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Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (A Music Video Review)

Updated: Jul 24, 2023


Starring Chhom Nimol, Zac Holtzman, Ethan Holtzman, David Ralicke, Paul Drewe Smith, Senon Gaius Williams, Khy Sokhorn, Khy Mom, Khy Rin and Khee Sokley.

Directed by John Pirozzi.

Distributed by M80 Music. 67 minutes. Not Rated.

Dengue Fever certainly has a specialized niche in the music world. They are five white California guys who hired a former Cambodian pop star to cover Khmer psychedelic rock/pop songs from the 60s and 70s.

Granted, it is something of a lost art form. During the barbaric regime of Pol Pot, most Cambodian singing stars – in fact most artists in general in the country – were deemed enemies of the state and quite literally killed.

After gaining a cult audience in the US, including the recording of a couple of CDs, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong assays the band's first tour of Cambodia – where they became the first American band to play.

The group was not sure what to expect and the venues vary greatly, from local TV to bars to conference rooms, schools and finally a huge outdoor performance in the middle of a local shantytown.

It is a fascinating journey. The guys – LA-based alt musicians Ethan Holtzman, Zac Holtzman, Senon Williams, Paul Smith, and David Ralicke are obviously huge fans of the music and interpret it with fire and passion. Lead singer Chhom Nimol (who had been a part of a popular family group in Cambodia before emigrating to the States) is a fiery singer and it is also interesting to see her reunions with family and old friends.

Unfortunately, the film leaves some important facts of the story out. How, for example, did five California-based musicians discover this music? Why did become so enamored of older Cambodian pop music that they would throw their entire careers behind playing songs that are obscure in their own homeland and written in a language that they do not speak? Is there that big a Cambodian community in Los Angeles that they can survive as a band playing this style of music? The band members' explanations of why they love the songs tend to be along the lines of the fact that they were a celebration of US pop music of the 60s and 70s – so why not just cover that?

Another thing they never quite explain is the fact that the guys do not speak much Khmer, and their singer – despite the fact that she has been living in the US for five years – does not appear to speak much English. (At least all the interviews she does for the film are all done in her native tongue, as are most of the scenes of her interacting with people, though she does occasionally speak a little English with her bandmates.) So how have the band members learned to communicate? I assume she must speak English relatively fluently and is not using it on her trip home, and that is a point that could easily be made with one statement or scene. It seems like a basic and central question, and it is just ignored.

Still Dengue Fever is an intriguing, skilled band and Sleepwalking Through the Mekong certainly visits places that most rock docs never touch, so this is a trip well worth taking.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: April 10, 2009.


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