I often put on piano music as background when I am working. It's relaxing and creates a good atmosphere, while blotting out other noises like traffic or neighbors' dogs. Since musical ideas are only held in your brain for a few seconds they kind of rinse your thoughts as they pass. However their progress keeps resolving so you find you are enjoying such a musical thread, or not. There are of course other factors, endorphins that are released when certain feelings are triggered, which is why people cling to their old records and keep hoping to relive something: the rush of excitement when they heard a certain artist for the first time, say, or had a drug experience or a sexual one and associate it with some songs. But Tanya Ekanayaka provides a new and good soundtrack to calm moments. I have played this one a few times, and occasionally think I hear a quote from Rachmaninov or Beethoven. There are in fact a lot of familiar classical echoes in here, but Miss Ekanayaka is not improvising. She writes, "every piece was precisely composed (or evolved, as I prefer to say), often over several days, and where there is an inspirational source of the motifs, it is the specific folk music of the languages referred to, not the classical repertoire. Any echoes you hear are (hopefully happy), coincidences." The languages of the titles are, many of them, in danger of becoming extinct, and Ekanayaka has used their names as triggers to musical ideas. The music has emotion, but does not take over, as for example when you are listening to a favorite album and there are key moments or touchstones where you become so emotionally involved your brain becomes focussed on it, so it moves from the unconscious to the foreground. Here I can be aware of what she doing while still reading or thinking about something else, with no disrespect to her performance. It's comforting in its familiarity without become a compulsive game of trying to recall which riffs I think I recognize. There are moments in Jazz improvisation where the performer goes to a comfortable spot but then has to extricate themself without falling into a trap. I am always interested to hear how jazz musicians get out of a maze when they accidentally fall into a familiar groove, say "El Manicero" or "A-tisket a-tasket" and wish they hadn't gone there, so in a split second have to find a quick exit. The doors they open in their subconscious can be exhilarating. So it is with Ekanayaka. For example "Kandaani" has a riff in New Orleans' style which you can hear in Professor Longhair but she quickly moves on to other pastures while you are still puzzling it out. I think I hear Ernest Gold's theme from "Exodus" in the left hand... but she assures me, "it is inspired by a Vedda song hundreds of years older than the Exodus theme you're hearing – the Veddas are the indigenous people of my homeland, Sri Lanka. 'Kandaani' means 'bees' in the Vedda language and is a celebration of the Vedda people, their way of life, and their language." So it is best to "go with the flow" and not try to overanalyze it. This work is conceived as two parts: a CD of piano sutras (the sanskrit word for threads or prayers) and another of "pianisms" combining multiple threads in parallel. This is connected to her background as a Sri Lankan, growing up with the piano and then discovering its heritage as an instrument of the colonizers, successively Portuguese, Dutch then British. Formerly we would think of this as individual pieces, maybe 6 sides of a three LP set, but instead in this new digital world it all flows together as one long mellow mood.


This CD kicks off with a stunning track called "Rouge" by Michiyo Yagi that is 6 minutes of intense strumming and thrumming on a koto. It's so good I stopped the disc and went to YouTube where I found the whole tune which is twice the length! The second track has a continuous crying baby so I skipped it. The third track has squealing rock guitar behind pleasant vocals. Track four by Cockroach Eater is "experimental" which is to say it has weird vocals and odd flute over a synthesized rhythm track. It goes on too long. More weirdness invades the next instrumental track by Ken Sugai which starts simply enough and layers up to a cacophony of random-seeming noises. I feel like I am struggling in a rip-tide here as I don't like the singing of Karin or the instrumentation, though I want to give this a fair chance. I go back to YouTube figuring if I can see some of this being performed it might be more palatable; normally I prefer the opposite: purely aural stimulation without distraction, but this is beyond me. I appreciate someone (UK DJ Paul Fisher) went to great lengths to select these tracks, but I am hearing a lot of intensely discordant instruments, like the Jittyaku Orchestra of Okinawa who are actually pleasant on YouTube, if you pick the right track, but are prone to outbursts of free jazz. Well, it does say "Avant garde" on the package. More jazz follows in the form of "Akkan" by Shibusashirazu from 2004 which I enjoyed. Overall I hear influences as diverse as It's a Beautiful Day's "White bird" and Harry Partch's "Castor and Pollux" (1952) -- often in the same tune! I can follow the logic of tsuMGuito's "fPB" on guitar and koto which is the longest and best sustained piece on here; again it seems like the spirit of Harry Partch is hovering above, with Pierre Boulez and Frank Zappa on either hand. As in everything else, the Japanese are forging new directions in music and this disc covers a wide range of experimental approaches.

