Cambodian rock and roll crosses generational divides in Chicago
BY BENJAMIN HAAS AND ALI PECHMAN
When the Cambodian-American fusion band Dengue Fever played in Chicago, a simple cultural difference tipped off drummer Paul Smith as to how many Cambodians were in the audience.
“Most people will be like ‘Doors open at eight, the band’s not playing until eleven,’” Smith said. “When they hear ‘Door’s at eight,’ a lot of the Cambodian folks show up at eight, ready to take some pictures and talk to Nimol [Cambodian lead singer, Chhom Nimol].”
Dengue Fever is a six-member band from Los Angeles formed in 2001 that adds a modern, American edge to the Cambodian pop-rock of the 1960s and ‘70s, recreated in large part by Nimol who immigrated to America from Cambodia. As the war in Vietnam brought Americans and their music overseas, a Cambodian renaissance took place wherein Cambodian musicians blended different types of American and British rock with their own traditional melodies and rhythms. Among the most popular musicians were Pan Ron, Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea (who, for example, covered “Proud Mary” in Khmer, retitled “Cry Loving Me.”) However, once the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, the genre ceased to continue.
Many Cambodian-Americans are well aware of Dengue Fever’s contribution to preserving the culture of a population that makes up only .0008 percent of the United States, according to the 2005 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. In Illinois, for instance, the Cambodian Association of Illinois services about 5,000 Cambodians, 3,000 of whom are in Chicago.
Cambodian American Heritage Museum Archivist Ty Tim, one of the key figures in Chicago entrusted with preserving their culture, laughed excitedly when he heard Dengue Fever’s “Tiger Phone Card,” about a long distance relationship between New York and Phnom Penh. Tim is familiar with Dengue Fever, and remembers the Cambodian music of the ‘60s and ‘70s that inspired the band.
“I was not such a good dancer,” he laughed. “I was a teacher. A much better teacher than dancer.”
But then in 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over and while the rock music of Cambodia was being ripped from history, so Tim’s family was ripped from their home. They began a journey that took them through the scorching jungles of Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines, eventually finding refuge in Chicago in 1982.
Tim, 66, was a high school teacher in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge took over, beginning his story of survival that reflects the millions of lives altered or completely lost during the genocide. During that time he lost eight family members, including four children as well as his brother’s family.
After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978, Tim spent six months walking back to Phnom Penh from a work camp near the Thai border. He spent a year in the city in the hope of finding family members who survived the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. After one year Tim began to plan a way to leave the country and seek asylum abroad, but Cambodia was still in a state of disarray and Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge soldiers still patrolled the roads and the jungle.
His family’s safety was always his biggest concern. For months he planned how he would get them to the Thai border.
“I was still alive after three years and eight months [of the Khmer Rouge] and I didn’t want to be careless,” Tim said. “I had a small baby and a daughter that was six years old.”
Teachers and other intellectuals such as artists and musicians were specifically targeted in the genocide that killed approximately a quarter of the Cambodian population. After the Khmer Rouge, the three major voices of the Cambodian rock scene, Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Serey Sothea and Pan Ron, were never heard from again and were presumed dead.
When Dengue Fever formed, their aim was to cover the Cambodian rock music of the '60s and '70s. The band took these songs and added their own style to the covers. Then, as the band played together more and more, they began to write original material in both Khmer and English. While the new lyrics were about contemporary topics, the musical styles and rhythms were still in the style of Cambodian rock.
Since their 2005 tour in Cambodia, Dengue Fever has musically matured. In the documentary made about their tour, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, Guitarist Zac Hotlzman describes writing songs in Khmer and at one point, he showed his work to a cab driver who told him he had it all wrong.
"[The cab driver] said "This makes no sense, maybe it makes sense in English, but not in Khmer." So we sat down together and wrote a song in Khmer"
In the future, the band hopes to use traditional Cambodian instruments as well. While in Cambodia during their tour, Dengue fever members took time to practice and learn from the masters of traditional instruments such as the chapei dong veng (a type of guitar), the pey pok (a free reed pipe) and the tro (a fiddle).
Cambodian communities have embraced the project, drummer Paul Smith said. The music has revived a joyful part of Cambodian history and allows Cambodian-Americans to relate back to their home country in a way that doesn’t have to do with the Khmer Rouge and trauma of leaving, such as Tim experienced.
When Tim was preparing to leave Cambodia, all the trucks and motorcycles belonged to the military so the only option was to walk to Thailand.
“In the beginning we walked during the daytime, but if the Vietnamese soldiers saw us, they would shoot at us. If the Thai soldiers saw us, they would shoot at us. If the Khmer Rouge soldiers saw us, they would shoot at us,” Tim said. “If we ran into robbers, they would kill us. So we had to walk at nighttime.” But they didn’t have a map or light, so they would just see where the moon or the sun was in order to figure out which way to go.
