The San Francisco Outside Lands Festival, which took place August 28-30, brought together bands that have influenced each other in the past. This is the case with Dengue Fever, who sees the Brazilian band Os Mutantes as one of its main musical inspirations. Curiously, also, they both performed on the same stage, “Sutro”, within just a few hours of each other.
And for the audience, this resulted in an original session of rock and creativity.
Dengue Fever, created in 2001 in Los Angeles, is currently one of the most original stage rock bands. Inspired by 60s and 70s rock of Cambodia, brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman started this musical experience which hasn’t stopped growing. The incorporation of singer Chhom Nimol was crucial for the band’s evolution since she provides the singing in Khmer, one of the Cambodian languages, besides a deeper cultural feeling.
“The Cambodian rockers from the 60s and 70s interpreted in their own way the music that was flourishing in the United States,” said Paul Smith, the band’s drummer. “They sang primarily in Khmer, that’s why finding Nimol was very important for us.”
At first, Dengue Fever’s songs were written in English by the Holtzman brothers and later they were translated into Khmer.
Currently, Dengue Fever makes incursions in both languages with the same fluidity.
In 2005, the band lived one of its most important musical experiences.
“Our visit to Cambodia had a great impact,” Smith said. “You see the memories from that time period in the eyes of many of the people in audience, something beyond the music.”
Smith is referring to the tragic dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge’s fanatical Communist regime, which governed Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. As a result of its primitive and self-sufficient politics, millions of people starved to death. Thousands of others were assassinated and tortured, among them, the rockers who inspired Dengue Fever.
“I think that in Cambodia they’re still living through an acceptance process about the past,” Smith explained, who was moved. “It was a very bracing experience for us.”
The other members of the band are Senon Williams, on bass, and David Ralicke on saxophone. Until now, the sextet has recorded three CDs: “Dengue Fever” (2003), “Escape from the Dragon House” (2005) and “Venus on Earth” (2008).
The documentary film “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong” (2009) documents the band’s visit to Cambodia in 2005.
“We don’t do this for the money or the fame, we like music, we like to connect to the audience,” Smith said.
Currently, Dengue Fever is working on some new songs that may end up on a new album.
“Each band has its style, but also its influences,” explains Dengue Fever’s drummer, who mentions Os Mutantes, The Ventures and Ethiopian jazz among the artists or trends which have influenced them. And, of course, the Cambodian rockers who gave them their initial identity, like Sin Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, who were all killed by the Khmer Rouge.
“We make music honestly, we have values and a defined audience, but one that also grows,” Smith said.
And about the band’s future, he says that for now, the principles will be the same. “We continue to search for our way, perhaps in the future we will be something different.”
Dengue Fever collaborates with charitable organizations that work in Cambodia, among others Wildlife Alliance, which seeks to protect and recuperate the forest of that asian country.