THE DEEPEST LAKE (Tuk Tuk Records)

I have to confess that when I was in college my education took a strange turn: instead of going to lectures I sat in a state of euphoria induced by my new room-mates' taste for Arabic plant extracts and the suddenly vast collection of records we shared (My collection consisted of Frank Zappa's Uncle Meat, Coltrane's Live at Birdland and Tommy by the Who). I listened to a lot of Country Joe & the Fish while staring at the plaster moulding on the ceiling. (While the US had the British invasion, we in Britain had the reciprocal psychedelic invasion.) The overall mood of this new Dengue Fever disc takes me back to those heady mis-spent days of my late teens. Now I get a lot of world fusion music pitched at me: Ethiopian jazz meets rock, New Orleans meets World Beat, African meets White Guys who Like Fela, etc. It's endless and usually tiresome. But when you come to some real professionals, like Dengue Fever, they have the white rock thing down (San Francisco psychedelia, and British Invasion) but also a great feeling for the exotic quotient that comes from the Cambodian flavor they infuse into their albums and performances. It's not just coming from Chhom Nimol their lead vocalist with her unearthly birdlike melodies, the guitar is also steeped in lush instrumentation and the percussion fits the mood from straight-up rock to African to spacey (cuica). The mood is dreamy and cinematic and you just want to lay back and go on a little mental journey. The band has been touring the world performing their music for a decade and this is the first time in almost four years they have been back into the studio to record new material. They confidently stretch out and jam on all ten new compositions, as if they had been playing them for years. Their Cambodian-rootsiness is pretty deeply engrained now with all its flowery psychedelia but their LA punk roots are still evident in the grunging guitar and the pulsing bedrock of African roots percussion. Check out the wonderful video of their first single off the album "Tokay." There's power and passion in this new disc but also a raw edge. They formed their own label and have reissued most of their back-catalog with bonus material as their sound has started to be picked up by commercials and films and become better known.


A few years ago this was all but forgotten music. The Khmer Rouge had systematically murdered musicians and artists and only exiles and some survivors remembered the tapes they had enjoyed in the carefree 1960s, after Cambodia's independence from France, by artists like Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and others who had heard the Airplane, the Fish, the Doors and other psychedelic bands on American Forces radio. Several wars later a couple of Angelenos on holiday in Cambodia found some of the old cassette tapes and decided to start a retro band that reclaimed this music. They became Dengue Fever and it is fitting they appear on here (with the English-language "Tiger Phone Card") alongside some of the originators of the sound (included songs they have covered). The high voices and speedy tempos may seem weird at first, unless you have been initiated via Bollywood soundtracks which also gobbled up these musical styles in their day. Sinn Sisamouth, who was known as the Elvis of Cambodia, wrote new lyrics for western hits like "Sugar Sugar," "Black Magic Woman," and "House of the Rising Sun" (collected here as "Thgnai kor chrer") and scored numerous hits in his homeland. Rose Seresyothea does a cover of Shocking Blue's "Venus" as "Komlos Sey Chaom," and you'll recognize the original of the next track as "Bang bang" by Nancy Sinatra! Some of these were also on the Electric Cambodia album. There is a bonus disc by Cambodian Space Project, based in Cambodia, who like Dengue Fever are a retro act, reviving the sounds of the golden age of Cambodian pop. When I reviewed the first album I said it promised much, but was still not up to the standard of Dengue Fever, however they have improved and there's a real "Weird Scenes inside the Gold Mine" vibe to "Whiskey Cambodia," a 7-minute cut on here. There are tracks that are not based on American pop songs and they are the most interesting musically, with local rhythms and percussion. "I Love only You" and "Baby Lady Boy" are among these. There is one track by Dub Addiction that is totally out of place, musically it is rubbish and doesn't relate to anything else here. Don't let that deter you though from this engaging set.


