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Sleepwalking Through the Mekong

During the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia you weren’t safe if you were educated, had previous links with foreigners or played music with western influences. The Khmer Rouge was on a quest to wipe out Cambodian culture and identity. “Out with the old, in with the new”, Khmer Rouge style.

Fortunately they didn’t quite succeed.

In the sixties, before the Khmer Rouge came into power, there was a lively “Khmer Rock” scene. Bands that were active in this scene mixed surf music and western-style rock with traditional Cambodian melodies and instruments.

The most famous artist who is widely considered as the “King of Khmer Music” is Sinn Sisamouth. He was prolific as a singer, bandleader, mandolin player and producer. After the fall of Phnom Penh he was forced out of the city into rural commune life. Being highly educated and a musician made him a target for the Khmer Rouge. That they killed him is certain, but the circumstances of his death are unknown.

In the sixties Khmer Rock wasn’t really known outside Cambodia. Thanks to a band called Dengue Fever this is starting to change.

Two American brothers, Zac and Ethan, went backpacking in Cambodia in 1997 and got inspired. They were mesmerised by the exotic melodies that were woven into sixties-style rock music. At the time of this musical discovery, a friend of Ethan contracted Dengue Fever. This turned out to be a suitable name for a new band that was going to celebrate Khmer Rock classics.

Dengue Fever

Back home in Los Angeles the search for a native Cambodian singer started. It turned out that there was a large Cambodian community in Long Beach. After a few fruitless auditions they were stunned by the beautiful voice of Chhom Nimol. Chhom came from a musical family that was part of the original Khmer Rock movement. Her father had sung alongside Sinn Sisamouth, the “King of Khmer Music”.

This documentary follows the band during their first tour in Cambodia. In the beginning they feel a little anxious about how the Cambodians will respond their music. After all, they are just a bunch of foreigners.

I won’t spill the beans. Give this DVD a spin and enjoy this beautiful documentary. You’ll love it.

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