Facebook R&B crooner Mario has been relatively quiet on the music front for…
- Posted on Jan 19th 2010 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
"It was very sad, slow romantic," she says. "Sounded like a ghost voice."
She's not sure, but it may have been the insinuating 'Flowers in the Pond,' by singer Ros Sereysothea, or perhaps something else by the Cambodian star.
Ros Sereysothea, 'Flowers in the Pond':
Senon Williams, Nimol's bandmate in Dengue Fever -- a Los Angeles group that began doing versions of Cambodian pop and rock tunes in the early 2000s and which was chronicled in a 2008 Around the World column -- explains that "ghost voice" is an actual technical term in Cambodian singing as heard in this track.
"It's where you break from one octave to the next and the voice cracks," he says.
"The high key," Nimol explains.
"Ros Sereysothea was the master of that," Williams adds.
But in this case it has a double meaning: The singer on the radio, whoever it was, had almost certainly been killed during the brutal late-'70s reign of Pol Pot's totalitarian Khmer Rouge. Estimates of the total deaths attributable to the Khmer Rouge range as high as 2 or 3 million from execution, starvation and disease, most of them buried in mass graves. Musicians and artists -- pretty much anyone seen as educated or connected to the cultural identity of the earlier Cambodia -- were among those targeted for elimination.
"It is very sad," Nimol says, in halting English, sometimes with help from friend Soche Meas. "Our musicians, they are gone."
"The only people who did survive were musicians, not singers," Williams says. "John Pirozzi, who directed our film 'Sleepwalking Through the Mekong,' has done insane research for his own film he's doing about this but only found a few surviving band members, guitar players. But no one in the limelight survived."
Those ghost voices are being honored on 'Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia.' Subtitled '14 Rare Gems From Cambodia's Past,' the CD is just that -- samples of a lost era of Cambodian pop music. Much of the music exists today only via cassettes that made their ways around the Cambodian exile communities of California. A couple of previous compilations have made their way via the cultural curiosity seekers networks, notably the door-opening 1996 compilation 'Cambodian Rocks,' from the Parallel World label; and 2004's 'Cambodian Cassette Archives,' drawn from deteriorating tapes in the archives of the Oakland [Calif.] Public Library by global ephemera-centric Sublime Frequencies. These all show a culture enamored by Western pop -- the songs are redolent of quasi-psychedelia, with reverb guitars and cheesy organ -- without any sacrifice of Cambodian-ness.
'Electric Cambodia,' with proceeds being donated to the Cambodian Living Arts program promoting traditional performance in the Southeast Asian nation, digs even deeper to the point that none of the tracks had any identification -- neither titles nor artist information. They might have stayed that way but for the memory of Nimol's older sister, Chhom Chevin, herself a pop star in Cambodia in the '80s and '90s.
"We wanted to keep ours more obscure, things that hadn't been released to Westerners -- all our bizarre tastes," Williams says. "And Nimol's older sister enabled us to give names to all the songs. She was the No. 1 singer there through the '80s and she remembers all the voices."
As somber and heavy as that all might sound, the music is anything but. Rather, this album portrays a "golden age," even more striking for the horror that was to follow.
"What I think is interesting about the music is it doesn't depict a time of woe and sadness, but of prosperity and joy and parties," Williams says. "It's like a time when all of us think we can't be touched, living the high life. And the next you know we're mixing concrete in the streets to make a bunker. How quickly things can go from this flowering state of beauty to complete destruction -- horrific and humbling."
Of course, for Nimol it's a little more complicated and personal.
"This is like a new awakening for me," she says of hearing these songs and of her role with Dengue Fever bringing the spirit of that era back to life. "Was a sad time for my parents. Everything was forgotten."
Asked her pick of the bunch, Nimol says, "My favorite is the song that talks about a young girl waiting for the handsome guy."
"That's all the songs, Nimol!" Williams interjects.
"Some talk about bands and flowers and teenagers," she responds. "A lot talk about broken hears and break-ups. But I think my favorite song is 'Sneaha.'"
The choice is a good illustration of the era -- and it probably sounds familiar:
Pan Ron, 'Sneaha':
Yes, that's a version of the Cher hit 'Bang Bang,' sung here in Khmer by Pan Ron. You wonder if perhaps Quentin Tarantino had heard this one it might have made it into 'Kill Bill' rather than the Nancy Sinatra recording.
"I really like that one," Williams agrees. "It's just a cover of 'Bang Bang' but not even a cover. The lyrics are different. The melody's a little different. It's kind of what we've done with Dengue Fever in reverse. The song is beautiful, for one. Amazing production. But there, this way, they take this American music and just completely make it Cambodian. There's the melody and energy and all the psychedelics, but nothing remaining of the American familiarity."
And he stresses that neither 'Electric Cambodia' nor Dengue Fever's forays into the Cambodian pop catalog are meant to be taken as novelty or ironic offerings.
"For me, it's the other way around," he says. "We're trying to give respect back to the folks that influenced us. When the idea for the compilation came up, it was appealing, a way to show fans what influenced us and maybe open their eyes to dig deeper and find out more. And it allowed us to raise money for Cambodian Living Arts, which we've worked with in the past. So it's a way to shine light back on Cambodia."
Nimol says that it's a continuation of what she's seen happen since Dengue Fever plucked her out of regular club gigs singing standard pop music shortly after she emigrated in 2001 to the Long Beach, Calif., neighborhood known as Little Phnom Penh.
"I think a lot of people from Cambodia forgot -- the young teenagers don't know much of this music," she says. "I remember last year when we were on tour in New York and Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, a lot of Cambodian people came to our show and enjoyed the music."
Williams adds, "There have been young people coming up to me of Cambodian heritage telling me, 'Wow, this is the first time I've listened to Cambodian music and I really loved it.' They'd be more into rock and hip-hop and R&B and say, 'My parents turned me on to you guys, but I'd never liked what my parents liked before.' Some of the kids and parents both are finding pride in music that comes from their own culture."
A particularly moving experience in shining the light came unexpectedly in late 2009 when Dengue Fever were invited to participate in, of all things, a Hanukkah celebration in Los Angeles.
"They did a lighting of the candles on the stage between bands," Williams says. "And Nimol went up and spoke about the Khmer Rouge and said she was lighting a candle for her ancestor people who perished under Pol Pot."
"That was a terrible time," Nimol says.
"Nimol cried," Williams continues. "And it took me by surprise. Later I got an e-mail from the organizer, a Jewish guy, who had never heard that there had been a genocide in Cambodia. That something so horrific and huge can be overlooked is remarkable."