19 March 2009

Dengue Fever Goes "Home"

CONTEST: See below for a chance to win Dengue Fever's "Sleepwalking Through the Mekong"!

In the US consciousness, Asia is a mix of mystery and factories and food. Japan is known for cars and sushi; China is known for cheap (sometimes tainted) products, action films, and rising global power; Korea's got kimchi; India has curries and call centers; Vietnam has in increasing tourist draw replacing the post-war jitters; Indonesia has orangutans, giant lizards, and great chicken satay. And Cambodia? The land once ravaged by the Khmer Rouge has yet to emerge as a global player with a distinct identity. But a band from California has been providing what could be the soundtrack to modern Cambodia, and their new film documenting a trip to Cambodia may help put a contemporary face on the nation.

Dengue Fever's Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (set for release on April 14) includes a audio soundtrack CD along with the DVD, containing the 67-minute film along with several bonus features on traditional Cambodian festivals, dance, and a short but fascinating segment on Cambodian master musicians. The trip coincided with Cambodia's 2005 Water Festival marking the end of the monsoon, and included the irony-laced phenomenon of a Western band playing rock and roll inspired by the classic 1960s and ‘70s Cambodian pop music that was nearly eradicated by the cultural purges of the 1970s. (The film is "dedicated to the singers and musicians who perished under the Pol Pot regime.")

At the start of the film, band interviews find the musicians open but questioning, wondering what Khmer audiences will make of their music. On their first day in Cambodia, the mood is caught by bassist Senon Williams, sitting in his hotel room: "I have no idea what's really going to happen, or how we're going to be received, or where we're going to play ... but we will figure it out."

They do figure it out -- sometimes in unexpected ways -- as they negotiate their way physically, culturally, and musically through this culture that has infused their music since the band was formed around the turn of the millennium.

The companion soundtrack disc includes songs by Dengue Fever (including the familiar "Tip My Canoe"), collaborations with master musicians Tep Mary and Kong Nai, and classic tracks by Khmer musicians Serey Sothea, Meas Samoun, and Sinn Sisamouth. Listen to Samoun's "Dondung Goan Gay" and you might swear it's a displaced brother of 1960s Ethiopian pop or early Afrobeat -- styles echoed in Dengue Fever's live "Ethanopium." Also in the mix are two previously unreleased Dengue Fever instrumentals: the soundtracky "March of the Ballroom Animals" and a short sax solo called "Phnom Chisor Serenade."

It's refreshing that the film turns out to be about Cambodia more than about Dengue Fever, and that the band is so willing to let the nation and its people take center stage. More than a great musical film, this is a great cultural film. Dengue Fever may just turn out to be the cultural ambassadors the Khmer people need to usher in more understanding about their nation.

Win the CD/DVD Sleepwalking Through the Mekong plus a small movie poster signed by the band. To enter, send an email with the subject "sleepwalking" to contest at soundroots dot org. Winners will be selected by a random drawing one week from today, on March 26, and notified by email.

More Dengue Fever:
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