with Dengue Fever Chhom Nimol
The Cambodian Princess from Battambang/Phratabong
Asians: Considering your desire to make
more money to send back home, making commercially viable
music in Khymer and singing in Long Beach’s Cambodian
banquet clubs (after arriving in the U.S. with your brother
to perform at a New Year’s celebration and visiting
your sister) - what got your attention after your initial
impression of being surprised when five American guys (guy
with a crazy beard, 7 feet tall Black guy and a guy with
a “creepy porn-star mustache”) who had no prior
connection to Cambodian culture had a strong desire to do
Cambodian pop music approached you at “The Dragon
House” about joining Dengue Fever, after receiving
their CD of their Cambodian tunes from the 1960s that they
were learning and hearing them hummed a few bars of one
of their songs – along with what prompted a well-known
karaoke singer in Cambodia to join them (since you quickly
said yes – though it took several phone calls to get
a confirmed commitment)?
first I didn't quite fully understand the guys' intentions,
I was a bit afraid. I brought a fellow friend along to help
me interpret. Their mellow and down to earth approach made
me comfortable about learning more about their ideas. At
first I was confused about the plan - why would these Americans
be interested in playing Khmer music? It was a crazy idea,
I thought it's worth a shot.
was the trust developed between yourself and the band (recognizing
that at the time, your ability to communicate in English
was very limited) – acknowledging that your entourage
(Cambodian friends/relatives) came with you to the band’s
initial meetings/rehearsals with the band to learn of the
band’s true intentions, the lyrics/music of their
original songs they proposed to translate (acknowledging
that your parents were wedding singers, considering your
family members included several renowned singers from the
1970s that remembered the pioneers of the Cambodian rock
scene of the 1960s, your history of being a well-known karaoke
singer in Cambodia, singing for the King and Queen of Cambodia
and after winning a televised contest in the early 1990s)
– and after the band’s first performances that
thrilled Cambodian and American audiences?
very fortunate I was surrounded with people who were able
to provide me actual interpretation of the band's intention.
From any woman's perspective it was hard to trust four guys
(Zac, Ethan, Senon, and Paul) approaching with a bizarre
idea. The songs they proposed were classic Khmer rock, I
thought it would be a challenging project. I'd sung some
of the songs before, but not the way the band wanted to
Performance of "Sober Driver"
provides a eclectic pop styling that many American
audiences are drawn to. With an English-speaking context,
it draws upon classic Cambodian pop traditions that
existed during the 1960's and was hear over the Armed
Services radio stations throughout Southeast Asia.
recall if my parents ever sang at weddings; most of their
performances were done for Cambodian plays. My older sister
(Chorvin Chhom) and brother (Bunyong Chhom) inspired me to
sing in the contest for the King and Queen of Cambodia in
the 1990's. Chorvin made her markings as a singer in Cambodia
in the 1980's. When I was in Cambodia, I never thought I was
a karaoke singer, I thought I was just a singer. In the U.S.
the biggest market for Khmer music was sold as karaoke discs.
The guys' patience shows in our performances. Their hard work
in adjusting with my limited ability to English amazes both
Cambodian and American listeners.
US Asians: What
were your and your family’s thoughts of your reconnecting
with your Cambodian fan base, especially considering since
many of the stars of Cambodian popular music were killed or
disappeared during the rule of the Khmer Rouge that you honored
when you light a candle onstage to honor those killed by the
Nimol: My family encouraged me to try it
out, since Cambodian rock seems to be fading away in the
outside world after the original stars are gone. Recently
artists in Cambodia are inspired to bring Khmer rock back
to the country. I am always grateful that I'm able to bring
these classic songs to the modern world and to honor these
great artists since they were the true pioneers.
Asians: How did the Cambodian communities
(older and younger) feel about your participation in Dengue
Fever - considering their opinions about attire, dancing,
recreating music that reminds people of a time/land that
doesn’t exist anymore (culture of pre-"Year Zero"
bourgeois Cambodia), reinvention of a “mongrel music
that is itself a reinvention of a mongrel music from the
Nimol: I have had nothing but positive compliments
from the Cambodian communities. Since some of the songs are
classics, the older listeners are more familiar and reminds
them of happier times when they were teenagers. For the younger
listeners, they enjoy the modern flavor added, and gives them
a sense of hope.
you share how prominent Cambodian American artists (such
Ly - whom interviewer has had on public access television
discussing the effects of The Killer Fields and his success
as a rapper in Cambodia) and Jack
Ong – Executive Director of the Dr.
Haing Ngor Foundation have played a part of your personal
and creative lives?
Chhom Nimol: I
did not get to see the interview made by Prach Ly, but I
know he is a talented artist. In the mid 1970's it was an
emotional time for all Cambodians, a mixture of this feeling,
the fans and the drive of my bandmates is my biggest influence.
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