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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005, 11:24 GMT
Cambodia rocks to an old beat
By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Cambodia

With the help of Western musicians and a member of one of Cambodia's most famous singing families, Cambodian rock and roll is undergoing a resurgence in its country of origin.

Dengue Fever
Dengue Fever aim to revive Khmer rock and roll

An other-worldly noise is coming out of my speakers.

I have set my computer to play my small but perfectly formed collection of vintage Cambodian rock and roll.

And what sounds they are - demented, twanging guitar solos, eerie electric organ - and on one track a chorus that solely consists of blood-curdling screams.

It is seriously psychedelic stuff. It is as if Jimi Hendrix and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd had decamped to Phnom Penh and hooked up with some local singers.

The vocalists are something else again. They soar through the melodies, gulping and hiccupping in traditional Khmer style.

Some of the songs are covers, like a retooled version of Procul Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale.

Then there is an unexpectedly brilliant take on Middle of the Road's mindless pop ditty Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep that achieves the impossible by making the song seem like a good idea.

The originals deal with everything from bicycle rickshaw rides to the art of flirting while paddling a canoe.

I defy anyone to listen and not be charmed instantly, if not hooked.

We will never know what the Cambodian music scene could have become.

Zac Holtzman
Zac Holtzman and brother Ethan formed Dengue Fever in 2001

Civil war and the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 saw the musicians leave the country or worse.

Today Phnom Penh is a slightly depressing place for the discerning music fan.

Out of tune karaoke echo around my street at various times of the day.

Live music is largely restricted to shoddy, pop idol-style performances on outdoor stages around the city with sponsorship from cigarettes, mobile phones and gas cookers.

Even the old classics are only usually heard in hideously remixed form.

Rock revival

But if Cambodian musicians of the 60s were inspired by Western rock music, now the reverse is true.

At least in the case of Dengue Fever.

They are a six-piece band from California who have made it their mission to revive Khmer rock and roll.

Chhom Nimol - Dengue Fever
People have been waiting for this. It's a different style, but it's Cambodian rock.
Chhom Nimol
I first met the guitarist, Zac, at a party during Phnom Penh's Water Festival last month.

He has a beard that reaches his chest, which he sometimes plaits.

As we watched the racing boats hurtling down the Tonle Sap river, he explained how his brother Ethan had brought back cassettes of Cambodian music from a backpacking trip.

The two of them immediately hatched a plot to form a band and revive the songs.

They recruited friends from the Los Angeles music scene - mostly experienced session players who had worked with everyone from Beck and the rapper Snoop Dogg to Julio Iglesias.

But they decided that only a Cambodian singer would do justice to the material.

They trawled the nightclubs of Long Beach, home to tens of thousands of Cambodian immigrants, and got lucky.

They found Chhom Nimol, a young member of one of Cambodia's most famous singing families.

Somehow they persuaded her to join the band.


For the past three years they have been performing up and down the West Coast of the States, releasing two records along the way and picking up a couple of awards.

But this was the first time they had come to Cambodia.

It would have been easy just to play to an audience of Phnom Penh's foreign residents.

But Dengue Fever decided to do things properly. Or at least as properly as the local infrastructure would allow.

Map of Cambodia

They rented one of the outdoor stages on the banks of the river in the slum district known as Tonle Bassac.

The sound system looked like it had been cobbled together from a motley collection of domestic stereos.

The unmistakable stench of raw sewage competed for attention with the aroma from bags of rotting rubbish.

Potholes in front of the stage made dancing a broken ankle waiting to happen.

And yet the crowds came, and gawped, at the sight of Chhom Nimol backed by five foreigners playing Cambodian rock and roll.

Traditional musicians joined them on stage to add wild, Irish fiddle-like improvisations on an instrument called the trou.

The longer they performed, the more the audience grew in number.

Chhom Nimol told me how important it was for her to bring back these sounds to Cambodia to show people that they did not have to settle for syrupy ballads and sponsored tripe.

"People have been waiting for this," she said.

"It's a different style, but it's Cambodian rock."

It seems she is right. The day after the Bassac show, the band played a two-hour long Saturday night TV special, and after that they got mobbed whenever they ventured out of their hotel.

Personally, I am just grateful to them for bringing a magical sound back to life.

And I am hoping that some of the people who have fallen for Dengue Fever will take the Cambodian music scene by the scruff of the neck.

There is only so much karaoke one man can take.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 15 December, 2005, at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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