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Dengue Fever: Vintage Cambodian Pop Remixed

Inspired by Sinn Sisamouth and other Cambodian stars of the '60s and '70s, brothers Zac and Ethan Holzman created a fusion cover band — complete with a former Cambodian pop star who had recently moved to Los Angeles.


Other segments from the episode on June 25, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 25, 2008: Interview with Zac and Ethan Holtzman; Review of the 80th Annual Academy Awards and return of "Saturday Night Live."


DATE February 25, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Musicians Zac and Ethan Holtzman of Dengue Fever
discuss their new album, "Venus on Earth"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're going to hear some terrific music with an amazing back story. During
the war in Vietnam, American and British pop music was broadcast on the US
Armed Forces Radio Network. The music was heard in Cambodia, where it
inspired a hybrid of American pop and Cambodian music. At that time, the king
of Cambodian music was Sinn Sisamouth. He and his singing partner, Ros
Sereysothea, had many hits singing in the traditional style backed by music
that sounded like psychedelic surf rock. When the Pol Pot regime took over in
1975, most of the Western-influenced musicians were killed, the music was
banned and recordings destroyed. Decades later, Zac and Ethan Holtzman
discovered this Cambodian pop of the '60s and '70s and decided to create a
band inspired by the music. These two American brothers named their band
Dengue Fever. While looking for the right singer, they found Chhom Nimol, a
Cambodian woman who had recently moved to LA. Dengue Fever's first record was
mostly covers of Cambodian pop. Their new CD, "Venus on Earth," is originals.
Before we meet Ethan, the keyboard player, and Zac, the guitarist who also
writes the songs and sings, here's a track from "Venus on Earth."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. CHHOM NIMOL: (Singing in foreign language)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's the band Dengue Fever.

Ethan Holtzman, Zac Holtzman, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm among the many
Americans who, until we decided to have you on the show, never really thought
at all about Cambodian pop and hadn't heard any, so I'm really interested in
hearing how you became familiar with Cambodian pop. And, Ethan, maybe the
best place to start is with your trip to Cambodia a few years ago.

Mr. ETHAN HOLTZMAN: Yeah, that was back in 1997 and '98. I'd spent about
half a year backpacking around Southeast Asia, and Cambodia was one of the
countries I visited. And I just stumbled upon the music on that trip, and I
was just blown away. And I started to buy as many cassette tapes as I could.

And when I returned home, my brother had moved back from San Francisco, and it
just so happened he had been listening to some compilations that he'd gotten
from Aquarius Records in San Francisco that was also Cambodian rock 'n' roll.
So it was really a major coincidence, that we were listening to this obscure
body of work at the same time.

GROSS: Zac, why did you start listening to Cambodian pop?

Mr. ZAC HOLTZMAN: My friend...(unintelligible)...who worked at Aquarius, he
laid some of that stuff on me, and that was how I first started listening to
it. And, yeah, when I moved down to LA and we were just kind of sitting
around, we were just like, `Man, what if we sort of brought back this style of
music?' Because it ended prematurely, you know, with the Khmer Rouge coming in
and, you know, sadly killing off all the artists and musicians.

GROSS: Well, yeah, literally. I mean, I think a lot of people who you listen
to on cassette died under the Khmer Rouge. Is that right?

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. Anybody who, you know, had any Western influence
or, you know, didn't--wore glasses or didn't have calluses on their hands or
were educated at all was pretty much killed.

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. A third of the population died during the Khmer
Rouge, which was roughly around two million people.

GROSS: And how did the Western pop that influenced the Cambodian pop singers
reach there in the first place? How did they hear American garage rock and
surf music?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Well, from what I've been told, it was mainly because the
Vietnam War, a lot of the soldiers were getting it broadcasted on the radios
over there, so it just bled across the border into Cambodia. And then the
Cambodians, mainly Sinn Sisamouth, he kind of took that music and then added
traditional Khmai elements of the music; and they just completely transformed
it and took it to this amazing level.

GROSS: Well, you know, I asked you to bring an example of the kind of
Cambodian pop that you heard, Ethan, on your trip to Cambodia in the late
'90s; and one of the things you sent was a song that you've also covered on
one of you albums. So I thought we'd hear them both back to back, but I want
you to tell us about the song first. The song is called "Shave Your Beard,"
so we're going to hear like the original Cambodian version and then hear your
cover of it. Tell us about the song and the person singing the original.

