Sleepwalking Through the Mekong
Dengue Fever certainly have
a specialized niche in the music world. They are five
white California guys who hired a former Cambodian pop star to cover Khmer
songs from the 60s and 70s.
Granted, it is something of
a lost art form. During the barbaric regime of Pol Pot, most Cambodian
singing stars - in fact most artists in general in the country - were deemed
enemies of the state and quite literally killed.
After gaining a cult
audience in the US, including the recording of a couple of CDs,
Sleepwalking Through the Mekong assays the band's first tour of Cambodia
- where they became the first American band to play.
The group was not sure what
to expect and the venues vary greatly, from local TV to bars to conference
rooms, schools and finally a huge outdoor performance in the middle of a
It is a fascinating
journey. The guys - LA-based alt musicians Ethan Holtzman, Zac
Holtzman, Senon Williams, Paul Smith and David Ralicke are obviously huge
fans of the music and interpret it with fire and passion. Lead singer
Chhom Nimol (who had been a part of a popular family group in Cambodia
before emigrating to the States) is a fiery singer and it is also
interesting to see her reunions with family and old friends.
Unfortunately, the film
leaves some important facts of the story out. How, for example, did
five California-based musicians discover this music? Why did become so
enamored of older Cambodian pop music that they would throw their entire
careers behind playing songs that are obscure in their own homeland and
written in a language that they do not speak? Is there that big a
Cambodian community in Los Angeles that they can survive as a band playing
this style of music? The band members'
explanations of why they love the songs tend to be along the lines of the fact
that they were a celebration of US pop music of the 60s and 70s - so why not
just cover that?
Another thing they never
quite explain is the fact that the guys do not speak much Khmer, and their
singer - despite the fact that she has been living in the US for five years
- does not appear to speak much English. (At least all the interviews
she does for the film are all done in her native tongue, as are most of the
scenes of her interacting with people, though she does occasionally speak a
little English with her bandmates.) So how have the band members
learned to communicate? I assume she must speak English relatively
fluently and is not using it on her trip home, and that is a point that
could easily be made with one statement or scene. It seems like a basic and central question and
it is just ignored.
Still Dengue Fever is an
intriguing, skilled band and Sleepwalking Through the Mekong
certainly visits places that most rock docs never touch, so this is a trip
well worth taking.
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted: April 10, 2009.