Thanks to wealthy Khmers coming home from studying in France carrying stacks of records, and the later influence of US Army radio broadcasts from neighbouring Vietnam, late 1960s Cambodia was an unlikely but thriving rock & roll outpost. Superstar singers such as Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and Sieng Vanthy reenvisioned 60s pop, soul, and garage through the lens of their own culture and created an intoxicating and thrilling new sound that echoed a similar musical cross-pollination that was happening in Saigon, where acts like CBC Band and Connie Kim mashed up the psych and Motown beloved of the GIs with Vietnamese pop to exhilarating effect (rediscovered and revived on the excellent 2010 Saigon Rock & Soul compilation).
Both waves of Asian-Western fusion were sadly nipped in the bud in the mid-1970s, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and, more dramatically, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and threw the country into a hellish insanity that killed almost 2 million of its citizens, Sisamouth and Sothea amongst them (Vanthy survived by pretending to be a banana seller rather than an artist). By the turn of the century, Cambodian rock & roll, wiped off the map by the Khmer Rouge, was all but forgotten, but in recent years it has been rediscovered, thanks to film director John Pirozzi (whose documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll is essential viewing) and revivalists such as Cambodian Space Project and, most famously, Dengue Fever, whose first two albums have been given the deluxe reissue treatment.
I first heard these albums, aptly enough, on a long and often terrifying journey along the flood-damaged road between Phnom Penh & Siem Reap several years ago, and there’s probably no better way to appreciate them than whilst passing by temples, rice fields and villages of wooden shacks. For whilst Dengue Fever are Californian (singer Chhom Nimol is the only Khmer member), they’re infused with the melancholy spirit of Cambodia, whose adored but forgotten music they treat with a mixture of reverence and experimentation.
Their self-titled 2003 debut is always fun to go back to, a riotous mix of 1960s covers and their own compositions, blending psych, surf-rock and US indie, all topped off with Nimol’s remarkable voice, innocent and haunting one minute, knowing and coquettish the next. Anyone who’s spent any time in Phnom Penh’s wonderful live music beer gardens will recognise classics such as ‘I’m Sixteen’, ‘Pow Pow’ or ‘New Year’s Eve’, and will be thrilled by the new life breathed into them by the band’s Hammond-driven garage rock arrangements. But the real skill here is the way American musicians, writing in English and then getting their lyrics translated into Khmer, suffuse their original songs with the spirit of 1960s Cambodia – ‘Hold My Hips’ and the wonderfully melancholy ‘Connect Four’ (named after the favourite ice-breaker of linguistically-challenged Phnom Penh waitresses) are indistinguishable from the source material.
2005’s follow-up Escape from Dragon House is a somewhat mellower affair, lacking both the novelty and the punch of the debut but a giant leap forward for their own songwriting – there are no covers this time, yet the spirit remains and in ‘One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula’ it contains their masterpiece, a seven-minute epic fusing Dick Dale surf guitar, jazz and eerie Khmer chanting and encompassing everything that makes this band special. They’re unable to sustain the quality over the album’s whole length – instrumental ‘Lake Dolores’ and the rather silly ‘Saran Wrap’ are best skipped – but in ‘Hummingbird’ they have a beautiful song that transports me, every time I hear it, to a dark corner table in a sleazy beer garden on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where I ate roasted sparrows and drank copious amounts of Angkor Beer amidst a noisy, boozy crowd, whilst on stage, a lone, beautiful karaoke singer sang something just like this – lyrically incomprehensible to me but palpably, heartbreakingly romantic – and gradually reduced the crowd to silent awe.
If these albums passed you by first time round, then these reissues are an opportunity to fill a gaping hole in your record collection, one marked ‘Cambodia’ and which you didn’t even know existed. They’re rare examples of Western musicians not patronisingly dabbling in ‘World’ music, but immersing themselves into it so completely you can’t see the join, and they’re also wonderful proof that great songs can survive even the worst excesses of human evil.
Dengue Fever and Escape From Dragon House are re-issued on 26th May through Tuk Tuk Records.
The post Dengue Fever – Dengue Fever/Escape from Dragon House reissues (Tuk Tuk Records) appeared first on God Is In The TV.