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: All right. Well, the song "Shave Your Beard," it was
really--it was just so funny because we had been listening to that one. We
didn't know what the subject matter was; and we brought it to Nimol and some
of her Cambodian friends and they started translating it, and it turns out
it's "Shave Your Beard." And it just so happens that my brother's got about a
foot-and-a-half-long beard, so it was like, whoa, this song we like, it's like
the subject matter is, you know, kind of--it seemed to touch home. The singer
on that song is Ros Sereysothea. She worked a lot with Sinn Sisamouth during
the '60s and '70s. Both of them perished from the Khmer Rouge. But she was
coined "the golden voice of Cambodia."

GROSS: So they both died. Both of these singers that you mentioned died
under the Khmer Rouge?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, unfortunately.

GROSS: So we're going to hear the original, back to back with yours. What do
you think you're doing different from the original?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: I think just the fact that we're recording, you know, with
modern recording equipment, it definitely--we have more control of what's
going on. I think maybe the Cambodians, when they recorded that song,
possibly had a microphone or two just in a room and they played. But there's
something really special about that original version because, once again, it's
in Khmai, Cambodian, so you can't understand it. But there's a part were Ros
Sereysothea sings, you know, the la la...

(Singing) La-la-la-la-la la.

(Speaking) I'm not a singer, sorry. But she sings that and it just like that
was really gripping. It was like this is a great song because, you know, you
can't understand it but you can still--that little melody part, it just felt
very comfortable.

GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned that because I really love that part. There's
like this little la-la-la, yeah, yeah, yeah thing.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: (Singing) La-la-la-la, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, that's Zac. That's a little better.

GROSS: That's it. Yeah. That's it. It's so great to hear this Cambodian
singing stuff that's obviously influenced by all kinds of Western pop. So all
right. So we'll hear the original version and then the Dengue Fever version,
back to back.

(Soundbites of "Shave Your Beard")

Ms. ROS SEREYSOTHEA: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. NIMOL: (Singing in foreign language)

(End of soundbites)

GROSS: That was two recordings of the song "Shave Your Beard," back to back.
First we heard the Cambodian singer Ros Sereysothea, and then we heard the
cover version by Dengue Fever, which is a band based in LA. And the lead
singer from that band is Cambodian and she lives in the LA area. And my
guests are the two founders of the band, brothers Ethan Holtzman and Zac
Holtzman. Ethan plays keyboards and Zac is featured on guitars and also does
vocals on many of the tracks.

Well, that was great to hear back to back. And, you know, the singer in your
band, Chhom Nimol, is--she has such a wonderful voice. How did you discover

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Well, we had the idea, you know, to start the band; and so
in Long Beach we learned that there's a huge population of Cambodians, about
50,000. And there's all these night clubs where they serve dinner and there's
a house band that plays. And so we started driving down there and going to
these nightclubs and having dinner and watching the bands play. And then we
eventually made it to the best club, which at the time was Dragon House. And
we walked in and the band was playing, and every time--we were always like the
only, you know, American or white people coming into the club, so we always
like got a lot of looks and stuff.

But anyway, the band was playing and there was about six female singers up
onstage, all kind of taking turns on the mike. And then when Nimol came on
the mike, we were just like, `Oh my God.' I was just elbowing my brother. And
so afterwards we approached her and gave her the disc of songs we wanted to
possibly do together, and at the time she was only able to say "hello" and
"thank you."

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: And "yes."

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: And yes.

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Everything was yes.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Do you want to join our band? `Yes, thank you.' So then
somebody was pretending to kind of be her manager and he spoke more English.
And so what it came down to, we were having tryouts down in Long Beach a few
weeks later and we had about like half a dozen girls who were going to
audition for it. And we sort of told them that maybe Chhom Nimol might show
up; and they were like, `No, Chhom Nimol, no. No, she too famous.' And we're
like, `Well, I don't know. She might. She told us she might show up.' And
luckily she showed up. And so that was the beginning of the band.

GROSS: What's she famous for?

