I admit I’m something of a music snob. American pop music (most of it, anyway) has long struck me as gimmicky, predictable, and empty of genuine feeling. Whatever version of pop it is — straight-up ballad, hip hop, R&B, emo/rock, or country — it generally leaves me cold and critical. In the past my musical taste prejudices have put strains on relationships with some of the people I’m closest to. It’s not my most endearing quality. So to anyone I may have offended or grated upon in the past, I extend my sincerest apologies. Until I got to Vietnam, I didn’t realize how good pop music is in the States.
Vietnamese pop basically consists of the following: a backing track of canned drums and synthesized accompaniment; a they’ll-have-to-pry-this-karaoke-mic-from-my-hands singer, dripping with bathos, who churns again and again through the chorus’s five-note melody and lyrical refrain (which I cannot understand, but probably means something like, “I’m trying to drill this into your head, though you might prefer an actual dri-i-ill”); a break for an incongruous and off-key ‘80s hair-metal guitar solo; and finally the coda, which typically signals that the end of the song is near, but in Vietnam it means that the chorus will be repeated and repeated until the singer collapses under the weight of his or her own melodrama. There follows a quiet interlude when the fallen singer is dragged away from the microphone, whence a new one shuffles into place and begins the same song from the top.
I wouldn’t be so tough on Vietnam’s pop if its traditional music weren’t so rich and texturally interesting, with unique, native instruments and beguiling vocal techniques. Unfortunately (for anyone stuck in the back of a Vietnamese taxi during a traffic jam), there is an un-bridged chasm between the complexity and creativity of Vietnam’s traditional music and the enervating drone of its pappy pop. But let’s focus on the positive and take a look at some examples of traditional music…
Here’s a sampling of some music you’ll hear on a visit to the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, kicked off by a quicksilvery dàn bâu line:
Next, here’s a musical performance from the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi. The music begins at 0:33. Sorry for the poor quality of the video; I have to practice shaking the camera violently in case I ever get the chance to film Bigfoot.
And a bit more from the water puppet show, with beautiful vocals (and puppets!):
Finally, here’s a bit of video from a traditional dance show we caught in Mai Chau, Vietnam. The bamboo poles — more than merely crushing the bare feet of any misguided tourist who later dared to attempt this dance, cough, cough — provide percussion behind the accordion and mandolin.
Thanks for reading (and watching and listening)!