I don't know how much of this I can take, therefore I can't say whether you need this, even if you are into esoteric covers of the pop of your youth. Once, around 1982, when I was teaching at UC Berkeley a couple of Asian kids showed up to my class in full-on Mod gear: RAF-roundel t-shirts, union jack jacket, parka with fur-trimmed hood. Wow! I said, you look like Mods. We are, they said. I told them, How odd, back in 1964 I was a Mod and looked a lot like you. They were gob-smacked, could not imagine their grey-haired professor with a Beatle haircut, purple velvet 'loons and a white turtleneck grooving to the Yardbirds, the Kinks and (I hate to admit it) the Dave Clark Five. To me it was equally bizarre that these young Asians identified with something so distant from their own culture. But now we learn that all through Asia there were bands in the 60s making a creditable effort of covering the Mersey sound, as well as the other Brit pop & San Francisco psychedelia that was storming the world's music charts. This compilation features late 60s Psychedelic Rock from Malaysia and Singapore with wailing backing singers, wheezy Farfisa and choppy Fender guitars. If you enjoy spotting quotes from the Surfaris (too easy), Jefferson Airplane, Los Bravos, Cliff & the Shadows, you will dig this. Hours of fun! And you must hear "Kembali lagi," by A Halim and De'Fictions, which starts with a scorching paraphrase of Jeff Beck's "Over, under, sideways, down." The same group's "Kan hilang nanti" shows that the guitarist is indeed a superb musician. To add to the fun there are also references to Bollywood songs (e.g., the lovely Zaleh Hamid's "Bertemasha," based on "Zindegi ek safar," from Andaaz) which were themselves often already one remove from Western sources. The handsome package includes two booklets packed with pictures and info.

2011: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Metal Postcard MP30)

In their promotional literature, the Cambodian Space Project set themselves up against Dengue Fever. That was a foolish move. Surely there's room for another band that revisits the psychedelic sixties as heard through the Cambodian airwaves? You can't compete with Dengue Fever: they pioneered the field of retro-Cambodian psychedelic rock and are great at what they do. Covering the same songs is only going to lead to comparisons that the newcomers cannot sustain. I do like this new album, it's very rock and rolly. I cannot say whether the singer is a better vocalist than Nimol Chhom but the arrangements are not as far-out, more straight-ahead hard rock. Their story is the same: a singer discovered in a Karaoke bar, and a bunch of foreign rockers drafted into playing behind her. The band are French, Australian and Cambodians. They also cover songs by Ros Sereysothea, and Sin Sisamouth. Interestingly, iTunes seems to think the title of the album is "The Moon's Apsara Rides The Cosmic Golden Swan-Goose." For all CSP's claims of "authenticity," Dengue Fever is better. However as this is their first album I look forward to hearing more from the Cambodian Space Project, maybe, like Dengue, they will develop into something more than a cover band. The highlight is a novelty number that closes the short half-hour set: "Kolos Srey Chaom (Love God)" which was a hit for Ros Sereysothea and uses the music from Dutch rock-band Shocking Blue's hit, "I'm your Venus."


I bought this for two reasons: First, I like the cover. Second, I am a fan of Dengue Fever and here are the originals and more of the songs that they have immortalized on their handful of great albums, compiled by the band from cassettes. I was never into Southeast Asian music but the kitsch factor -- covers of Western pop filtered through a Cambodian sensibility -- has its appeal. However the sad truth is, the covers by Dengue Fever are much better than the originals in almost all cases. This may seem like heresy to someone who knows the music and has the originals ingrained in their consciousness (though there can't be too many of them still alive). It's in fact the opposite of the case with the Rolling Stones: the Stones started out as a cover band doing R&B. If you look about you will find a compilation called STONED ALCHEMY which presents the originals of the songs the Stones covered on their first few albums: from "Come on" by Chuck Berry to "How many more years" by Howlin Wolf to "Got my Mojo workin" by Muddy Waters, it really puts the Stones in the shade. I give the Stones credit for introducing us to such great music, but nowhere did they improve on it. But Dengue Fever are all superlative musicians and have added a new dimension to the simple pop they cover, transcending the originals. Nevertheless there are some gems in here. "I will marry you" has the guitar line of "Venus" by Shocking Blue underlying it. "Shave your beard" and "I want to shout" are familiar yet only the female vocals suggest Dengue Fever. The instrumental "hope to meet you" morphed into one of Dengue's songs. "Snaeha" is a cover of Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang": at once familiar and yet appropriately "Asian" in this context. Dengue's slowed-down "Flowers" shows how to turn in a pop ditty into a majestic epic. There are covers of Isley Brothers and Leslie Gore if you want to play that game. Even if you have never been to Cambodia there is some surreal nostalgic fun herein.

Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964 -75 (Soundways SNDW 027CD)

I thought Siam was an imaginary country, like Shangri La, where The King & I took place. Come to think of it I have been to countries that no longer exist: Yugoslavia and Zaire. BBC has started called Myanmar Burma again, and Southern Sudan is about to change, maybe back to Equatoria? I guess Siam is now Thailand. You see, readers, I am trying hard to broaden my musical horizons, but (as with Indian pop music) I am struggling with the women's voices. However the backing music has familiar psychedelic tinges, and reminds me of the late 60s American pop that pushed Fairport Convention, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch off the speakers in my college days. The music is quite far from the traditional gamelan or other classical forms that permeate South Asia but has some affinities, and because it is vintage stuff, like the ELECTRIC CAMBODIA comp, it is easier to digest retrospectively (having been pre-chewed for us). Speaking of which I never hear this type of music while eating green papaya salad or pad thai. "Fai Yen" by Ream Daranoi is the first track to grab me, because it sounds like Bollywood playback singers of the same time, though a little more "birdie" in the delivery, if that is possible. Things pick up with Panom Nopporn's bass-heavy "Sao ban pok pab" and its "exotic" oboe. "Ding ding dong" is a track that you will love or it will drive you bats. It's about what we all live for -- and is a reference to an obscure Italian caveman sex comedy of the 70s!! Even wierder is "Sao lam Plearn" a remake of "Jumpin Jack Flash" with a theramin-like organ lead. It is beyond bizarre.

Dengue Fever


Dengue Fever is a cover band, but what they cover is a sound, a mood, a feeling, a history, more than actual songs. In fact for this new album they wrote all the material themselves in the style of their previous albums which were often comprised of Khmer favourites from the 1960s and 70s. They are all exceptionally gifted musicians: David Ralicke, their horn player, shines on "Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius," & goes outside on "Cement Slippers," which also has classic "David Cohen" Farfisa organ. As I've said, their sound reminds me a lot of Country Joe & the Fish's Electric Music for Mind & Body, which was one of my favourite albums in college, and one I didn't tire of (unlike the Jethro Tull or Fairport Convention albums my room-mates played to death). It has an edge and is wonderfully atmospheric. Not to say it isn't pop music. Yes there are echoes of the Doors but also of more sophisticated things like The Beatles from the Mystery Tour era (in the drum and horn arrangements on "Only a Friend") or Grace Jones at her height (in "Kiss of the Bufo Alvarius"). A stand-out track is "Cement Slippers," sung in English, with droll lyrics: "My girlfriend loves everything at the beach, except the sun, the sand, and the water..." I think they've been doing this one live for some time because it's very tight. Not to say there's any slackness on here. They attack each song with everything they've got. Rock-solid drums, great guitar riffs, unusual solos, and fine vocals from Chhom Nimol.

Photos by Sheldon Vogel copyright 2010

The recent death of James Gurley, guitarist of Big Brother, had the obituarists bemoaning the end of an era, but Janis Joplin died in 1970 which means you would have to be 56, at least, to have seen her perform. The Fillmore in San Francisco still stands as a ghostly reminder of the 60s, next door to the equally creepy People's Temple of Jim Jones, on Geary Blvd. I see why people cling to this dinosaur because it evokes youthful memories. The surviving Grateful Dead members have just reformed as Forward and have been causing a huge media buzz in the Bay Area in advance of a tour, but without Garcia they can be no more than another oldies garage band. Their fans are in a time warp, still clinging to their memorabilia and pony-tails, even as they lose their memories and hair. Any day now we can expect to see a reunion concert with Jefferson Wheelchair, because these die-hard rock fans can't imagine anything new being as good or even better. However, only a few blocks away from the Fillmore and Winterland, Rock n Roll is alive and well at the Independent. And you can see a guitarist and singer equally as compelling as the Holding Company if you catch Dengue Fever. I am not comparing Nimol Chhom with Janis, they have very different vocal styles, but they both have distinctive voices and did covers to establish themselves: Janis covered Big Mama Thornton and George Gershwin, and modeled her vocals after Sister O.M. Terrell. Nimol began by covering popular Cambodian songs from the 60s. Every time I see them I get that rush of excitement that takes me back over 40 years to when I was a kid and went to every gig the Who played that I could get to. At the end of their West Coast Tour, Dengue Fever has written some new material. "Sni Bong" & "Tip my canoe" from "Dragon House" have made way for new songs: "Mr Bubbles" and "Family Business" which had a familiar riff to it, shades of "Bony Maronie," or as it was originally known "Popotitos" (which the Who also covered!) In performance some of the other songs have taken on extended intros, which I really enjoy. Guitarist Zac Holtzman gets to show off some of his effects pedals, as on "Sober Driver," as do the keyboardist Ethan Holtzman, and brass player, David Ralicke, who has added flute to his trumpet and sax versatility. On "Tiger Phone Card" Ethan set up a strange insistent ringing phone tone which seemed to surprise the other band members, but then the smoke alarms went off and it was clearly not part of the act. There was so much pot smoke in the air that someone had tried to get rid of it by wafting their jacket over their head: this had sent smoke into the sensors and emergency lights flashed. A Fire marshall walked through but the band kept playing. However during the next number it started again and Zac left the stage looking like he was going to punch out the person with the jacket who was making matters worse. The audience calmed down and they went into a jam on "Sleepwalking through the Mekong." It was a short 45 minute set, but they came back for two encores and brought a lame rapper out of the crowd to ad lib. Fortunately Senon gave him the hook and normal transmission resumed. Their fans adore this band, and it's clear they are making new fans wherever they play.