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Well, she's like, you know, third generation of a musical
family. And she's performed for the king and queen of Cambodia a couple
times. Her family is kind of like the Jacksons of Cambodia.

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, I mean, one example of her fame is, when we traveled
to Cambodia as a band and it was like--she was so busy singing on TVs and
everything that we didn't know where she was. You just turned on the TV and
change the channels and she'd be on one of the channels performing. So it was
sort of like, you know, everywhere she went in Cambodia she's recognized and
known. And that kind of transfers over to the States, too, now because at a
lot of our shows we'll get a good mix of people; but there's usually like--in
different cities, there will be a lot of Cambodians that come and support and
they just adore Nimol. They want to take pictures with her and surround her
and spend as much time with her as possible.

GROSS: So what happened to her family during the Pol Pot-Khmer Rouge era?

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: They luckily moved over to Thailand, and so Nimol spent a
lot of time growing up in Thailand. And actually her older sister didn't make
it back to Thailand with them and they thought that she was lost, you know, to
the whole madness. But one day when they were living in Thailand, they were
listening to the radio and they heard her sister performing on the radio, and
she was singing like these, you know, like political kind of songs. So they
were like just crying with joy because they realized that she made it.

GROSS: My guests are Zac and Ethan Holtzman, the founders of the band Dengue
Fever. Their new CD is called "Venus on Earth." More after a break. This is


GROSS: My guests are Zac and Ethan Holtzman. Their band Dengue Fever is
inspired by Cambodian pop of the '60s and '70s. Their lead singer, Chhom
Nimol, is from Cambodia and now lives in LA.

What can Chhom Nimol do technically that you think most American singers
can't? And what's happening musically in Cambodian music that you think is
different from American music?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: I mean, I think there's something to say that's about
Nimol's voice, it's, you know, having the lyrics sung in Khmai, it's just,
that on it's own is just very unique and special. She's just--it's real
snake-y and she's able to hit high notes that we aren't really accustomed to.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, they kind--she kind of--they do a lot of like
snaking around and like dipping into other--hinting into other notes, kind of
bending, and then they'll crack into a falsetto.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Which in Cambodian, they call it a ghost voice. And so
it's kind of, you know, it's similar to the stuff you hear from India, also.

GROSS: Well, you've been writing some songs for her in English, in addition
to writing songs that she translates into the Cambodian language. I thought
I'd play a duet between her and you, Zac.


GROSS: And this is called "Tiger Phone Card." Maybe you could talk a little
bit about writing the song and then we'll hear it.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Well, I sort of, yeah, when I write songs I tend to put
things that are happening in my life into them and also I'll pull from any
good situations that are happening to people I know.

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: "Tiger Phone Card" is about, the way I interpret it, it's
about the director of our documentary, John Pirozzi. He was living in New
York and he was dating a Cambodian girl who lived in Phnom Penh. And it was
sort of like the difficulties of a long distance relationship.

GROSS: Well, that's definitely what the song is about. So this is Dengue
Fever from their new album, which is called "Venus on Earth." The song is
"Tiger Phone Card," and we'll hear Chhom Nimol on vocals duetting with Zac
Holtzman, who is also featured on guitar and vocals. And Zac and my other
guest, Ethan Holtzman, are brothers. Ethan is featured on keyboards.

(Soundbite from "Tiger Phone Card")

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: (Singing) You live in Phnom Penh

Ms. NIMOL: (Singing) You live in New York City

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN and Ms. NIMOL: (Singing) But I think about you so, so, so
So much I forget to eat

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: (Singing) It's 4 AM, I check my e-mail

Ms. NIMOL: (Singing) I'm too keyed up to fall asleep

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN and Ms. NIMOL: (Singing) So I write you back
And count the days until we'll be together

Ms. NIMOL: (Singing) The first thing that I've done

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN and Ms. NIMOL: (Singing) Is throw my arms around you

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: (Singing) And never let go

Ms. NIMOL: (Singing) And never let go

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: (Singing) I call you from my hotel room
I'm sitting on the hallway floor
I know that we are so, so, so,
So tired, my phone...(unintelligible)...expired

Ms. NIMOL: (Singing) You only call me when you're drunk
I can tell it by your voice
It's the only time that you open up to me
And tell me that you love me

The first thing that I've done...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's the band Dengue Fever, and my guests are the founders of the
band, Ethan Holtzman, who's featured on keyboards, and Zac Holtzman who plays
guitar and also sings. That was him duetting with the Cambodian singer Chhom

Zac, you're so great with Chhom Nimol because she has this like ethereal voice
and there's something so like down to earth about your singing. You know,
it's such a nice contrast.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. I try to not, you know, I let her do all the fancy
frills and embellishments, and I'll just kind of be the bass.

