Immigrant Songs: Chhom Nimol & Dengue Fever

photo by Morgen Schuler (view set)

Named after one of the most feared diseases that travelers to the Far East can contract, Dengue Fever is responsible for rekindling interest in a music that was nearly obliterated by one of most maniacal regimes of the 20th century. Based in the vibrant Los Angeles music scene, touring worldwide, and releasing a trove of beloved records, Dengue Fever has been succeeding in reaching the adventurous music listeners and Cambodian (Khmer) expats who are at the front of stage wherever they play. Dengue Fever’s lead singer, Chhom Nimol, draws everyone in with originals and Cambodian standards that fill the floor.

Nimol was originally born in Phnom Penh and was already a well-established Karaoke singer in the city, playing mostly weddings and events. She got an offer to play at a popular Cambodian club in the Little Phnom Penh area of Long Beach, where she caused a bit of a buzz. Her future bandmates saw her there and asked her to join so they could create music akin to the Cambodian Rocks cassettes that were being passed around. These cassettes were the last remnant of a vibrant music scene in Cambodia during the mid-60’s to early 70’s, which was deeply influenced by surf, garage, soul and psychedelic rock that was being brought over by US soldiers from Vietnam, and which was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge in their campaign of de-Westernization in the 70’s.

Nimol became the voice of Dengue Fever and embarked on an unlikely career that has taken her everywhere. When the gig in the club in LA turned into a offered residency, she decided to stay in the US, for both financial and artistic reasons. The club paid her decently, which allowed her to help her family at home while also able to sing freely without the cultural and hierarchical constraints that befuddle artists in Cambodia. More importantly, joining Dengue Fever has allowed Chhom Nimol to present an image of a Cambodian performer without the political and cultural baggage of the Khmer Rouge period or the current images of depravity afflicting her home country. She is able to be who she is and become the most popular Khmer performer in the world today.

Chhom Nimol is an inspiration worldwide and this is her Immigrant Song:

About Immigrant Songs:
Immigrant Songs is a series presented and produced by KEXP, with support from The Vilcek Foundation. Through in-studio performances, interviews with local and national artists, and other written content, co-curators and DJs Darek Mazzone and Chilly will explore the immigrant experience. Read more stories here.

About The Vilcek Foundation:
The Vilcek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The mission of the foundation, to honor the contributions of foreign-born scholars and artists living in the United States, was inspired by the couple’s careers in biomedical science and art history, respectively, as well as their personal experiences and appreciation for the opportunities they received as newcomers to this country. The foundation awards annual prizes to immigrant biomedical scientists and artists and sponsors cultural programs such as the Hawaii International Film Festival. To learn more, visit

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