By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Dengue Fever, a band well known for combining Cambodian pop with Western-style pop and rock, will be performing at Seattle’s Triple Door on Tuesday, Feb. 10th, They will be touring to support their new album “The Deepest Lake.” Singer Chhom Nimol took some questions over e-mail.<!–more–>
NWAW: Where in Cambodia did you grow up? What were your most vivid impressions of growing up as Cambodian?
Chhom Nimol: I was born in Battambang, but my family was moved to a refugee camp in Thailand when I was a baby. I grew up there until I was almost 13. My most important memories are always of my family because that is all we had to keep us strong. My sister was separated from my family during the Khmer Rouge, and we did not know she was alive until we heard her voice on the radio across the border. That is when we went back to Cambodia to find her.
It never matters if I was in Cambodia, or Thailand, or the United States, I am always thinking about my family.
NWAW: How did you begin to sing karaoke in Cambodia? How does the Cambodian karaoke scene differ from the American scene? Which songs did you learn first, and which songs became your signature songs—and why?
Chhom Nimol: My brothers taught me how to sing when I was just a kid. Everyone in my family was a singer or musician. When I sang in Cambodia, karaoke just meant that you would sing with a one-man-band or a track, but we always tried to sing professional[ly].
American karaoke just seems to be something people can do for fun, but for me, it was a way to make money to support my family. I learned a lot of traditional songs for weddings and parties, and songs from Ros Sereysothea, Houy Meas, and Pan Ron, very famous singers from the 1960s.
The song that everyone knows is called “Phorp Somnang,” … a song that was written just for me and I sang it for the Apsara Awards singing contest in 1997. I was the winner, and I got to sing for the King and Queen of Cambodia. The King was also a filmmaker, and he invited me to be an actress in one of his films.
NWAW: What led you to Long Beach, California?
Chhom Nimol: I had a sponsorship to sing at dinner clubs in Minnesota when I came to America. There is a big Cambodian community in Long Beach, and the owner of Dragon House invited me to sing there every weekend. I moved to Long Beach and became involved with the community there.
NWAW: What are the main differences between English and Khmer? How many languages do you speak?
Chhom Nimol: I did not learn to speak English until I came to America. When I started to sing with Dengue Fever, I could not speak English. It was hard to speak with people, so I went to Long Beach Community College and some schools near Chinatown to learn ESL.
I worked very hard, but one of the schools kicked me out because I missed too many classes when I went on a tour with the band! The biggest difference is that Khmer has a lot more letters in the alphabet (106), but English has a lot more words, so even if I understand 60 percent or 70 percent, sometimes I still don’t know all the new words.
I can speak Khmer, English, and Thai very well, and I also know some Lao. I love to learn new languages, and every time we go to a new country, I try to learn as many words as I can. I like Korean and French, but I also learned words in Japan, Turkey, Slovakia, and Sweden.
NWAW: Which other members of Dengue Fever did you meet first? How did they approach you?
Chhom Nimol: I met Zac and Ethan (the Holtzman brothers) first when they came to see me at Dragon House. They were looking for a singer for their band, but I didn’t speak English. Zac had a long beard and my friends and my sister did not want me to talk to them at all. We had to use a translator and it was hard to trust them at first, but we took a chance and now we are like a family.
The band invited me to try to sing with them, and they had learned to play old Cambodian songs that I already knew. When I went to the practice, I would take my friends with me to protect me and help me translate and understand what was going on. It was interesting that American guys wanted to play these old Cambodian songs, so we wanted to see how it was going to happen.
We played one live show at Spaceland in Los Angeles, and the crowd was so excited that we knew that we were doing something fun. Then, Matt Dillon was directing a movie called “City of Ghosts” and wanted Dengue Fever to do a song for the movie. When my sister and friends saw that a real movie star was interested in us, they started to trust the band more and we knew it was for real.
NWAW: Is it difficult putting together songs with Americans? What are your greatest challenges in songwriting and performing?
Chhom Nimol: The biggest challenge is working on the lyrics. The guys know I am more comfortable when I sing in Khmer, so if they write the lyrics in English, sometimes we have to translate them so it sounds better. But Khmer has more syllables than English, so we have to cut a lot of words and make the song more like a poem than a story.
The band does not speak Khmer, so we have to talk a lot about what words we can cut and how to make it fit and sound good. If I write the lyrics, I always write them in Khmer, so that part is easier, but my English is better now, so I am comfortable singing in English. Every song is different, and we just try it out to see which one sounds better and has the best feeling
NWAW: Where are your favorite places to play and why?
Chhom Nimol: We have toured a lot all over the world. We have done a lot of tours around the U.S., but we’ve also been all over Europe and Asia. I like going to new countries, and every time we have an invitation to go somewhere new, everyone is excited.
In the last three years, we have been able to go to Slovakia, Mexico, Brazil, Koran, Japan, and we’ve also played in Turkey, Russia, New Zealand, and Poland. My favorite place to play is in Cambodia because I get to see my family, and we get to play for very big audiences. We played a show in Battambang and Phnom Penh, and I think 5,000 people came to see us. It’s very exciting for me to play these songs in my home country and to make my family and my country proud of me.
NWAW: What are the main differences between the Cambodian pop you grew up with and American pop?
Chhom Nimol: Cambodian songs are very innocent, but in American songs, they can sing whatever they want, so that is a big difference. We never write a song with bad language or rude words because it’s not nice, and we just want to make our audience have fun and not be upset. You can write a song with beautiful stories and very interesting lyrics, and then everyone can come. We see all kinds of people at our show, from little kids to grandmothers.
NWAW: Which charity organizations does the band support, how, and why?
Chhom Nimol: We have done some benefits with a few groups that mostly support children. We work a lot with charities in Cambodia because we all love the culture. The old songs gave us a chance to become a band, so we want to make sure we support the next group of artists.
Cambodian Living Arts in Phnom Penh is working to teach new students about the traditional and classical arts of Cambodia that were almost destroyed during the Khmer Rouge. We did a tour in 2011 after some very bad floods. I worked with the WHO to record a radio PSA for villagers to try to remind them to use mosquito nets, so they do not catch diseases from the old water. We have also done some performances to raise money for the Cambodian Children’s Fund in Phnom Penh and Green Gecko in Siem Reap.
In 2013, Paul, Zac, and I went to Cambodia with TOMS on a giving trip, and we stayed for 10 days to bring shoes to people in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. We also worked with a clinic that was helping people with eye problems in Battambang.
NWAW: What are the band’s plans for the future, after this album and tour?
We are working on new original songs, and we recorded some songs with a Korean band, Goonam, that we’ll release later this year also. Our new album is the first full-length under our new record label, TUK TUK Records, so we will also look into growing the label and maybe see about releasing other music under TUK TUK. But first, I hope more people will hear this album and we can go to new places we’ve never been before!
I’d like to go back to play in Australia, Mexico, France, and Brazil again. But right now, we’re just excited about the new album and we are ready to go on the road to share with everyone! (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.