GROSS: It was not long after you started performing together that she was
arrested and detained for 22 days, I think it was because her green card had
expired. And this was a few year ago, like 2002, I think, during one of the
orange alerts. What happened?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Oh, we had played a show in San Diego, California, with
Jonathan Richmond that night. We were all excited because it was a lot of
fun. And Nimol and I were driving back on the 5, and there was just so--we
were the only car on the road. It was probably, you know, quarter to 2 in the
morning. And there's a little checkpoint because we're close to the Mexican
border; and it was, like you said, a code orange alert. So we pull up and a
police officer shines a flashlight in the car, and he like makes me roll down
the window and says, you know, `I need some ID.' And so I pulled out my ID.
And then he looked at Nimol and he's all, `Do you have some ID?' And she was
like, `Oh, yeah.' And all she had was her passport and it was, yeah, she had a
tourist visa that had expired.

So we explained to the officer, you know, that we were in the process of
improving the situation, trying to make it work. But he just took her away
and, yeah, she had to stay 22 nights in a jail until we had--we did a bunch of
fundraisers, so we were able to cover legal fees to get her out so she could
stay and perform with us.

GROSS: Was she shaken by the detainment?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: You know, she was sad. But I think, you know, I think the
people that she was with, they were--mainly they--she said she met a wide
variety of people. There were some Russian ladies and a lot of Latinas; and
she said she would sing to them and they liked her for that. But she said
that she was--just mainly the food, she didn't like the food.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: She could never eat burritos again.

GROSS: Zac and Ethan Holtzman founded the band Dengue Fever. Their new CD is
called "Venus on Earth." They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Zac and Ethan Holtzman,
founders of the band Dengue Fever. The band is inspired by Cambodian pop
music of the '60s and '70s. Ethan fell in love with the music while traveling
through Cambodia a few years ago. Dengue Fever's lead singer, Chhom Nimol, is
a Cambodian woman who's famous there and has lived in LA for about eight
years. Dengue Fever's new CD is called "Venus on Earth." Let's hear a track
from it called "Mr. Orange."

(Soundbite of "Mr. Orange")

Ms. NIMOL: (Singing in foreign language)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's the band Dengue Fever, with the Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol.
Let's get back to our interview with the founders of the band, brothers Zac
and Ethan Holtzman.

Well, you went to Cambodia in 2005 to tour with your band Dengue Fever and
with Chhom Nimol on vocals. It was kind of a historic tour. What made it

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: I think it was historic because, to my knowledge, we were
the first band, the first Western band, you know, performing Cambodian rock
'n' roll in Cambodia. And from what we learned, there weren't a lot of other
bands there doing anything like what we were doing. So we were hoping to
inspire some of the kids there, and we performed with a lot of the children
that were amazing at singing and dancing.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: And everyone knew that Nimol had, you know, moved to Los
Angeles, and they were wondering what she was going to come back sounding
like. And they sort of assumed that she was going to come back all like
Westernized. But when she brought us all back there with her and we were,
whatever, Cambodianized, they were all pretty impressed and proud of Nimol
staying true to her roots. And she got a lot of phone calls from people from
like all different generations of people who were so proud of her for keeping
the music going.

GROSS: The kind of Cambodian pop that inspired you basically died during the
Pol Pot era when so many people were killed or starved to death, and so many
of the artists were killed or starved to death. How much of a memory is there
now of that music? And are there any people who played it in the '60s and
survived and are playing it again?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: You know, yeah, the music--Cambodia almost lost the entire
body of work and a lot of their culture. It was on the verge of becoming
extinct and vanishing; but a lot of people, they had collections of LPs and
some cassette tapes and they compiled it and they started to build this
library of music that was from the period of, you know, the '60s and into the
'70s. I think it was around '75 when everything stopped because of the Khmer
Rouge. And the Cambodian people, they still listen to that, the music that
inspired us: Sinn Sisamouth and Rosa Sereysothea, Pen Ron. They listen to it
the same way that, in American, we listen to classic rock. It's on the radio
there. The kids know it as well as the grandparents.

