How this Cambodian American singer found her voice

Chhom Nimol is the lead singer of Dengue Fever.

Chhom Nimol, the lead singer in the band Dengue Fever, said she didn’t always want to sing. 

Her guitar-playing brother encouraged her, she said, but her dream while growing up in a refugee camp on the Cambodian border was to be an actress.

“My family was laughing at me,” Nimol said. “And my brother said, ‘We don’t have blood for acting, but we have blood for singing.’”

Indeed, Nimol went on to become the lead singer of Dengue Fever, based in Los Angeles. The group has spent the past 20 years putting their own spin on classic Cambodian psychedelic rock. 

Nimol was born in Cambodia under the regime of the Khmer Rouge, which ruled and terrorized Cambodia in the late 1970s. During the brutal civil war that followed, Nimol and most of her family escaped to a refugee camp, just across the border in Thailand. 

Her oldest sister, Chhom Chorvin — also a singer — stayed behind when the rest of the family left. 

One day, Nimol’s mother heard a voice on the radio and she said, “Oh, that’s my daughter. She’s still alive.” Nimol said she was so young at the time that she thought her older sister was literally inside the radio.

That’s when her mother and brothers told Nimol about her older sister’s talent.

“Your sister [has a] very good voice. She’s the best singer. She’s the sweetest voice in the whole world. Her voice is superpower,” Nimol remembers her family saying. 

After the civil war ended, Nimol and her older sister reunited briefly before her sister then moved to Canada. 

At that time, Nimol’s brother began to encourage her more to pursue her own singing career.

“You have to become a singer,” he told Nimol. “You need to learn how to sing, so we can make money to support our family.” 

In 1997, Nimol auditioned for a Cambodian singing competition similar to “American Idol” — and got onto the show. 

Nimol said she felt a lot of pressure especially from Chorvin, her older sister, who was already a well-known singer and had a reputation to protect. 

“She told me, ‘I know you can do it,’” Nimol recalled. “I learn every single song and I cannot sleep [for] about a week. I pray, I’m singing, I’m depressed. The first day on TV, especially live, [for the] first time, [I was] super nervous.”

She was just 16 when she nervously stepped onto the stage — “skinny and super innocent.”

Nimol won for best female singer that year. She said her older sister was “super happy” and of course, proud. 

Soon after, Nimol got invited to perform in the US. 

She toured around, singing at Lunar New Year’s celebrations, then she picked up a regular gig in southern California. 

That’s where she met the members of Dengue Fever, and where she still lives today. 

“Ting Mong” is their sixth album together. 

A group photo of Dengue Fever band members.
A group photo of Dengue Fever band members. Courtesy of Marc Walker

Nimol said that one song on the album is special because it takes her back to Cambodia, during one of their many tours there. 

Guitar player Zac Holtzman wrote a whole song about a particularly pungent fermented mud fish paste that’s popular at Cambodian markets called “Prohok in my Suitcase.”

“You can smell it from far away,” Nimol said. “It’s very popular in my community … you can put [it on] anything you want.”

It’s stinky, but delicious, she added.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.