Rock group Dengue Fever is turning up the heat on the world-music scene.


LOS ANGELES MUSICIAN Ethan Holtzman was cruising around Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 1997. His friend contracted dengue fever, so they hopped on a truck and headed for a hospital. Ethan heard strange music playing on the truck’s radio: an evocative blend of 1960s psychedelia, California surf, and British Invasion, with a slight tinge of Western rock.

Ethan brought several cassettes back with him to L.A., where he discovered that his brother Zac had coincidentally been listening to the same music. Neither understood the Khmer-language lyrics, but they learned that the people who had recorded the songs, Cambodian pop stars like Pan Ron, Ros Sereysothea, and Sin Sisamouth, were dead -- likely killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s, in which artists were singled out for execution.

“We started talking about what a shame it was that all these really great, cool artists were killed while they were just doing what they wanted to do,” Zac recalls. “We thought it was a good idea to pick up the ball where they’d left off.”

The Holtzmans put together a band with the goal of resurrecting Cambodian rock and roll. They chose the name Dengue Fever as a tongue-in-cheek ode to Ethan’s fateful truck ride and found a vocalist in Chhom Nimol, a onetime Cambodian pop star. Though Chhom spoke little English, things clicked immediately for the group, which grew to include bassist Senon Williams, brass player David Ralicke, and drummer Paul Smith.

The group has released three CDs since their 2001 founding. While they’ve remained loyal to the native music they sought to resurrect, they do beef up arrangements with Ethan’s nuanced Farfisa organ and Ralicke’s killer horn parts. Their atmospheric sound has proven a natural fit for many film and television soundtracks, including for 2005’s Broken Flowers and episodes of Showtime’s hit series Weeds.

In 2005, the band traveled to Cambodia, a trip that is captured in the documentary Sleepwalking Through the Mekong, which is now available on DVD (M80 Music, $20). The journey was especially powerful for Chhom, who hadn’t returned to her homeland since she left for the United States years before.

“Everyone was really happy that she came back with her old traditional music, with us backing her up,” Zac says. “It made them feel proud about their culture.”