Strange Sounds, Old and New

For a country that has 4000 years of history, Vietnam reasonably has a very rich oral tradition. For millenniums the people have sung to the harmony of nature in this land. In the new world order, traditions are kept and new ones arise, with the fresh breeds sometimes challenging the very established.

Vietnam traditional music is well recognized in the international community. Among the many types that originate from different parts of the country, the quan ho, ca tru and nha nhac Hue have already been considered World Intangible Cultural Heritages. Many others, like “Cai luong”, “cheo” and “don ca tai tu”, are likely to follow suit. While they differ greatly in tone, instrument and even target audience, they all reflect the fruit of the cultivation of the country’s rich culture. The tough time has seen too many declines, even threatened the existence of such valuable assets. However, the revival of Vietnam’s economy, together with renewed attention from the government, and help from the international community have brought traditions to prosper again.

Traditional Ca Tru

Photo: Traditional Vietnamese Ca Tru Singing

As one researches deeper, or examines first hand the old music of Vietnam, he will likely come upon some very unique characteristics. Some of the instruments, like the “dan bau”, are found nowhere else. Of the three recognized heritages, ca tru even requires entertainers to practice distorting their voices heavily. The result is one of spectacle. Once only Kinh Bac people get to hear “quan ho”, and only in the festivities following the new Lunar year. Nha nhac, once performed in palaces, are meant for royalties only. But time and profit have also spoiled the very meaning of such once-exclusive world. The modern world serves needs of the mass.

Much like others, Vietnam has its share of modern pop music as well. Pop is big business in Vietnam, one that certainly accounts for more than 95% of the local musical entertainment input. With assistance from the internet-era media frenzy, the genre’s artists enjoy celebrity fame and deep influence on the households and the nation’s youth. The likes of YAN TV and Xone FM bombard young enthusiastic listeners day and night with the latest hits, while social media site Zing Me features prominent singers on its headlines.

Other modern genres like rock and hip-hop only manage to scavenge little of the spotlight leftover. However, they achieve cult status and have dedicated followers. In Hanoi, the ever-faithful Red Tide, with their tasteful blend of local influence with heavy metal, has been rocking for over ten years. Ho Chi Minh city sees to the rise of young Karik, whose talent is reserved for frightening yet tasteful gangster rap. As conservative Vietnamese listeners tend to weigh heavily on the content of the lyrics, their audiences are severely limited in number, much due to the explicitness of the verses.

Even though the musical scene of Vietnam is getting much investment, it has not been able to reach out to international audiences yet. Unlike their Japanese and Korean colleagues, who now have their own charts in MTV Asia, Vietnamese artists have not yet scored a top-100 hit for over 15 years. Domestic reception of the modern music types has also mostly been negative. In a failure to keep up with its tradition, many critics label modern Vietnamese pop “instant noodle”, for their ability to ease into the mind of listeners and then to come out just as fast. Many artists, like “plastic queen” Phi Thanh Van the Simpleton who seems only capable of memorizing no more than 15 words at a time, have even been called “disasters”.

In the mid of the “disasters” onslaught, however, there is hope. The Divas, names in which Vietnamese music lovers of the 90s passionately use to address four artists, are still taking the stage. My Linh, Hong Nhung, Thanh Lam and Ha Tran all have some very strong and stable fan bases. Occasionally, these artists also serve as critics, lashing out and delivering well-intended punches at newbies for mediocre performances.

   My Linh pop singer   

Photo: Vietnamese famous Pop Singer My Linh

It will be a big mistake if one does not count the influence of western music on Vietnam society. While the local artists certainly have their appeal, most trendy clubs in major cities only play the latest songs from Billboard. Others feature house, techno and trance, genres which no Vietnamese can be found involved with. Western music also has a soft spot in the heart of many in the ever-increasing English-speaking community. From all-time classic Air Supply to fresh-faced David Archuleta, concerts of well known performers often sell out quick.

Yet in the face of a changing time, it is often easy to forget a genre that has been the staple of Vietnam through many decades. The so-called Red music is written about heroes of the wars and their effort to bring peace to the country and later expanded to praise the work of the people in peace-time years that helps rebuild the economy. The songs are mostly patriotic in nature. As the war-torn past is all but a distant memory, the genre is gradually losing its appeal among youngsters, but still a favorite among medal-encrusted veterans and people of age.

The long years make this land plentiful, not just in physical assets, but also in the mind of its creative and joyful people. As Vietnamese continue their mix of the old and new tunes, the world is watching and waiting for another heritage.