THE LOST WORLD score at the San Francisco Film Festival, 5 May 2009

The annual San Francisco Film Festival has one feature I always look forward to: Every year they project a classic silent film from the 1920s and have a contemporary artist perform a new score. One of the most memorable was the Alloy Orchestra's accompaniment to Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (which has been released on DVD). Club Foot Orchestra scored Nosferatu and Metropolis and went on to perform scores of scores. This Cinco de Mayo had something different. An art rock band, mostly known for 3 or 4 minute pop songs, faced the task of creating a varied and engaging score for Arthur Conan-Doyle's 1925 film The Lost World, and the result was a triumphant success. As usual the grand Castro Theatre was abuzz with excitement as the Wurlitzer organ rose out of the floor playing "San Francisco (Open your Golden Gates)". Some of the audience from Pixar were there to see pioneering claymation work by Willis O'Brien, others were fans of the band Dengue Fever, but most were just cineastes enjoying one of the big premieres of the festival.

The film stars Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger who has discovered a plateau in the Amazon inhabited by prehistoric animals. The subplot involves a cub reporter determined to prove himself to the girl he loves by risking his life in a daring exploit. The main attraction is the bestiary of dinosaurs that scared the roaring twenties audiences (the animator later made King Kong which reuses some of the themes). It is corny and thoroughly charming.

The brunt of the score fell upon the keyboard and horn player. Versatile David Ralicke kicked things off on trombone and used this instrument quite a bit, sometimes with mute, to great effect. He also played flute and sax and even growled and groaned during the scenes where the wild ape man appeared. The keyboard player Ethan Holtzman was very adept at using the synthesizer for atmosphere and during an early love scene played accordion to establish a theme. It was extremely well suited to the film & added greatly to the mood, even though the audience was laughing at the intertitles ("I can't steal my happiness from another woman" "--But she's a whole continent away!").

Singer Nimol -- wearing a glittery evening gown and shades (in the dark) -- didn't have much to do until the explorers reached the Amazon. As soon as exotic beasts appeared (Sloth, python, leopard) they launched into a dubby version of "Sleepwalking through the Mekong" and she vocalized, adding expressive wails. This was a good leitmotif. Bits of "Made of Steam" and other familiar riffs floated through the music, but for the most part Dengue Fever wove new themes and sustained a wonderful momentum throughout the film. The rhythm section kept up a beat during the fight scenes between the bloodthirsty T-Rexes. At the climax, the professor is being ridiculed once again at the Natural History museum in Kensington when news comes that the brontosaurus he brought back as proof has escaped and is rampaging through the streets of London. Dengue Fever launched into "1000 Tears of a Tarantula" and rocked it as the monster tore apart Tower Bridge, before swimming off (we assume to Loch Ness).


