The Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival, the Museum of Natural History’s annual documentary showcase, often gravitates toward the anthropological. With a focus on cross-cultural music, ranging from Cambodian psych- rock to American paleo-folk, this year’s lineup includes sounds that wouldn’t seem out of place on a WFMU playlist.
Sleepwalking Through the Mekong follows band Dengue Fever through their first Cambodian tour. An ensemble of Los Angeles white guys with a hotshot Cambodian-American frontwoman, Fever plays Khmer-language garage rock from the 1960s and ’70s—the surf-inspired, guitar-fuzzed, echo-effected, gnarly-electric-keyboarded stuff that entranced many a Pitchfork habitué several years back with the release of the “Cambodian Rocks” CD series, and later provided the background vibe for Matt Dillon’s 2002 Phnom Penh– set picture City of Ghosts. Since this wild strain of American-influenced pop flourished prior to the country’s mid-’70s bloodbaths—in which the Khmer Rouge slaughtered a third of the population, particularly targeting intellectuals and artists— its go-go beat today belies a complex nostalgia for Cambodians themselves. While Sleepwalking touches briefly on the legacy of war, it leaves its only in-depth interview on matters political to the last 15 minutes, opting instead for a touristy tour-doc format (cool architecture! weird food! quirky TV appearances! giggling kids!). A deeper engagement with the locals would have been welcome, but the band rocks hard enough to almost make up for it.
Less forgivable are the rambling world-beat superficialities of Nömadak Tx, a slab of multiculti Euro-cheese that follows the global wanderings of two Basque musicians who play the txalaparta, a kind of supersized two-person wooden xylophone. The duo visits various indigenous musicians on three continents, culminating in the inevitable jam with Mongolian throat-singers. The txalaparta brings disparate cultures together, but once convened, there’s not much substance to the conversation.
The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music doesn’t suffer for chit-chat, offering a talking-heads-plus-concert-footage format. Centering on clips from a mid-’90s tribute show to Smith’s seminal 1952 collection of early American musical recordings, it includes covers of century-old songs by the likes of Beck, Phillip Glass, Sonic Youth, and Beth Orton, as well a few only-in-1997 moments (Jarvis Cocker? DJ Spooky? Big-beat remixes?); Greil Marcus frameworks the whole shebang with running historical commentary. The archival footage of Smith himself is a hoot (“Perfection may be perfect,” the gnomish autodidact opines, “but to hell with it.”), but the pic suffers from more than a couple of embarrassing karaokes: viz., John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful mush-mouthing “Ah’m a-goh-win’ fishin’.”
Weirdness works to the benefit of Promised Paradise, a portrait of Agus Nur Amal, a Jakartan political jester who editorializes through comical improvised song. Banned in Indonesia, Paradise takes a number of risks that pay off—including Agus faking an interview with the jailed kingpin behind the 2002 Bali bombing, and his kid’s puppet show about the World Trade Center attack that includes a goofy dancing bin Laden. These aren’t the kind of performances you’ll scrobble on Last.fm, and they make for more provocative ideas than seen elsewhere on Mead’s musical bill.