Ethan Holtzman first heard the smooth sounds of the “King of Khmer Music” while riding in a cramped village truck from Siem Riep to Phnom Penh in the late 1990s.
A friend who had accompanied him on his Southeast Asian travels was sitting in the front seat, sick with Dengue Fever, and every time Holtzman poked his head into the cab check on him, he couldn’t help but be drawn to the unique sounds of Sinn Sisamouth’s songs blaring from the radio.
Oh Battambang, the center of my heart. It was hard to say goodbye. Since the day I’ve been away from you, I worry and think about it every time.
Holtzman had the driver scribble the names of Sisamouth and other Cambodian singers on a piece of paper and before he returned home to the States, he had purchased a library’s worth of cassettes, all of them recorded more than 30 years ago, before the brutal Khmer Rouge eradicated the country’s thriving music scene.
“Most of the singers and songwriters were killed during Pol Pot’s regime, so in a lot of ways, we take off from where they were forced to stop,” Holtzman said of his band Dengue Fever, which has been fusing sounds from the golden age of Cambodian rock with contemporary psych and funk since 2001. “It’s also interesting because the Cambodians that inspired us are the ones who reinterpreted Western psychedelic and rock ‘n’ roll. They added their own traditional flavor with their own instruments just like we are doing now.”
Holtzman and his band—including singer Chhom Nimol, a Cambodian immigrant the group found performing at nightclubs in Long Beach—returned to Cambodia for an emotional tour in 2005. A film crew documented the band’s experiences and the resulting hour-long movie, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, will be headlining the Cambodia Town Film Festival’s “Music Corner” on September 14.
After more than a decade of touring the world with their hybrid sound, Dengue Fever has become the most prominent voice in a new Cambodian-inspired music scene, one that is bringing back the legacy of '60s and '70s Khmer rock in a myriad of different ways.
For Oakland native Bochan Huy, it was Cambodia’s iconic songstress Ros Sereysothea that got her hooked on the lost music of her people. Born in Phnom Penh at the height of the Khmer Rouge, Huy came to the United States at a young age and grew up in a musical family who performed well-known Cambodian songs such as Sereysothea’s “Chnam Oun 16” (“I am 16”) at weddings and community events.
But Huy says she missed out on growing up in a big Cambodian community like Long Beach’s and as a result grew up feeling equally as American as Khmer.
“The music is sort of my journey in that it encompasses that experience,” she says. “A lot of people feel like the up-and-coming artists are always wanting to revive the last great musical area, but for me, it’s not about being a Cambodian pop singer. It’s really about finding my identity as a part of the Khmer diaspora. I feel that singing about the struggles of being Cambodian-American is a part of my Khmer identity.”
Huy’s version of the “Chnam Oun 16,” released on her debut album last year, is a direct result of this dual upbringing. It turns the song’s almost surf-rock riffs into a bass-heavy R&B background atop which Huy’s soulful voice alternates between Sereysothea’s Khmer lyrics and her own thoughts on Cambodian and female empowerment. Oakland Rapper Raashan Ahmad chimes in for several verses, adding even more distinctly American flair to the cover of the classic Cambodian song.
In the song’s music video, which will also be shown at CTFF’s “Music Corner,” Huy touches on more universal themes as well by incorporating the plight of other immigrants from around the world, who can be seen in one scene holding photos of their lost loved ones.
“I wanted to use it as an agent of change, to take something familiar and introduce something different,” she says of her version of “Chnam Oun 16.” “That song when it came out, it was well received by Cambodian-Americans and non Khmer too because it encourages dialogue. Our parents are sadly the voiceless generation and so I think we all feel a responsibility to reconstruct our country, our identity and tell the nation’s stories in a more successful way.”
The idea of opening up the stories of Cambodia and starting a dialogue about the country’s nearly lost culture is one that resonates across all of the musicians being featured at CTFF and embodies the hopes of the festival as a whole.
Another act that is using music as a vessel for these stories is Indradevi, an experimental electronic duo that released a debut album, A Thousand Tomorrows, last week. With the requisite speedy beats and expertly timed drops, Indradevi blends Cambodian melodies with jungle and drum ‘n’ bass music in a way never attempted before.
“After we released the music video and the album, the feedback is that people are getting it, even in the electronic community,” said one of the group’s masterminds who goes by the stage name Rangda. “It’s Southeast Asian music mixed with jungle and drum ‘n’ bass. It’s digestible. I can play this for people who can’t find Cambodia on a map and they’ll like it.”
Though both Rangda and his partner Barong are both white, they are well-connected to the Cambodian community in Southern California and found inspiration in the decades-old Khmer rock recordings that began to resurface in the last decade.
Their album is the result of two years of trial and error on how to fuse not just the sounds, but the soul of Khmer rock, the haunting ballads and garage-rock jams that were once fated to be lost forever.
“When I first heard Ros Sereysothea, I thought it was one of the coolest things I ever heard,” says Barong. “When I found out that her and all the other musicians were killed and the whole musical movement was destroyed, though, I realized there is a lot of depth to this story and importance to this music more than it just being rock ‘n’ roll from the ‘60s. I find something very powerful in that history, so why not keep it alive?”
Cambodia Town Film Festival's "Music Corner" will take place on Saturday, September 14 from 5PM -7PM at the Art Theatre and will feature Sleepwalking Through The Mekong along with music videos from Bochan Huy, Laura Mam, Indradevi and Tiny Toones. To buy tickets and for more information about the rest of the Cambodia Town Film Festival lineup, visit cambodiatownfilmfestival.com