Dengue Fever's music is cinematic and lends itself well to a soundtrack. This film is a snapshot. The one-hour documentary covers the band's first trip to Cambodia. We gets snippets of Cambodian history and a few glimpses of life that leave it still seeming like a very exotic destination. Even in this jumbo-jet era, these are two cultures with very little interaction, other than a musical bridge to a past era. At first the band introduce themselves on Cambodian TV in Khmer. Then we see them perform and the antics of some strange variety show clowns. For once the tables are turned for the singer, Chhom Nimol. She is in her element and jokingly being stern with the band for their slowness, inability to adapt quickly to the local customs, not knowing basic table manners even, let alone the language. She came from Cambodia, where a singer is able to support an entire family, to Los Angeles, where she struggled with the culture, worked hard for five years and was barely able to support herself. But there is also the issue of integration. Is Dengue Fever a Khmer band? Or a bunch of Americans playing Khmer music? The audiences love it, but it is an exotic concept, even though the music they once danced to was based clearly on American pop and surf music of the 60s. Dengue Fever has reclaimed it and taken it up a notch. This is because apart from Nimol's great vocal range she is backed by a fearsome force of talents surrounding guitarist Zac Holtzman. Holtzman's sincerity is seen not only in his learning Khmer for the songs, but attempting to write new songs in the language. He explains how he strung some phrases together and a taxi-drvier told him it was nonsense. So he invited the cabbie to collaborate on the lyrics. The soundtrack also surrounds the band with some of the classics from the repertoire but to me they only demonstrate the superiority of Dengue Fever's musical skills. There is a healing quality to the music now, and the old songs from the 1960s have an enduring cross-generational appeal. Henry Kissinger heads the list of war criminals from the USA who should be brought to the Hague for trial. Because of America's bombing of Cambodia as a desperate ploy when the Vietnam war was being lost, Pol Pot came to power in the mid-70s and killed a third of his own people. Music was forgotten as people struggled to survive. Things like radios became collective property and only played official music as the Khmer Rouge worked to destroy the entire culture of the country, particularly targeting artists and popular entertainers. One of the goals of Dengue Fever on their trip was to seek out older artists who are playing traditional music and jam with them and show them some respect. "It's my first trip to the country," says David Rolicke the keyboard player, "I love it!" "It's my second visit!" quips Nimol. The film was made in ten days but still is coherent and well done. If you like the music you will love the band's performances, in clubs, classrooms and singing acapella in a market. "We thought you were bigger," says one of the market women to Nimol, as the others joke about their great height and physical strangeness in the midst of these petite folk. They jam with kids at an academy of traditional music and dance and then stage a performance with them in the heart of a shanty town. It's a very moving experience for their teacher who understands the mission of the band and is touched. In addition to the film there is a bonus disc containing the full soundtrack, which features several of the band's best songs, as well as songs by the top Cambodian performers of the 60s, a child singer and a couple of karaoke bits.


I had to justify this one to the Duchess. She objects to hearing a lot of new music, accusing me of doing my homework in her earspace. It's like 60s rock, Country Joe or the Doors, filtered through a postmodern sensibility, like Beck, I said. Oh, I forgot you like rock and roll, she said. I think she suspects me of having something for the singer who is another Asian beauty. The rest of the band, Dengue Fever, on the other hand have that grungy LA look that we associate with the top session men who only come out at night. They could all be refugees from The Mothers of Invention by their looks, not to mention their chops. They have a unique sound, with the ethereal voice of Ch'hom Nimol floating over it, though as Big Steve says facetiously they have ruined Cambodian pop for all time, we will always think it's them! I am sure the spirit of Barry Melton (Farfisa organist with Country Joe & the Fish) hovers over this sound, but I had the opportunity to talk to their keyboardist, Ethan Holtzman, and he assured me he had never listened to Country Joe and the Fish. Maybe it's an LA vs. SF thing, but how can you not know the "Fixing to Die" album which was huge at the time of Woodstock, Monterey Pop, etc. But then that dates me and younger musicians may like the general sound of the late 60s without knowing specific artists' identities. The opening cut, "Seeing hands" is a knock-out, and recapitulates some of the feverish ambience of "Sleepwalking through the Mekong," the stand-out track from their second album. "Tiger Phone Card," a number in English about trans-continental relationships evokes the Doors as well as Question Mark and the Mysterians, with their bouncy Vox Continental sound. "Sober Driver" opens with a hint of Grace Jones. There's one really wet ballad "Tooth and Nail," but otherwise a great set from this hot band on the pop, er world fusion, er alternative music scene.


