Dengue Fever, Tinariwen, Sun Ra, and the sound of displacement

Catch Dengue Fever opening for Tinariwen as the UC Theatre celebrates its first anniversary on Saturday. Photo: Courtesy the artists

At first glance, the UC Theatre’s Saturday double bill of the psychedelic Los Angeles combo Dengue Fever and Mali’s iconic desert rocker Tinariwen might seem like an ill-fitting pairing. But a closer look reveals that both bands grew out of calamities that continue to reverberate.

Keyboardist Ethan Holtzman launched Dengue Fever with his brother, guitarist and vocalist Zac Holtzman, in 2001 after a mixtape he purchased in Phnom Penh sparked his imagination. Cambodia isn’t usually associated with giddy, psychedelic pop music, but in the late 1960s and early 70s the Southeast Asian nation turned into a rock ‘n’ roll hothouse inflamed by the surf riffs, soul, and garage-band hits broadcast by U.S. Armed Forces Radio to American troops in neighboring Vietnam.

In adapting songs by Khmer pop icons like Ros Sereysothea, Sinn Sisamouth, and Pan Ron, the brothers set out to find a vocalist who could sing the original lyrics, a search that brought them to Long Beach’s bustling Cambodian community. They quickly encountered Chhom Nimol performing in a karaoke bar. A vivacious vocalist from a famous musical family, she had come to California to perform at a Cambodian New Year’s celebration in 2000, and after about two years was ready to move on.

“People from Canada, Australia and France wanted me to sing there,” Nimol told me in a 2011 interview from her home Long Beach. “A label in Cambodia wanted me to make a record. But my sister lives here, and some of my old friends. They said you came here already, why go back? That’s when Zac and Ethan came looking for me.”


With bassist Senon Williams, drummer Paul Smith, and David Ralicke on saxophones, flutes and various brass instruments, Dengue Fever released an eponymous album in 2003 covering hits from Cambodia’s golden age of pop, all sung in Khmer. With groovy Farfisa organ lines and stinging surf rock guitar licks, the band introduced a singular sound that was both comfortingly familiar and enticingly exotic.

Rather than simply plunder Cambodian pop, Dengue Fever has increasingly taken on the music’s weighty history. In 2005, the band performed around Cambodia, a tour that allowed Nimol to reconnect with her fans while celebrating a generation of artists who were almost completely wiped out by the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in the mid-1970s. John Pirozzi’s 2007 documentary Sleepwalking Through the Mekong captured the triumphant tour, and helped raise awareness of the enduring scars left by the killing fields.

In 2010 Dengue Fever toured widely promoting the release of Electric Cambodia (Minky Records), a CD featuring 14 vintage Cambodian pop tunes culled from the Holtzman’s precious stash of cassettes. The album’s proceeds go to Cambodian Living Arts, an organization dedicated to reviving Cambodian traditional art forms and supporting contemporary artistic expression.

“As far as we know none [of the musicians on the CD] survived the genocide,” said bassist Senon Williams. “If you were famous for making this music, you were first to get a knock on the door, along with architects, professors, doctors, lawyers, artists and politicians.”

The band has continued to absorb new influences, adding Afrobeat grooves into the mix after performing several concerts with Seun Kuti and Egypt 80. It’ll be interesting to hear what impact Tinariwen has on Dengue Fever.

Mali’s most famous rock band emerged out of a military camp in the in Libya, where many Tuaregs found refuge in the mid-1980s after a devastating drought almost wiped out the age-old desert way of life, killing off camels and goats and forcing most Tuareg to settle in cities. Exposed to the music of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and various Moroccan rock bands, guitarists Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and Alhassane Ag Touhami joined forces and started writing nostalgia-laced songs full of longing for the desert and the communal lifestyle it requires.

“We were entranced by that sound,” Alhabib said in a conversation several years ago. “We decided to use the money we’d saved to buy these instruments and incorporate those influences into our sound, which enamored the people of the camp. We’ve been together ever since.”


For many centuries the Tuaregs were the masters of the Sahara who played a vital economic and cultural role linking west and north Africa. When the great empires of Mali arose in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Tuaregs, or Kel Tamashek as they call themselves, helped make Timbuktu a thriving university town, where some of the world’s most advanced scholars wrote treatise on mathematics, physics, medicine and Sufi-inspired Islamic spirituality (scrolls targeted for destruction by the radical Islamic groups Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).

Related to North Africa’s indigenous Amazigh (or Berber) peoples, the Tuareg resisted French colonialism into the late 19th century, earning a reputation as fierce and cunning desert warriors. With the end of French colonial rule in the 1960s, Tuareg society found itself divided among the newly independent nations. The rebellion against Mali’s military government in the early ‘90s dispersed the Tuareg further, leaving many exiled in refugee camps in Mauritania, Algeria and Burkino Faso.

Tinariwen’s UC Theatre date is the only Bay Area stop on a tour following the release of a new CD, Elwan (Anti-), a searing album laced with anger and dismay at the ongoing chaos since radical Islamic insurgents took over northern Mali in 2012 and banned musical instruments and performances. Led by guitarist and vocalist Alhassane Ag Touhami, a founding member known as the Lion of the Desert for his role in the early 1990s Tuareg insurgency against Mali’s government, the band’s latest incarnation features a new generation of musicians.

“The responsibility is huge,” said electric bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, speaking in French through an interpreter before a concert in San Francisco. “Tinariwen today are like ambassadors of Tuaregs worldwide. Tuareg children watch them, know everything they do, where they’ve been, what they’ve played and what they’ve done.

“Ever since I was born I was aware of the implications of Tinariwen,” he continues. “I grew up with this music. As a kid I would follow them around. I played guitar and at a certain point the idea just came to me to start playing electric bass. When they started performing outside of Mali in 2001, they chose a few young Tuaregs who were involved in their music to work with them. That’s how I started touring with them.”

Recommended: ‘Space is the Place’

Pianist, keyboardist, bandleader, space traveler and intrepid Afrofuturist Sun Ra. Photo: Courtesy the artist

If you don’t feel like rocking out Saturday, you can travel the space ways at BAMPFA, where there’s a rare screening of Space is the Place, the legendary 1974 Afrofuturist film featuring a score by Sun Ra. Directed by John Coney and written by Sun Ra and Joshua Smith, the film was partly inspired by a 1971 course that Sun Ra taught at Cal “The Black Man and the Cosmos.” Jim Newman, who years later founded the Other Minds festival with Charles Amirkhanian, produced the film, and he’ll be on hand to say a few words before the screening. Shot in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Richmond, Space is the Place is rarely screened, and BAMPFA is presenting the rare uncut version.