The Apsara and the Mastodong: the Indie Rock Version of Beauty and the Beast?

I am always fascinated with how the dynamic energy of a live musical performance charges the crowd. For Rush concerts, it’s the stadium full of arms swinging away in comically synchronized air drum solos. At hardcore shows, it’s the pointless chaos of the mosh pits. When Long Beach, California-based Dengue Fever played the Highline Ballroom last weekend, the crowd kept cresting with the twirling hands of apsara dancers, although the fans tended to wear more clothing than the original dancing maidens that grace the carved walls of Ankgor Wat.

No one seemed to produce as graceful movements as Cambodian-American singer Chhom Nimol, who sung in a mixture of English and Khmer. Fusing American indie rock and psychedelic Khmer rock—which itself had been influenced by American surf and French ye-ye pop—Dengue Fever arrived in New York City on its tour supporting the band’s latest offering, Cannibal Courtship. Unlike some of their earlier releases that each contained several covers of Khmer 1960s songs, Cannibal Courtship contains all Dengue Fever originals save one. That one cover track, “Genjer Genjer,” is not even Cambodian; it’s a classic Indonesian folk song that Dengue Fever rearranged into their loungy, vibrato-massaged sound.

Their most notable innovation, however, loomed on stage: The Mastodong. No, The Mastodong is not a stage name of a freak-of-nature porn actor. It’s a moniker with which guitarist Zac Holtzman christened his two-pronged instrument having a neck of a Fender Jazzmaster atop a neck of a chapei dong veng, a traditional two-string Cambodian lute. The unwieldy creation provides a suitable metaphor for Dengue Fever’s marriage of Khmer and American music. Holtzman must still be attempting to tame the beast, because he only played the chapei—with its mesmerizing drones—for one song.

When I was in Cambodia two years ago, I found out how difficult and expensive it would be to ship a chapei to the States, so I knew The Mastodong was an even rarer creature. After the show, Holtzman assured me that The Mastodong is the only guitar/chapei combination on the planet, as far as he knew. Cambodian ingenuity seems to have rubbed off on him—he uses weed-whacker cables as strings. Such a creative repurposing reminds me of Cambodia’s roadside gas stations displaying racks of yellow- and red-colored gasoline in recycled Johnnie Walker bottles (nice, neat portion control, one liter at a time).

The Highline Ballroom’s disco balls and psychedelic light show provided a fitting ambiance for the band’s retro style that swirls together spy-soundtrack flute interludes, hauntingly groovy psychedelic horns reminiscent of Mulatu Astatke’s 1970s Ethio-Jazz, and tasty Southeast Asian melodies. The band does not precisely reproduce the songs of classic Cambodian artists such as Pan Ron and Sin Sisamouth, nor does the ever-evolving band intend to. Yet Dengue Fever’s music still provides echoes of a happier time in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge crashed the party in 1975 and killed most of the country’s musicians. I only have to imagine the Phnom Penh venues of the 1960s and how their crowds, in Jackie-O bobs and go-go skirts, swirled their hands with such passion.

* * *

Some of the photos below and above can be clicked for a larger size.

I finally had the chance to meet bass player Senon Williams, who, a couple years back, offered me great advice via email on live music venues of Phnom Penh, several of which Dengue Fever played when they had toured in Cambodia.

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About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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