It's official: my friends all are old fogies. Well, IJ was recovering from an operation on his foot, and couldn't stand, and Big Steve was out of town, but I could not, for the life of me, find someone who wanted to go out and party at 11:30 on a Friday night! There was a lot of traffic out there but I got to the Independent at 11 and then had to circle the club for fifteen minutes before finding a parking spot in a tow-away zone next to a building site. I gave my plus one to a hopeful broke guy outside who offered me a beer to get him in. It's so long since I have been there the club has changed name (It's used to be the Kennel Club, then the VIZ) and is now, mercifully, smoke free. In fact, last time I was there someone among my party passed out from the heat & smoke and we had to leave. I got upstairs to a great spot on the balcony overlooking the stage just as the band came on. The floor was packed with a capacity crowd of what looked like 2000 people jammed together. Chhom Nimol looked stunning in five-inch heels and silver skintight leggings. It was hard not be be turned on by her, uh, energy. Blame the full moon. Also the privileged few on the balcony could see the whole stage. It was especially good for catching the antics of bassist Senon Williams who moved about to create dynamic silhouettes with the other musicians in a jokey deathrockgod posture, back to back, axes aloft. Senon has shaved his beard (as Chhom suggested in a song from the first album) & so he and Zac Holtzman don't look like confederates of ZZ Top any more: glabrousness suits the handsome chap.

What I love about Dengue Fever is their creativity. They have taken simple pop ditties and added a whole layer of jazzy sophistication. There's plenty of room for the lead guitarist and sax player to do inventive solos within the framework of the rock solid bass and drums laid down by Paul Smith. In addition they had "Nappy G" on percussion. And the Farfisa sound alternately bubbles or wheedles along. Chhom's voice is unearthly and I suppose it's the exoticness of her tone and range that attracts fans, who feel secure with the familiar "born to be wild" quality of the riffing, but with her aetherial vocals floating atop it all. The standouts were their big guns from the second album which are now polished to a fine sheen in performance, as well as "Seeing hands" and "Tiger phone card" from the third album. At one point "Tiger phone card" sounds like "All day and all of the night" by the Kinks. The organ also conjurs up "Not-so-sweet Martha Lorraine" by Country Joe & the Fish during "Integratron." David Ralicke played baritone, tenor sax, and even trumpet and flute. He used echo effectively and in fact all of the musicians were on top of their effects pedals giving a studio-like quality to their parts that is exceptional among live performers.

During the moments when the music would wind down, the band would all sink to the floor, except Chhom. You'd only see Ethan Holtzman's fingers clutching a G minor over the red case of his keyboard. But mainly the boys in the band were all pogo-ing and having fun.

Someone yelled for "Sni Bong," and a girl was pulled out of the crowd to sing along. Then they noticed a giant panda in the throng. Despite the close conditions there was a woman in a full panda costume! Somehow it seemed a very Asian thing to do. Around me young people were drinking to excess (ah, heady youth) and having yelled conversations about what a good time they were having.

My mind wandered back to the many great bands I had seen there: Loketo, Quatre Etoiles, Kanda Bongo Man, and how the club had remained independent despite the musical hegemony of the Bill Graham Organization which has effectively stifled music in the Bay Area by pursuing its own agenda (Eddy Money! gimme a break) and killing off the smaller clubs. Back in the 80s when it was the Kennel Club there was a wonderful inter-racial crowd that would show up for Doug Wendt's reggae night. He would play music videos and everyone had a blast. One night Doug asked Papa Fred and me to fill in for him. He showed us the video set-up and said if we wanted we could play tapes that had clips of old African movies, etc, on them and then just spin whatever we liked. This appealed to us more. I have always felt that the best music didn't necessarily come with a video and people get seduced by a clever video without realizing the music is second-rate. Then you had people bumping into one another because they were staring at the screen. So Fred and I got to work. We played some Marley video clips and then about midnight, worn out with the unfamiliar, decided to put on one of the clips tapes and play some longer African tracks. We were cuing up another song, fiddling with the levels, etc when the manager came bursting in. What the hell are you doing? he demanded. We turned around and looked up and there on the screen, twenty times larger than life, was a hardcore porno movie pumping away to OK Jazz. Oh shit, we said, we just stuck that tape on there, had no idea. Needless to say it was the first and last time we deejayed there!

Chhom was singing "Tip my canoe" in her eerie way, and the two guitar players were bopping back and forth, yelling the chorus "cha cha" forcefully into the mike. Virtuoso Zac Holtzman was ripping away with his tube screamer on and making his Gibson sound like a synthesizer. He took the mike for "Made of steam," one of the really moody pieces from "Dragon House," though I have to say they're one of the best mood-setting bands I know. They did not do "Hummingbird," a ballad that reminds me of "Lady Jane" by the Stones, however that song captures the sense of longing you get from Chhom's voice, even though her English is incomprehensible on it, like Rochereau turning "Let it be" into "Lullabee," or the Bulgarian woman on YouTube singing "Ken Lee" instead of "Can't live" in the song by Harry Nilsson (and not Mariah Carey as everyone seems to think). They did "Sober driver" which reminds me of Grace Jones, with Zac singing a duet again, and David Ralick's horn pouring on the smoky late-night angst. It was a great night, and I got home singing "It's four a.m. I check my e-mail," hearing the stadium rock guitar swells and Ray Manzarek organ echoing in my brain.

