Pop Life

The Whole Wide World: Dengue Fever's Sleepwalking Through The Mekong

Dengue Fever is the name of a potentially deadly tropical disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes. There have been several epidemics around the world, specially in third-world countries where sanitary conditions are less than desirable.

It is also the name of a Los Angeles-based indie rock band that plays Psychedelic Cambodian (Khmer) music inspired by sounds that founding members Zac and Ethan Holtzman discovered after a trip to Cambodia in 2001.

On this 2007 documentary directed by John Pirozzi (recently released on DVD with an accompanying soundtrack CD), we follow the band as they go on their first Cambodian tour in 2005 - possibly the first time ever that an American band played Khmer music there.

The film opens with the band's appearance on a Cambodian TV show, and then we go back to the day when the musicians arrived in the capital city of Phnom Penn.

Except for the Holtzman brothers and lead singer Chholm Nimol (who was born in the country), none of the other bandmembers know what to expect - during one interview, bassist Senon Williams admits that for the first time in his career, he doesn't know where he is going to play or how audiences might react.

The documentary also touches on Dengue Fever's early days when Nimol - already somewhat of a star in the Long Beach Cambodian expat scene - joined the group and how they connected on both a personal and professional level. There are countless laid-back moments, such as the musicians riding scooters through the city's streets, singing in local karaoke bars, shopping and having dinner with Nimol's family - a joyous occasion for the vocalist, who hadn't been in her native land in over five years.

Among striking images of the city and live appearances from Dengue Fever, we learn about the country's tragic history during the time that the Khmer Rouge was in power - intellectuals, artists and pretty much anyone with an education was targeted, and as a result the country's native culture almost disappeared - Cambodian rock pioneers like Sinn Seamout and Pen Ran disappeared during the regime, and are sadly believed to have been murdered under Pol Pot's orders. Thankfully, the recordings survived, and all these artists are still household names even three decades after their passing.

The film concludes with an outdoors concert at a local shantytown, when they were augmented by local musicians dancers and a children's choir - a triumphant gig where emotions go beyond the screen - at the shows' conclusion, saxophonist David Ralicke says that all he remembers as being something "beautiful."

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Ernest Barteldes