Dengue Fever / Congotronics
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I sing the praises of dirty music.

No, not that kind of dirty music. There's more than enough puerile paroxysms from performers who shock because they can't awe. I'm talking about music that is not prettified and perfected. Music with a ragged will to live it up and that reaches out and grabs the gut. It has none of the synthesized sauce that makes a pop star out of a pop tart who can't sing. It's grunge, it's old timey music with codgers sawing fiddles and blowing the rust out of their hard-lived pipes. Music of the people, by the people.

Two recent releases with unlikely stories demonstrate a simpler sound than state-of-the-art studios are producing.

The first is Dengue Fever, a group that sounds like something you'd imagine hearing in a gaudy neon-lit bar in southeast Asia in the late 1960s. The album, however, was produced in 2005 in Los Angeles. The story begins with Ethan Holtzman spending several months in southeast Asia and discovering old Cambodian pop tunes that were heavily influenced by the U.S. Armed Forces radio broadcasting during the Vietnam War.

Holtzman returned home to Southern California and, with some friends and his brother, decided to form a band that played Cambodian pop tunes. But they didn't have a singer. After asking around, they heard about The Dragon House, a Long Beach nightclub catering to Cambodian emigres. They went and eventually heard Nimol Ch'hlom, realizing immediately that their had found their singer.

Ch'hlom, though, was understandably skeptical. According to drummer Paul Dreux Smith, Ch'hlom would always bring friends or relatives with her to the rehearsal studio until she realized that, unbelievably, the five white guys were serious. Their 2003 album was all Cambodian cover songs, but with Escape From Dragon House they play originals in Khmer and English.

cd cover The music, on one hand, is immediately recognizable to U.S. listeners. The Farfisa organ and fuzz guitars evoke late-'60s bands like Question Mark and the Mysterions. On the other hand, Ch'hlom's singing style is definitely different with its long melodic phrases and Asian intonations. Initially her voice may seem odd to American listeners (Yoko Ono may come to mind) but one quickly sees why the band was so excited to find her.

While this simpler style of rock is called the "garage band sound," Congo's Konono No. 1 goes them one better; call it garage band without the garage. After the members moved to Kinshasa from the countryside, they wanted to play the trance music from their home villages. Having next to nothing, they built instruments from old car parts, among other things.

The band uses three likembes, or thumb pianos, interweaving melodies to create a hypnotic groove. They crushed magnets from car alternators to create pickups and electrified the traditional sound. To bolster the beats, they hammered out hubcaps for makeshift cymbals and fashioned other percussion instruments, playing it all through a sorry-looking wall of speakers, jacked up loud to be heard over the din of the city's cacophony. The distortion that resulted from the gerry-rigged set-ups, though unwanted at first, became an integral part of their sound. Without knowing it, they became the aural cousins to western bands who use high-tech gizmos to achieve the same kinds of fuzzy tones.

The group's debut album did well enough that the label released Congotronics 2, a CD/DVD set that features several bands. The DVD is simply scenes of the bands playing around Kinshasa. The dilapidated state of their equipment is eye-opening, but no one seems to mind. In each of the DVD's segments, whether the musicians are in clubs or in open spaces, the band and audience are locked in a beatific groove, dancing and singing for the jam-band-length songs.

This shaggy-dog music is a reminder that while our cultivated aesthetic sensibilities can elevate us, simpler pleasures can still move us. Truth may be beauty, but it ain't necessarily pretty. - Marty Lipp

Both volumes of Congotronics are available from cdRoots
Dengue Fever is available at

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