RASPUTIN'S, BERKELEY, Friday Sept 14, 2007

Over 100 people crowded into the tiny performance space at Rasputin's music on Telegraph Avenue on Friday afternoon, September 14 to hear Dengue Fever. The LA-based band has something of a cult status as was evident from the mixture of young and old fans eagerly awaiting their show. The tight combo launched into a 40-minute set of songs old and new, treating us to a preview of their upcoming third album which they have just finished recording and mixing. They were in town for an alternative music festival on Treasure Island but with tickets over $120 and the ominous state of trans-Bay transit most people were happy to be able to hear the band in the intimate club-like setting of Rasputin's stage. The scruffy-looking musicians stand in stark contrast to the elegant singer, Ch'hom Nimol, a former Cambodian beauty queen with an impressive vocal range. Their music has taken the IDEA of Cambodian pop and infused it with energy and invention. At well over 6 feet tall, Senon Williams, the bassist, dominated the stage and when he did the pogo he seemed huge. Guitarist Zac Holtzman, who plays jazz runs in a manner akin to Charlie Christian, crouched down playing with his array of effects pedals till he got his Gibson to emit the right tone. Both guitarists sport impressive beards, the contrast made more striking by one's shaven head and the other's braided twists under his chin. The singer pointed at them and launched into a song called "Shave your beard." They also did "Glass of wine" from the first album, but quite a few of the tunes were unfamiliar to me. Ethan Holtzman, the keyboard player gets a lot of mileage out of his Farfisa and occasionally switches to synth. David Ralicke, on saxophone and flute also used an echo pedal and at one point (during "Sleepwalking through the Mekong") he started screeching & birdcalling into the bell of his sax creating an eerie effect. They closed with "A Thousand tears of a tarantula," another atmospheric and heavenly piece from their second album.

After the set I got them to autograph a poster and asked them how the band came together. Zac and his brother Ethan had been in other bands; Zac's best friend was Senon, the bass player. They had gone to Cambodia on vacation in 1995 and were intrigued by the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of the local pop music. It has elements of jazz, R&B and even Motown, but with Khmer vocal harmonies on top. LA has a large Cambodian population, so on their return they started hitting Cambodian bars and discovered a thriving karaoke scene. Then the idea occurred to them to find one of these singers and create a hybrid band. Ch'hom Nimol had the looks and the vocal talent to match. They are going from strength to strength and I look forward to their third album.


I put this disc on (courtesy of DeeJay IJ) & immediately thought, What the hell is this? I looked at the cover, and still couldn't figure it out, but it is Cambodian pop. Then I got on line and discovered it is a band from Los Angeles (wouldn't you know it) combining sixties pop, surf organ and effects-laden dinosaur rock behind a Cambodian beauty queen, Ch'hom Nimol, who sings in Khmer. This is the second album from this group who have effectively turned the tables on South Asia. In the 60s there were scores of Cambodian pop bands mimicking the surf sounds of L.A., but of course they added their own twist to it. Now Dengue Fever has returned the favour and copped the Cambodians' style with wah wah guitar and Farfisa organ to the fore, adapting the repertoire of 60s Cambodian pop embodied by their lovely singer. The heart of the album is a heavily treated aural landscape of Phil Spectral drums, acoustic versus psychedelic surf guitar, and other-worldly vocals. Track 5, "Sleepwalking through the Mekong" is indescribable! (That's a first for me!) Track 6, "One thousand tears of a tarantula" combines Doors, Beatles, Surfaris ... Gad I can't keep up!! There's funk and R&B and just when you think you have a handle on it, it goes all Ethiopian jazz on ya! The band, who've played with Dieselhed (guitarist Zac Holtzman) and Beck (saxophonist David Ralicke), make the Khmer pop anthems right at home, so you can't tell if the songs are originals or covers. Not surprisingly they've been used on soundtracks: Matt Dillon's "City of Ghosts" and the latest Jim Jarmusch film "Broken Flowers." It's not just pop, it's sophisticated and, despite a superficial naïvete, Dengue Fever has a noirish edge which makes it thrilling.