybe "normal" is a bit of a misnomer. But that doesn't mean this California sextet is any less palatable or down to earth. Dengue Fever's beginnings are just like any other band in the scene.

Three guys playing music at each other's house. Guitar, drums and somebody's accordion. The psychedelic Cambodian rock music with an African flavor came later.

"We weren't even thinking along the lines of a Cambodian rock band," says Ethan Holtzman, Dengue Fever's farfisa player.

But Holtzman has an interesting history himself, aside from playing the '60s Italian instrument. In 1998, he made a trip across Southeast Asia, spending a considerable amount of time in Cambodia checking out street musicians and the local music scene.

"Cambodia was just one of the most interesting countries that I had visited. It was just this wall-less society, so different," Holtzman said.

But Cambodian music is surprisingly similar to American and British classic rock, mostly because it is American and British classic rock. In the late '60s, radio stations from Vietnam broadcast American rock music like the Rolling Stones across Cambodia.

Trying to be a part of what they liked so much, Cambodians created their own versions of the psychedelic classic rock tunes. The result was a sort of Cambodian-American classic rock hybrid.

"Something was different. There were more stops and quick and interesting walk-downs. We really liked it and it was really upbeat," Holtzman said.

Dengue Fever wants to capture that essence in their music, but put their own personality as well into it. Their first album featured these pop tunes translated back into Cambodian to complete the cycle.

"A lot of the kids that were (in Cambodia) were pretty much just playing Santana. We're just trying to bring back some of their classic rock because we do it with a new different light," Holtzman said.

And that's exactly what they do with the help of their lead singer, of course. Chhom Nimal, who has played for the queen of her home country, blew the band away the moment they saw her. "She definitely shined more than the others," Holtzman said.

Searching through the highly concentrated Cambodian areas of Los Angeles, they found Nimal singing in a nightclub called the Dragon House. During the auditions later, Nimal surprised all of other competitors just by showing up.

"She looked like Janet Jackson or something. All the other singers started to cough. 'My throat, my throat, and stuff.' She just blew everyone out of the water," he said.

But even after their perfect singer was chosen, it wasn't all fun and games. Because Nimal barely spoke (or sang) any English, it was harder for them to trust each other and work together. "She didn't know us from strangers from the road," Holtzman said.

In addition to the time it took for songs to be translated into English, the band also had some problems along the way when some translations didn't come out perfectly.

Not to mention, all of the songs had to be sung in a completely different language. But the band members got accustomed to it over time. "I don't understand (the words) but I'm so familiar with them that it's like I understand them," Holtzman said.

"I usually have a basic understanding of all the songs. And a lot of the ones that we've written for this next record, they were written in English first and then translated. We know what they are," Holtzman said.

But it has all worked out for the best. Dengue Fever was recently asked to contribute to the soundtrack for "Broken Flowers," and finished up work on their newest album, Escape from Dragon House, which is made up of original songs instead of old covers.

So what's in store for the future? Holtzman is hopeful. "We just play our music and we get a really good response from all ages. Like little kids to hipsters to like older people who come out. We figure we'll take it to the level we can," said Holtzman.

Dengue Fever is playing at Solar Culture Gallery, 31 E. Toole Ave. Saturday at 9 p.m.

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