DENGUE FEVER, OHBIJOU, and YOUR BAND SUCKSSneaky Dee's (431 College), Monday (September 18), 9 pm. $7. 416-603-3090. Rating: NNNNN
The whole surreal dengue fever story of how Los Angeles brothers Zac and Ethan Holtzman started their own Cambodian-style rock group after simultaneously stumbling into the psychedelicized world of 60s Khmer pop is strange enough.
What are the chances that Zac would come across a copy of the under-the-counter Cambodian Rocks (Parallel World) bootleg comp at Aquarius Records at the same time his keyboardist sibling was being seduced by the same twisted hybrid of fuzzed-out surf music and traditional Cambodian circle dance grooves while vacationing in Phnom Penh?
No less intriguing is the strangely serendipitous series of events that led the Holtzmans to their strikingly charismatic frontwoman, Chhom Nimol, who'd been a singing sensation in Cambodia before emigrating to California.
"When we formed the group in 2001," explains Zac Holtzman from his Silver Lake home, "we knew we needed someone who could really sing this music, but we didn't know where to look.
"And then at a pool hall I met this Cambodian guy who could barely speak any English. I asked him if he knew of any Cambodian singers who lived in the area, and he started doing the hand gestures that the singers do and just said, 'Long Beach. '"
Although Holtzman didn't realize it at the time, Long Beach, California, is home to the largest Cambodian community outside of Phnom Penh, something that became clear once they began canvassing the nightclubs and wedding halls for potential singers.
In short order they found six likely prospects and invited them to audition at their rehearsal space. But they were also intrigued by talk of an amazing singer who was then the star attraction at a popular Long Beach nightspot called the Dragon House.
"At the auditions, we told the singers who came to try out that we also wanted to invite the performer we'd heard about from the Dragon House. They all said, 'Oh, no, Chhom Nimol not come. No, she's too famous!'
"But I guess Chhom was curious enough to find out what we had in mind, because she did show up, along with her whole huge entourage - there must've been 12 people with her. Suddenly, all the other candidates developed sore throats or remembered prior engagements and split.
"When Chhom started singing, we knew immediately why everyone else had left. She's an amazing singer, and everything just clicked. We started playing shows together right away, and we haven't stopped."
With the vivacious Nimol in traditional attire now the centre of attention, L.A. Weekly named Dengue Fever the best new band of 2002. Yet despite recording two critically lauded albums, 2003's self-titled debut for Trey Spruance's Web of Mimicry label and 2005's Escape From Dragon House (M80/Birdman), and having songs placed in Matt Dillon's directorial debut, City Of Ghosts, and Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, it took a concert tour of Cambodia last November to put their accomplishments with Dengue Fever into proper perspective.
They're currently assembling a Dengue Fever live In Cambodia DVD from the footage, which they hope to release later this year.
"It was an incredible trip. We played a variety of shows in U.S. expat bars for embassy workers as well as free outdoor concerts in some impoverished areas for audiences of between 500 and 1,000 Cambodians. All of the pop musicians who played this Western-influenced style of music in Cambodia were killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, but a lot of older people who grew up in that era still remember the music, so it got to be a very emotional experience.
"This one teacher we met knew all the songs and had been teaching them to her students. She said that seeing her kids singing these songs with musicians from America was the greatest thing that ever happened in her life - like all of her work had been leading up to this moment. That was definitely the highlight for me."