I’d been loosely following the coming and goings of Los Angeles band DENGUE FEVER since I heard their debut record and wrote about it in 2004, but somehow the multimedia film + soundtrack CD package “SLEEPWALKING THROUGH THE MEKONG” passed me by until I heard a killer track from it on a friend’s 8TRACKS station. Dengue Fever’s back story is as compelling as their music is bewitching. LA-based brothers travel to Cambodia and discover a lost (and almost completely unknown in the US outside of immigrant communities) 1960s world of psychedelic pop and fuzz-guitar music on old tapes. They gather up this amazing pre-Khmer Rouge music, so out of keeping with Americans’ view of Cambodia, onto a CD they call “CAMBODIA ROCKS”. It opens and then blows minds, including mine. The Holtzman brothers then form a band in tribute, and bring into their fold a gorgeous Cambodian immigrant singer (Chhom Nimol) with an incredible set of pipes to play these classic songs, and write a few of their own. A decade later, they’re still going strong.
In 2005, as the band really started to hit their stride, they traveled to Cambodia to play a festival and to make a film about this clash of eastern and western cultures. The storylines, all told without narration, are pretty simple – 4 goofy American dudes are “fish out of water” in Cambodia, but are transformed and humbled by the experience. Chhom Nimol has her homecoming to her native land, first time in five years, and gets to perform the native Cambodian rock and roll music back to generations who still remember it and to new hipster Cambodian kids who’ve learned about it. “Sleepwalking Through The Mekong”, which I admit I bought solely for the soundtrack (it’s a two-disc set), turned out to be a pretty great documentary film as well. I was really struck by what this country looks like - more vibrant and alive than I expected. The people seem wonderful; the land is one sweeping, hot, verdant vista after another; and the mix of ancient and modern is something to behold. Twenty minutes into the film and I’d already added a visit to this country to my quote-unquote bucket list.
Dengue Fever are no less compelling. Immensely respectful of the people of the country from whom they’re appropriated their entire shtick, the band spends time learning from the few old Cambodian musical “masters” who weren’t murdered during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, and with children learning the old songs from teachers who perform this music with all the joyful respect it deserves. The editing of the film is tight and crisp, and I came away from the whole thing actually happy that I saw it. Not glad – happy. It’s that kind of tears-in-the-eyes documentary.
The soundtrack’s got some crazy psych/groove numbers from Dengue Fever like “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula”, which I’m posting here because it’s so goddamn good, as well as classic cuts from the old masters Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth. Trust me, you’ll want to listen to it after hearing the music in the film while seeing the context in which it was made. Dengue Fever themselves may have been at their peak around the time this was made – just heard their latest CD and, to put it gently, “it’s not for me” – but I’d recommend trying to get your hands on this DVD/CD package if you’ve got a spare twenty-spot lying around.