The Agit Reader

Tinariwen and Dengue Fever
Union Transfer, Philadelphia, April 18

April 24th, 2017  |  by Brian O'Neill

Dengue Fever

The distance between Cambodia and Mali is 7,175 miles, but with roots in those two disparate countries, the two bands performing this evening have a lot of things in common. Most notably, they each merge indigenous music from their respective regions with Western music to truly typify what is collectively called World Music.

Dengue Fever is from Los Angeles, though singer Chhom Nimol joined the band there after leaving Cambodia. Singing most of the set in her native Khmer lent an exotic feel to the musical mix that owes more to jazz and psychedelic rock than ancient hymns. It was a little surprising that the spirituality inherent in the band’s studio output was not as obvious from the stage. Maybe it’s because of the band’s role as a support act, but this was not a negative; it was nice to see them have fun onstage and show off the obvious chemistry that they have with each other after over a decade and a half together.

It wouldn’t be a shock if Dengue Fever is viewed as a solid jazz-rock ensemble in Cambodia, rather than a band propagating the music of its homeland. No matter what language Nimrol sings, she exudes strength and confidence as her long dress and hair sway to the rhythms. The highlight of Dengue’s set was when the band invited audience members to sing. “You don’t have to be Cambodian,” Nimol squeaked, “and if you don’t know the words, just dance!” A dozen smiling fans joined them to sing and dance, and it was then that you realized that spirituality can be attained from such acts of pure joy.


Just the appearance of Tinariwen on the stage makes it obvious that their approach couldn’t be more different. Clad from head to toe in traditional Tuareg regalia and stoic in demeanor save for one energetic member who exhorted the audience to dance, the band is obviously from another place. Formed more than 35 years ago, its members have spent decades as desert-dwelling nomads fleeing civil wars, insurgences, and later, Islamic extremists targeting them for playing “Satan’s music.”

The band collaborated with Nels Cline, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio on 2011’s Tassili, which allowed them to hobnob with Stephen Colbert and win a Grammy. Fraternizing with Western culture raised the band’s profile, and it has impacted the music as well, though not as obviously as with Dengue Fever. The strident, no-nonsense approach of American folk artists, the way Carlos Santana lets his ethnicity flow through his Gibson, and especially American blues all are touchstones of the band’s sound and style.

But those are mere accents. The entire set was built on a droning, Arabian percussion that sounded straight out of the desert. Their set reached a peak when members of Dengue Fever joined Tinariwen for “Tamatant Tilay” off 2007’s Aman Iman album. The two bands bridged those 7,175 miles like it was the distance between them onstage and took the appreciative crowd on a journey twice as long. At the end of the day, both bands spoke one language and nobody needed an interpreter.

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