GROSS: Would you tell us one of your favorite stories from that tour of

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: When I first got there, I got there before the rest of the
band and was trying to line up some shows for us to play. And I went out to
dinner with about a dozen of the people who worked for the main television
station in Cambodia, which is called CTN, Cambodian Television Network. And
they were kind of like trying to, you know, see what kind of person I was and
see if they wanted to have us on their show or not. And we went out to
dinner, and they were like, `Why don't you go up and sing with the band in
Khmai?' Because there's a few songs that I sing in Khmai. And so I'm like,
`OK.' And I like got up and sang a song with this band I'd never played with
before. And then that went all right.

And then I sat down, and they poured this huge goblet of booze, of Johnnie
Walker. And this guy balanced these chopsticks off the edge of the table.
And he was like saying if he could break the chopsticks with two fingers in
like, you know, a quick sort of karate chop style without the chopsticks
flying off the table, I had to drink that goblet. And I'm like, `No, I don't
want to bet you because you wouldn't make this bet if you couldn't do it.' And
eventually he got frustrated and just went ahead and busted the chopsticks.

And then he put the other shortened version off the table and he's like, `Now
I break and then you drink.' And then I basically realized that it was part of
my initiation. They wanted me to drink--there was no way I was getting out of
it, you know. And so he--I'm all, `OK, I bet you.' And so he snapped the
chopsticks for a second time and then I got up and drank that whole goblet.
And then they all started clapping their hands and singing the song that I had
just sung with the other band. So that was one of my most memorable moments
of the trip.

GROSS: Ethan, do you have a favorite story from the tour?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. I think, you know, we played this show at the Basak
stage, and it's like a shanty town. And it was, I mean, I don't think we'll
ever play another show like it. It was so bizarre. And they actually tore
the stage down, unfortunately. But it's like this stage that was built of
crazy car headlights, and it kind of looked like a carnival ride. And then
the villagers just, you know, probably over a thousand villagers just came in;
and it was just threatening rain, and it was really, you know, it was like
this dark sky. And the sound system was insane. The speakers were, you know,
just a collection of whatever they could get; and there guys soldering wires
on the side of the stage and people hooking up lights above. They would hold
a ladder in their hands to extend it. So there's a man holding a ladder and
another guy would climb up it and get to the top and, you know, just wire up
the lights. So I mean, that show was--it was really touching because we got
to really perform, you know, just to the general public of Cambodia. I mean,
I don't think, you know--that was special, special time for us.

And we performed with the kids of the Cambodian Living Arts, so they came out
and did a song with us and...

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Maybe you should say, the Cambodian Living Arts is a group
that's trying to preserve traditional Cambodian music and teaching it to the

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. So we performed with the kids together, and it was
just--the audience was just, they were just tripped out by the whole
experience. They were like, `What are these people doing looking at us?' But
then you could tell that they were really touched by it.

GROSS: My guests are Zac and Ethan Holtzman, the founders of the band Dengue
Fever. Their new CD is called Venus on Earth. More after a break. This is


GROSS: My guests are Zac and Ethan Holtzman. Their band, Dengue Fever, is
inspired by Cambodian pop of the '60s and '70s. Their lead singer, Chhom
Nimol, is from Cambodia and now lives in LA.

On your new album you play originals, but on your first album you did a lot of
covers of the Cambodian pop songs that first inspired you to listen to and
then play Cambodian pop. So I thought we'd hear another one of those covers.
And this is called "I'm 16." Before we hear your version, just tell us a
little bit about the original recording, who sang it and what you loved about

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: The original "I'm 16," "Dop-Pramp Muy," it's Ros
Sereysothea singing, and it's actually--it's a song that comes after another
song. The first song is called "Wait 10 Months," so it's like a romantic
thing. It's like the girl telling the boy, `Wait 10 months and I'll be
ready.' And this song, "I'm 16," she's 16 so now she's like, `I'm old enough
now.' So it's kind of interesting the way that they have songs that kind of go
in sequence.

