Dengue Fever Presents: Electric Cambodia
A vampire weakened!
Vampiric tendencies are no joke to many concerned listeners when it is white people of privilege feasting on the juices of the impoverished, hence the seething with which many feel toward the pampered sons of Vampire Weekend, a group who seemed to leap from obscurity straight to backlash when they emerged singing about punctuation back in 2008. Rich kids are apparently supposed to hole up in their country clubs and not bother us with their curiosities, for their vision is clouded by clout.
I've always thought this sort of prejudice, like most, is pretty hollow. Vampire Weekend does borrow indiscriminately from African music with the same ardor that did the Clash from Jamaican music; neither ever really got it right, but they got themselves figured out in the process. Isn't that how culture is supposed to work?
Vampire Weekend's second album Contra further distills whatever Afropop those boys heard on the college radio station into something more crystalline; this records sounds more like Dirty Projectors than it does King Sunny Ade. In fact, the antecedents that keeps coming to mind is Paul Simon's Graceland or maybe Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings And Food, records that use the patois of poor, black people's music as a bed on which to reflect about contemporary Western culture.
I don't know how much reflection is really going on on Contra. I held some weak hopes that "Diplomat's Son" would be double-reverse-ironic modernization of the Credence Clearwater Revival anti-Vietnam anthem, but instead it is a song about getting high and possibly having a homosexual experience. "Cousins" isn't about our inter-relatability; if it is about anything, it's about hanging out with your cousins. Contra is filled with the same kind of lyrical sounds-like-sentences gibberish that are most indie rock records. There are jarring, yelpy moments like the mock-African yodeling over car-alarm clatter of "White Sky" that turn me right off; yet "Run" starts at the lofty perch of early Depeche Mode and takes it somewhere grand and glorious. That's how culture goes: we steal from everything we see and hopefully, occasionally, make something nice out of the stuff we stole.
So OK, where that does leave the real thing? L.A. band Dengue Fever have found "their" sound by directly and nakedly mining Cambodian pop music from the 60s. Band members Zac and Ethan Holtzman discovered the stuff on a backpacking trip in Cambodia and upon return, scoured Long Beach's Little Phnom Penh for a singer that could swing this music, and they found one. The beguiling Chhom Nimol jumped from the karaoke circuit to front the hippest bit of cultural appropriation to ever grace a party mix. Dengue Fever is so good that only the dourest of anthropology students fail to frug when it comes on.
The group paid it back by touring Cambodia, documenting said tour with a film Sleepwalking Through the Mekong and now with Electric Cambodia, repackaging some of the singers that made this music in the first place. The groups on this compilation, Dara Chon Chon, Pan Ron and Ros Sereysothea, kill with spy-flick-ready psychedelic pop rendered orgasmic with the otherworldly (or at least other-hemispherically) vocals. The English translations titles range from the innocuous "Don't Speak" to the curious "Shave your Beard."
For my money, Pan Ron is the star of the show: "I Will Marry You" is a squealy, sultry striptease groove with a frank sensuality their champions just never quite achieve. "Jasmine Girl" has touches of early Beatles guitar, accordion weirdness of the Three Suns, and jazz flute commingling like the intoxicants in a Fog Cutter. Ros Sereysothea leans more toward the extravagant. "I Will Starve Myself to Death" belies the histrionics that title implies with something akin to a ska beat. The aforementioned "Shave Your Beard" is a masterpiece of timing and slap echo, more extravagant and sinewy than the Fever's version on their debut record. Dara Chon Chon is represented by the sole rollicking tune "Give Me one Kiss" that opens the record with alien screeches before descending into the swing.
Truthfully, the songs run together like the hours of a drug-addled evening. It's by design; this was bar music Western enough to appeal to soldiers and to speak to the band and Cambodian enough to grab the locals. The disc unfortunately comes with naked without reference material, though it is possible that much of this history was lost with just about everything else Cambodian during the horrific purges of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's. Proceeds from the album go to Cambodian Living Arts, an organization trying to piece together the history of a country most of us in the West cannot even readily find on a map.
The question is sorta have is: would anyone in the West care about this disc were it not for those those two gringos extending their vacation by forming Dengue Fever? The two-part answer is: probably not. A collection of Cambodian pop music would grow dusty in the World Music bins like the proud traditions of everyone else who has the misfortune of being neither American, European or Jamaican. But the real answer is: so what? "I Will Marry You" is as hypnotic as a girl in a bikini doing a hula hoop on roller skates, and this music will turn whatever dull gathering you are hosting into a sinewy exoti-disco, and we will all be duly marketed-to citizens of the cultures we pillage and assimilate and that one friend of yours will play this into the ground like he or she did Buena Vista Social Club years ago and maybe ol' Pan Ron's grandkids will get a check. I understand that's how the whole system works.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com