Maok Pi Naok? From Cambodia, with love and Dengue Fever.


I came across this song called New Year’s Eve from this band called Dengue Fever. It sounded like the background music a movie set in Hong Kong in the kitschy ’60s and ’70s with a theme around young people directed by Wong Kar-Wai would have. I don’t really follow Tarantino’s movies, but most people I know seemed to say “sounds like the soundtrack of a Tarantino movie set in eastern Asia”. 

I didn’t really pay it all that much attention. I downloaded the album the song was on called Sleepwalking Through The Mekong and rather liked those songs, but I didn’t do much else about that. Dengue Fever seemed rather indie, and back then didn’t seem to have a working website. Further, I immersed myself into whatever Last.fm recommended to me. Which seemed to be a lot of Celtic. Then I went through a phase where gregorian chants were the only things that gave me that epic feeling of importance while coding.

A few weeks ago, I started listening to Dengue Fever again. Then I found their website (that worked, it wasn’t working before), and their Facebook page which they seem to update regularly. From Youtube’s auto-generated playlists of the most popular songs of the band, I discovered they have more than just a couple of albums to their name. Their earlier albums are in Khmer – the language spoken in Cambodia. I like this song called Tip My Canoe from Sleepwalking Through the Mekong. But their more recent songs are in English as well. Check out this song called Mr. Bubbles, which roughly is my favourite of theirs.

I looked up the band, and realized they aren’t just some Cambodian band. They are a bunch of folks based in southern California. Zac Holtzman (a decidedly non-Cambodian name) was in Cambodia when his friend fell ill with dengue fever, and they hitched a ride on a truck to get him to the hospital, and the folks in the truck were playing old Khmer rock songs that decidedly sounded psychedelic, probably more so under the influence of a fever. He picked up a few of those tapes and found that his brother in California was coincidentally listening to the same music. And, a band was born. No, wait, they went to Long Beach near LA, to this area called Little Phnom Penh, where they found a fresh-from-Cambodia singer called Chhom Nimol (whose family seems to be full of famous singers in Thailand now). And then the band was born.

So there I was, totally amazed at the sort of sound these people had, so utterly psychedelic, so evocative of a Far-Eastern movie that tries to incorporate the best of the West into it, probably made with a very young Jackie Chan. I can’t wait for their new albums. I can’t wait for them to perform in the tri-state area, and wishing I’d gone to one of their performances when I still lived in Orange County.

By now, Last.fm is recommending me similar songs. And just like that, I come across this song called Jam 5 Kai Thietby a singer called Ros Sereysothea.

If you listened to that, you’ll find it sounds the same as New Year’s Eve by Dengue Fever which I linked to in the first line of this post. I was shocked, pissed, and feeling a little let down. So these guys were just covering old Cambodian songs? Is that the only reason why their music sounds so authentic?

I listened to that entire album Jam 5 Kai Thiet was from. It’s called Cambodian Rocks. It has a lot of nice gems. Like any random sample of songs from any era, there are godawful ones, and godawesome ones. With this album, the number of godawesome ones totally trumps any of the sucky songs.

I find it hard to match song to title, given I don’t know any Khmer that I can at the very least distinguish one word from another, but I find the songs all growing on me. I rather like this one called Yuvajon Kouge Jet or Broken-Hearted Man.  The one I’ve found the catchiest is this one called Maok Pi Naok or Where from?. There’s this old-timey, innocent, carefree air about the singers’ voices in that particular song. This one called Twist makes me want to dance.

I did try listening to newer Khmer songs and songs from other genres in that same era, but they sounded rather ordinary, not commanding of attention like this album. Chhom Nimol’s siblings’ songs in Khmer/Thai (well, they are all famous in Thailand, so not sure if they sing in Khmer) don’t quite match to Dengue Fever’s sound.

The bulk of the songs in that album seemed to have been sung by these singers called Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth. And also Pan Ron. When I looked them up on Wikipedia, it broke my heart to learn that they were killed in labour camps during Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia.

Not just them. Most of the singers on that album seemed to have met their end during the Khmer Rouge period, as they were artists and performers and were well-educated, two things that automatically qualified them as enemies of the Khmer Rouge. It didn’t help Sinn Sisamouth’s case that he started singing protest songs against the Khmer Rouge.

