a pure national music?

September 16, 2011

I found this article from the Phnom Penh Post to be particularly relevant to some talks that have been going on in my film critical studies seminar, especially in regards to “national” cultural forms and the idea of innovation and progress through transnational identities. Unlike the film world where creativity is largely working within the confines of the festival circuit (or a film risks relegation to the–gasp–avant garde), I’ve always felt that in the music world, hybridized music happens regardless of outlets–it’s just an extension of a cultural situation–and that issues of national vs. transnational seem to be less important than in film studies.

Welp, I was wrong!

Fearing that young musicians are being infiltrated by too much foreign culture, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen released a statement last Thursday urging Cambodian young people to “stop copying foreign styles and instead develop the country’s unique musical identity.”

But this request raises so many issues. Firstly, considering that today’s global music culture affects nearly everyone (think of the kids in Brazilian favelas that idolize Tupac) how can one avoid making music that incorporates in some way other music they’ve heard? His request is an even bolder one considering that officials in the same statement suggested that young musicians draw influence from the “golden era of Cambodian rock,” which in the 1960s was a controversial hybrid genre built on top of psych rock and surf guitar riffs, themselves products of another country’s milieu.

The government’s statements of national heritage and pride become even more contradictory when one considers how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge destroyed the 60s Cambodian rock scene in its systematic elimination of all artists and creatives. At the time, the music was blasphemous and too American, but today, it is the music that the country wants to build its national sound on top of?

I am having an even harder time understanding the country’s fear of dependency on foreigners for their music since the only reason that Cambodian rock has seen a revival at all is because of foreign musicians’ interest in collecting and preserving the few recordings that still exist, namely the L.A.-based band Dengue Fever. Through this ethnically diverse group of musicians (that fuse 60s Cambodian rock with African rhythms, jazz and American pop) the once-lost music genre is being introduced to a new generation of both Cambodian and international listeners. In fact, the cover of their latest album (see below) features a photo of the band’s custom instrument–that is part Fender Jazz Master, part two-stringed Cambodian guitar (called a chapai dong veng)–being shown off by the band’s Cambodian-born singer, proving that this hybridity is not only happening, but there is now a physical object that embodies it!


So, is it wrong to allow foreign music to have an influence on a national musical identity? Does it make music less authentically Cambodian if it uses an electric guitar instead of a chapai dong veng? Isn’t part of the country’s contemporary identity the fact that many citizens left for other countries during the Khmer Rouge and are now representing Cambodia with new knowledge of the Western world? Contradictory statements from the Cambodian Prime Minister bring to mind many questions like these and highlight how complex the issues of transnational culture are even in the music world.

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