Beside the entire group losing their way, Tim was also concerned with losing individual members, noting they all had to hold hands when they walked, traveling through unknown jungle.
“At times we would run out of water and we didn’t know where to find water in the jungle,” he said. “When we would become dehydrated, our eyes would turn red and everything looked yellow. We couldn’t see straight.”
If it were just himself then it wouldn’t be a problem, he said, but he worried about his two small daughters.
“The older one would ask me, ‘Dad, do you have water? I’m so thirsty,’” he said. “I thought to myself, I’m the leader and I refuse to die, so I had to find a way to find water to help my family.”
After two months of walking through the jungle, Tim and his family arrived at a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border. He spent sixty days at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp before being moved to the Mairut refugee camp, deeper inside Thailand, where Tim applied for refugee status in France, Australia, and the United States. He chose the U.S. because they responded first.
Since arriving in 1982, Tim still feels the same responsibility to family and heritage in his work at the Cambodian Association, but also sees the divide between those who lived through what he did and the children who followed.
“I told my children this story and they didn’t believe me. My two daughters were too young to remember and the two that were born here never experienced it.”
At the museum, Tim teaches classes about culture on Fridays and Saturdays, while classes about traditional dance and music are also taught. The goal is to teach the younger generation of Cambodian-Americans about their heritage, not to adapt it to American life.
“[Teaching classes focusing on traditional art forms and Khmer language] is one way we can revive the old stuff,” he said. “We cannot have the capacity to put it into the American vein, just to start with the old stuff.”
Artists like Narath Tan, former member of the Board of Directors at the Cambodian Association of Illinois, also try to give traditional Cambodian art a place in modern American life. Tan is well known in the Chicago community for works in the traditional style, often inspired by Khmer temples.
But the reason projects such as Dengue Fever have also found such recognition within the Cambodian community is its ability to not only reach across cultural boundaries, but also generational ones within the Cambodian community.
Tim admits his daughters are far more Americanized than he is, after attending American schools and being raised surrounded by American culture.
“My wife and I eat Khmer food, but for some reason my daughters like pizza,” Tim said, for example.
Socheat Nhean, a graduate student at Northern Illinois University who is writing a thesis on the Khmer Rouge years, has noticed the young Cambodian-Americans he has encountered are markedly less connected to their culture than their parents.
“The Cambodians who are born in the U.S. are really Americans and know very little about Cambodian politics and genocide,” Nhean said. “I talk to many Cambodian-Americans who were born in the U.S. and they don’t care about politics.” He attributes this partially to the fact that their parents lived through the Khmer Rouge years while they did not.
“Everybody in Cambodia at the time was affected by the Khmer Rouge regime, often suffering lasting effects like psychological damages,” he said. “There is a complete separation between the older generation that lived through Khmer Rouge and the younger generation.”
Smith feels that projects like Dengue Fever help bridge this gap in the Cambodian community.
“They’re part of our fan base,” he said. “They come to shows and a common response is ‘This was my parent’s music and I never liked it until you guys started playing it.’”
This is due in part to the fact that Dengue Fever’s music, while straddling a variety of musical styles from the past, deals with distinctly modern American dilemmas in a tongue-in-cheek way. In “Sober Driver,” Nimol croons about a party in Los Angeles, begging for someone to drive her home. Many of their songs deals with the universal topic of “boy meets girl,” often with complications.
The band plays in smaller cities like Long Beach, California, or Lowell, Massachusetts, where shows are advertised specifically to the large Cambodian communities.
Tim thinks that Chicago faces more challenges.
“The Cambodian community in Chicago isn’t as big as those in Long Beach, California or Massachusetts,” he said. “We are a small community.”
But Smith still saw a presence.
“It wasn’t a turnout that was reminiscent of Lowell but they definitely show up in Chicago,” he said.
On a larger scale, the band wants to enlighten non-Cambodians about a piece of history that is oft skipped over, Smith said. He acknowledges that it is the exchange of cross-cultural ideas, or “game of musical chairs” that created Dengue Fever, as well as the music it derives from.
“They [Cambodian rock musicians] were being influenced by Western influences so they took the rhythm section from what they were hearing, like British garage rock, American psychedelic, American surf, and they were adding their own melodies and instrumentation and putting a Cambodian stamp on it,” he said. “Then we got hold of that and we’re throwing some more things in the pot.”
When Dengue Fever toured in Cambodia, Smith realized that their music might not just be introducing Cambodian culture to Americans, but also vice versa.
“It’s very possible that now we’ve been to Cambodia, some band saw what we did and they’re going to throw their things into it and the game of musical chairs will just keep happening,” Smith said. “That’s when you start to feel like you’re part of something bigger and you start to believe the cliché that music is part of the universal language.”