And that song, "I'm 16," I actually--it was one of the original songs that I
heard on my first trip there. While my friend was in the front of the
truck--I was driving from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh--and I kept sticking my head
through the back of the track saying, `Hey, how you feeling?' Because he was
coming on with dengue fever. And the tape that was looping was playing some
of these songs that we covered, like "New Year's Eve" and "I'm 16."

GROSS: So is that why you called the band Dengue Fever?

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Yeah. Just, yeah, it just kind of fit.

GROSS: OK. So this is the band Dengue Fever playing the Cambodian pop song
"I'm 16," and Chhom Nimol is featured on vocals.

(Soundbite of "I'm 16")

Ms. NIMOL: (Singing in foreign language)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's music from Dengue Fever's first album, which was called "Dengue
Fever." My guests are the two founders of the band, Ethan Holtzman and Zac
Holtzman. Ethan plays keyboards. Zac is featured on guitar and also does a
lot of vocals. And the main singer in the group, Chhom Nimol, is from
Cambodia but now lives in the Los Angeles area.

Since your band is called Dengue Fever, I should ask you what the symptoms

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Oh, the symptoms of dengue fever is a fever and then like
a bone crushing pain. A lot of people get over it within a week. If you get
it twice, I think, it can be more dangerous. Basically it's--you get it from
a daytime mosquito bite.

GROSS: And do you worry that when you travel throughout Cambodia you might
come down with the name of your band?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: I was worried, yeah, when we were there.

GROSS: Wouldn't that be horrible?

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: That would be bad.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Yeah, we were just dousing ourselves with DEET and
mosquito repellant.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: And keeping our sleeves on and just being careful because,
you know, it's fairly common over there. A lot of people do get it.

GROSS: Well, here's to the survival of the band and the hopes that you never
come down with dengue fever yourself.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: I hope nobody comes down with that, but...

GROSS: Well, Ethan Holtzman, Zac Holtzman, thanks a lot for talking with us.
Really appreciate it.

Mr. E. HOLTZMAN: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. Z. HOLTZMAN: Thanks.

GROSS: Zac and Ethan Holtzman founded the band Dengue Fever. Their new CD is
called "Venus on Earth."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: TV critic David Bianculli on 80th Annual Academy Awards
and return of "Saturday Night Live"

Over the weekend, the broadcast networks presented two live TV events that
were able to proceed as they did only because of the ending of the writers'
strike. Our TV critic David Bianculli watched the 80th Annual Academy Awards
telecast on ABC and the return of "Saturday Night Live" on NBC and has this

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: One of the major reasons the writers' strike ended when
it did was to give the Oscars enough time to mount a semblance of a real show;
otherwise there would have been no movie stars on hand to accept trophies and
no Jon Stewart to acknowledge and make fun of them as they waited for winners
to be announced. But even with only about 10 days of prep time, Stewart and
company did just fine.

Jon Stewart was on "Larry King Live" earlier this week, and King asked Stewart
if he'd seen any of the nominated films this year. Stewart looked at him in
utter disbelief and explained he was hosting the awards so he'd made a point
to see them all. For Larry King, who's famous for not doing research, that
may have been hard to understand. But a familiarity with the nominated films
allowed Stewart to be both enthusiastic and funny.

(Soundbite of 80th Annual Academy Awards)

Mr. JON STEWART: There were, if I may, amazing performances this year, and I
think everybody can agree on that. There really were. Just terrific. Daniel
Day-Lewis, remarkable. Cate Blanchett, twice. My friend Javier Bardem,
Javier Bardem. Anton Chigurh, remarkable. Your work in "No Country for Old
Men" combining brilliantly Hannibal Lecter's murderousness with Dorothy
Hamill's wedge cut. It was...

(Soundbite of applause, laughter)

Mr. STEWART: Julie Christie was absolutely amazing in "Away from Her."

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. STEWART: Brilliant movie. It was a moving story of a woman who forgets
her own husband. Hillary Clinton called it the feel good movie of the year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: I liked the way Stewart handled himself and loved it when he
brought one winner back on stage, one of the composers of the year's Best
Original Song from the movie "Once," because she'd been denied a chance to
give an acceptance speech. He actually stopped the show--the Oscars, mind
you--to give the shy, grateful woman a do-over. That was wonderful.

