The future looked promising for Dengue Fever when the critically acclaimed psych-surf-worldbeat indie act fronted by Cambodian immigrant Chhom Nimol was driving home to Los Angeles after opening for Jonathan Richman at the Casbah on February 6, 2003. “However,” notes Steve Huey in their All Music Guide bio, “disaster nearly struck when Nimol was arrested in San Diego in accordance with the stringent, post-9/11 [Immigration and Naturalization Service] policy — she’d arrived in the U.S. on a two-week visitor’s visa.…” The agents who stopped the band at San Onofre and took Nimol into custody were reportedly observing an orange alert. “They looked at me and thought I was a Mexican lady,” she told Matt Diehl in an interview featured in L.A.’s CityBeat.
Chhom Nimol, from a family of Cambodian singers, had come to the U.S. a few years before for lucrative New Year’s gigs and stayed, settling with her sister in Long Beach’s “Little Phnom Penh” — at a population of 50,000, America’s largest Cambodian ex-pat community. Brothers Ethan and Zac Holtzman had been inspired by vintage Cambodian rock to start a band with vocals in the Khmer language, and they found Nimol singing at the LBC’s Dragon House restaurant.
The problem at the checkpoint was overcome but not before Nimol spent 22 days in an INS detention facility here. She was released after benefit shows raised money that helped secure her legal status. She also worked long hours at the Dragon House to pay $20,000 in lawyer’s fees — prompting the title of their second album, Escape from Dragon House. Nimol also co-wrote (in Khmer) “22 Nights” on their debut, which was about her incarceration (where she charmed Mexican female inmates by singing Celine Dion songs).
“Jail was scary,” Nimol said. “I was feeling afraid I was going to be sent back to my country.” Drummer Paul Smith elaborated: “Singers have gotten acid thrown in their face in Cambodia for associating with the wrong politicians.… It was an important part of her defense. If she had been sent home, she could’ve been a target.” Nimol’s family members had sung for deposed royalty, and Nimol’s father sang on a movie soundtrack with legendary pop-rocker Sinn Sisamouth, the “King of Cambodian Music” who disappeared — presumed murdered — in 1975 after Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took power.
Dengue Fever play the Casbah Saturday, April 19.