World in Stereo: Dengue Fever’s Cannibal Courtship

World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.

Dengue Fever: Cannibal Courtship (Fantasy Records, 4/19/2011)

Dengue Fever: “Uku”

[audio:|titles=Dengue Fever: “Uku”]

Righteously capturing the free spirit of Cambodia’s 1960s surf-rock and psychedelic-pop scene is Dengue Fever‘s fourth LP, Cannibal Courtship.  For almost a decade, the Los Angeles-based ensemble, led by Cambodian songstress Chhom Nimol, has shone a light on the undeniable wealth of grooves that Khmer music has to offer, intricately reworking its musical foundations in an approach that is vintage in style with an ear towards global sounds.

Cannibal Courtship shows the band expanding its sound into new territories, playing a more fuzzed-out, rock-and-roll style while keeping true to the dreamy, reverberated guitar licks and driving bass riffs that make its music so hypnotic.  Guitarist Zac Holtzman takes a prominent vocal presence, and Nimol’s English has become increasingly better, resulting in a record that is sung half in Khmer and half in English. The two linguistic styles are tied together with groovy dual vocal parts from the singers.

Whereas the larger Southeast Asian scene — including Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam — saw an incredible boom of Western-influenced, psychedelic rock and roll as early as the ’60s, Cambodia had its golden era of musical mutation before the horrifying Pol Pot regime took over in 1975. During his reign, Western-influenced musicians were killed, and their music was banned and destroyed.

But similar to the neighboring traditions in Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s fusion with Western psychedelia is marked by an anthemic perception of independence, driven by high-pitched instruments and singing styles with modular intonations that range from plaintive to howling.  Early recordings from Ros Sereysothea, with her rock-and-roll siren voice and the free-for-all backup singers yelling their parts, give listeners a perfect point of reference for Dengue Fever’s inspiration.

The title track opens the record smoothly, featuring a wide variety of tempos and moods.  The repetitive guitar lick drives the track forward as the electric organ pulls it back into a heavy groove, all with great emphasis on Nimol’s sensitive vocal emotions.  Psychedelic echoes and high-twang synthesizers are used in great restraint, and the tones at play are fresh revamps of an old sound.

But it’s a track like “Uku,” with Nimol singing solo in Khmer, that showcases the band at its best.  With a dense display of rhythms and heavy atmospherics, the band injects a classical Khmer folk-song melody with impressive global sensibilities.  The mid-song flute solo is incredibly infectious; as a tone rarely heard and played with so much funky soul, the mix is a true treat for global groove searchers.

On Cannibal Courtship, Dengue Fever favors original material over covers of old Khmer pop standards.  The band has managed to bridge time periods and distances, creating a neat package that has psychedelic music making a full circle — traveling from the West to the East, and back to the West.  It’s an innovative and inventive sound that stays true to the 1960s music scene without exploiting it, making for a sound that is as much retrospective as it is modern.

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