So was one innovation probably intended originally to fill time and add
glamour in case the strike had continued. It worked so well last night it
ought to be part of the ceremony from now on. Before winners were announced
in the various acting categories, film montages showed some previous
recipients having their names called. So before Daniel Day-Lewis won for
"There Will Be Blood," viewers were reminded--and so was the actor--that the
winner would be joining such previous Oscar greats as Marlon Brandon, Humphrey
Bogart, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Daniel Day-Lewis.

Over at "Saturday Night Live," there was a similar scramble to get the show
mounted on time. It was the program's first nonrepeat installment in 16
weeks; that's a third of a year. And as recently as midweek, executive
producer Lorne Michaels hadn't decided whether a current cast member or a
newcomer would get the plum role of Barack Obama. In the end, "SNL" went with
cast member Fred Armisen. It's a move that already has generated protest in
some quarters because the role wasn't given to a black actor. But "Saturday
Night Live" has proven defensibly color blind for decades, at least as far
back as when Billy Crystal use to impersonate Muhammad Ali and Sammy Davis Jr.
And Armisen himself has been so perfect at imitating Prince, there's little
doubt he'll grow into the meaty political role that's just been handed him.

In his first weekend, though, Armisen as Obama wasn't funny. He wasn't given
much of a chance to be. His Obama never joked, never even smiled. Instead,
in the opening skit for the show's return, he was the quiet calm when all
about him were flustered. It was a restaging of the CNN Univision Democratic
debate from Thursday night; and only two nights later, "Saturday Night Live"
was mocking it on the air. The target of the skit wasn't Obama but everyone
around him. Hillary, played as always by Amy Poehler, was lampooned for her
refusal to admit any sort of defeat. And the TV journalists of the debate,
played by Kristin Wiig, Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis, were ridiculed for
their fawning treatment of Obama.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) And our first question is for Senator
Obama from Jorge Ramos.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As Jorge Ramos) Senator Obama, are you comfortable?
Is there anything we can get for you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRED ARMISEN: (As Barack Obama) No, thank you. I'm fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Actor #1: (In character) John King, a follow-up.

Actor #3: (As John King) Senator Obama, a minute ago Jorge Ramos asked if
there was anything we could get you, and you said, quote, "No, thank you. I'm
fine." My question is, are you sure? Because it's, you know, it's really no

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARMISEN: (As Obama) I am quite sure. Thank you, though.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Actor #1: (In character) And our next question is for Senator Clinton, again
from John King.

Actor #3: (As King) Senator Clinton, less than two months ago you were the
heavy favorite to be the Democratic nominee. Since that time you've lost 31
of 38 primaries and caucuses to Senator Obama, including the last 11 straight.
Now, do you still believe you can win this nomination?

Ms. AMY POEHLER: (As Hillary Clinton) My goodness, John, this process is far
from over, and I think it is a little premature to start counting us out.

Actor #3: (As King) A few nights ago you lost badly to Senator Obama in
Wisconsin. In theory, isn't that a--isn't that a state you should have won?

Ms. POEHLER: (As Clinton) Not at all, John.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POEHLER: (As Clinton) Frankly, we never expected to win Wisconsin.

Actor #3: (As King) He also beat you in Virginia.

Ms. POEHLER: (As Clinton) It was always our intention to lose Virginia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: That opening skit deserves more points for being current than
for being amusing, but it served notice that "Saturday Night Live" was back.
And in the kind of the political year we're having, that's one very welcome

It'll still be another few weeks at least before TV gives us new episodes of
scripted shows sidelined by the writers' strike; but over the weekend, if you
watched "Saturday Night Live" and the Oscars, you got the sense that if things
were quite back to normal in the world of entertainment, they were getting
there. Just seeing Jack Nicholson holding court at the Oscars made everything
seem OK, and my bet is that Jack Nicholson last night felt exactly the same

GROSS: David Bianculli writes for the online magazine

Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews John Edgar Wideman's new
novel. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Book critical Maureen Corrigan on "Fanon: A Novel" by
John Edgar Wideman

