When I reviewed Dengue Fever's Venus on Earth (2008), I talked a bit about how they formed. Venus was their third album, fitting into a logical progression from the Cambodian covers of the self-titled first album through 2005's Escape From Dragon House, which had more originals. The newly released documentary, Sleepwalking Through the Mekong is sort of a step backwards from the more fully realized sound of Venus. That makes perfect sense; the documentary chronicles a 2005 band visit to Cambodia and the Dengue Fever's original music here is mostly from Escape. The soundtrack also includes a mix of older Khmer rock songs, some as the original version and some covered by Dengue Fever. The package includes the DVD of the documentary along with some extra material and a CD selection of some of the soundtrack material.
The band's visit was only about 10 days long, but they fit a lot in, including a TV appearance, attending the Bon Om Thook Water Festival, several shows, recording sessions with Cambodian master musicians, and a visit to a traditional music school. Sleepwalking follows a format of showing band performances, archive footage of old Cambodia, interviews with band members, and footage showing the band interacting with Cambodians. For the most part, the interviews are focused on the band's reactions. Additionally, though, there was an interview with the music school teacher and the extras included the band interviewing the master musicians. Listening to the masters play the traditional folk instruments is quite interesting. In general, the sound is jangly and meditatively repetitious with lots of drone notes. It's similar to West African music, like Touré Kunda. Taken as a whole, the documentary is structured to give us a sense of Cambodia and see the band's reaction, sort of in parallel with the music. There's a lot of history here, too, of the times and music before the Khmer Rouge rule, as well as the dark genocide of that rule. There is a clear sense of a culture that is still rebounding from that loss.
Still, the fundamental question raised by Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (and Dengue Fever's existence) is one of artistic merit: does an American band (even with a Cambodian singer) have the right to appropriate another culture's musical tradition to create their own unique songs? The documentary approaches the issue obliquely. The band mentions people's positive reactions to their music and the documentary shows people enjoying the shows, but it's not until late in the movie that the question is even asked. And even then, it's just tossed out and dismissed. This deserves more attention.
On the one hand, mainstream American music has adroitly appropriated the trappings of other cultures for commercial success. The "white" rerecordings of race records of the '50s (e.g. Pat Boone, etc) illustrate this. In a more modern example, it can be argued that Paul Simon's Graceland introduced many people to South African music, but it's also a watered down version. To a more familiar audience, musical appropriation looks like a casual foray into a culture without true understanding.
Still, to take the other side, there are musicians like Ry Cooder, who have immersed themselves in other musical cultures to extend their own. Ultimately, Dengue Fever falls more into this category. Through their music, their press interviews, and this film, they go to great lengths to share a love they have developed for the pioneers of Khmer Rock, like Sinn Sisamouth. This intent is what gives their music more depth. Another point in their favor is that Khmer Rock is itself a cultural appropriation of American surf and psychedelic rock into Cambodian culture. So, a return trip seems fair.
The sense of Cambodian heat and the traffic scenes reminded me a little of my visit to Bangalore India. In that spirit, I'll raise a glass of light lager (say, Angkor beer) to an intriguing country.