For perspective, imagine for a second an alternate universe where Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber were killed by the government they lived under.

I’ve only read about the horrible regime of Pol Pot. I don’t have the stomach to watch The Killing Fields. But imagine going from singing such cheery, carefree songs, incorporating the latest trends from the West, having a great entertainment scene, to the government killing 21% of the country. Cambodia even today doesn’t seem to have a vibrant movie industry. The arts are good as dead because an entire generation of artists and performers were executed, and another generation scarred and impoverished that revival seems hard. And today, Cambodia is essentially under a dictatorship, so free speech, which is integral to arts, is dealt with with an iron fist. Movie theaters, which were plentiful before the Khmer Rouge are derelict now, going by the Wiki page (I also came across an article talking about Cambodia’s entry for the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars this year). I wonder how long it would take for a nation to recover from that sort of a blow. And I don’t mean just the entertainment industry.

I’m not under any illusion that pre-PolPot Cambodia was paradise. Or that the people who live there now live in utter hell. But why did change have to be so damaging?

Either way, it’s really great there’s a band like Dengue Fever that actually sells records and performs at various places. It’s not just about preserving the psychedelica of that era. It’s not even about the legacy the singers from back then left behind, though it’s wonderful to know that psychedelica is taken to a whole new level when it’s sung in a nasal voice and recorded through a broken mic. It’s more than that.

It’s about how someone like me with no hint of Khmer becomes aware that someone like Sinn Sisamouth existed, and why he died. About someone like me becoming sensitive to the level to which a country has fallen and is trying to pick itself up. And if someone as lazy and disinterested as me can get this sensitized with just a few clicks of a mouse, I’m pretty sure a lot of others can too. It might not mean much, but the next time there’s a news article about Cambodia, it might get more comments than usual on the NY Times website… which might translate into more coverage, and maybe when Cambodia has its Khmer Spring, we tweet enough about it to make it trend, enough for our governments to probably have a more populist official position on it.

I don’t believe in the power of online activism. I doubt sincerely that liking stuff on Facebook will bring down governments. But it sure does make it easier for us to be aware of things around us, and make more informed decisions when we have to.

Also, the music is catchy as hell.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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8 Responses to Maok Pi Naok? From Cambodia, with love and Dengue Fever.

  1. I would also urge you to visit Cambodia sometime. I have never met such cheerful and welcoming people anywhere else. This is of course as a tourist.

  2. ritssoni says:

    You got very emotional!

    Thanks for suggesting some interesting tunes. I liked most of them. I am also interested to know more about the Celtic music and the gregorian chants you mentioned in 2nd para. Can you guide to a couple of songs of that type.

    • wanderlust says:

      gregorian chants…. actually just look for last.fm channels for those. or search for gregorian chants on youtube. you find a lot of such bands. most of them are church choirs. there are some newer ones like Solyma. I don’t really remember many of the band names.

      Celtic, you can start with Corrs. there are a lot of bands like The Chieftains, Capercaille, Hevia, Bothy Band, Cruachan. I discovered all these through the Celtic tag radio on last.fm. You might discover you like some others which I have missed here. It turned out, a lot of the songs I liked were by Hevia. so you might want to go there first.. .listen to his album Tierra De Nadie.

      Glad you liked cambodian rock 🙂

      • ritssoni says:

        After a long time I got time to explore more on Dengue Fever and your other suggestions. I realized New Year’s Eve and Jam 5 Kai Thiet are not just similar but the same song. I listened to both the songs bit by bit carefully and compared 🙂

        Exploring other songs now.

  3. Kevin says:

    “It’s about how someone like me with no hint of Khmer becomes aware that someone like Sinn Sisamouth existed, and why he died.”

    Thank you. It’s almost by some miracle that more and more people are discovering these musicians. I do not believe any of the singers from that era thought they would be well known beyond the borders of Cambodia. Even after nearly four decades since their deaths their music has endured and remained popular to this day. If you visit Cambodia you’ll experience this phenomena firsthand. Even contemporary singers just sing the songs of old. (Though the could hardly compare to the original singers.)

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