John Edgar Wideman is the prolific author of over 10 novels, two of them
awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. He's also written nonfiction
books, including the acclaimed memoir "Brothers and Keepers" about his
relationship with his brother Robby, who's serving a life sentence for murder.
In his new novel "Fanon," Wideman attempts to chronicle the life of activist
and writer Frantz Fanon, who, while also working at snippets of his own
biography--I'm sorry, that he's writing this biography of Frantz Fanon while
also working in snippets of his own biography as well as a meditation on
post-9/11 America. Book critic Maureen Corrigan tells us how this literary
mishmash turned out.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: I know it's easy for me to say, but if anybody ever
needed to internalize the Nike slogan of "just do it," it's John Edgar
Wideman. Wideman's latest novel, his first in 10 years, is called "Fanon."
It's a novel about the life of the writer, psychiatrist and revolutionary
thinker Frantz Fanon, which is a terrific idea since Fanon, through his
political activism and his books "Black Skin, White Masks" and "The Wretched
of the Earth," helped fuel colonial liberation movements throughout the
so-called third world.

Except Wideman's novel turns out not to be a novel about Fanon but rather a
novel about Wideman's attempt to write a novel about Fanon. This is the point
at which I'm obligated to say the word that sends many a faint-hearted reader
scuttling under the covers of nondemanding chick lit or mystery novels:

Indeed, Wideman's "Fanon" is a postmodernist novel: a self-aware hodgepodge
of biography, fiction, memoir, history and, in this case, self-indulgence. In
the hands of the right writer, the by-now-old-hat postmodernist technique
opens out possibilities for fiction and can be enormously entertaining.
Wideman's "Fanon," however, is like a parody of a postmodernist novel.
Passages like these, which compose the bulk of "Fanon," give Beauvoir-ese foes
of postmodernism plenty of ammunition.

"Are stories more than words?" asks Wideman's fictional alter ego, a writer
named Thomas who's suffering from writer's block. He goes on: "Since
stories, no matter whatever else they may or may not be, are composed of
words, let's ratchet back and begin with a more fundamental question. Are
words more than words? If we're able to answer this question, then perhaps we
can go forward--or back, if you will--and examine stories as a particular case
of words governed by the logic or illogic we uncover after we determine
whether or not words are more than words."

A few chapters' worth of this kind of navel-gazing riff makes even the most
sophisticated, sympathetic reader want to shout out, `Enough already. I'll
write the novel for you.' Somebody should.

Fanon is an extraordinary figure. Born on the island of Martinique in 1925,
as a young man he smuggled himself over to France to fight with Allied forces
against Nazi Germany. Afterwards, he studied psychiatry in France and worked
with victims of French torture in Algeria. Fanon actively supported violent
resistance to colonialism, and consequently his writing has relevance to the
topic of terrorism today, a connection Wideman suggests by conjuring up a
scene where his alter ego Thomas, who lives in post-9/11 New York, receives a
package containing a severed head and a quote from Fanon. The head and its
significance remain disconnected from the rest of this fragmented narrative.

Wideman acknowledges the recent biography of Fanon by David Macey that was
published eight years ago. That's no doubt a much better place for readers
interested in Fanon's life and thought to begin.

Perhaps this is the novel Wideman wanted to write about Fanon. Perhaps
Wideman would say that all his self-conscious dithering about words gestures
to Fanon's own writing about language, and especially the way language can
serve as a tool of oppression. But "Fanon: The Novel" mostly strikes me as a
literary failure to commit. The best sections here are where Wideman drops
his pose as the tormented writer and throws himself into the familiar category
of memoir. He describes visiting his aged mother in Pittsburgh and his
brother in jail. At one point, Wideman quotes his brother criticizing his
writing. The cleaned up version of what Wideman's brother says is this:

"I don't know why you keep beating yourself up trying to write intelligent
stuff. Even if you write something deep, you think anybody wants to hear it?
When I think about it, big bro, I give you credit for being an intelligent
guy. But, you know, I got to wonder if writing an intelligent book's an
intelligent idea."

That's a revealing comment Wideman has made in his brother's voice because the
hollow defense of the writer who knows he or she hasn't done his or her best
work and is anxious about readers' reception is that the book is too smart to
be appreciated. "Fanon" isn't too smart. We readers get it. Regrettably,
there just isn't that much here to get.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Fanon" by John Edgar Wideman.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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