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The (real) music of Vietnam

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)!

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Flamenco lives!

A week into our family Barcelona trip, Whitney and I broke off to have Friday evening to ourselves. With the afternoon winding down, we stuffed a hip-pack full of books and took the metro to the Ramblas. We wandered around for a while before finding a suitable café with sidewalk seating. For more than two hours we chatted idly and read our books at the table, enjoying the lazing sun, polishing off a plate of assorted cheeses and bread and a bottle of red table wine. Ah, the life of a Spaniard.

Departing the café shortly after eight p.m., we had yet to choose the night’s next stop, so we meandered down the Ramblas in the direction of a metro station. We remembered a nearby club, Jazz Sí, and found our way there. Throughout the week Jazz Sí features live music performances by ensembles of university-student players. We had come to the club earlier in the week and listened to a competent four-piece jazz band, which started out quite well and sounded even better after a bottle of Estrella or two. The club was intimate, comprising maybe thirty sardine-tight seats downstairs, a small balcony (in reality little more than a walkway), and a stage not much larger than a billiards table.

Tonight’s music offering was flamenco, and the show would start at 8:45. We were just in time, and luckily so; the place was packed. I approached the bar to get a couple glasses of wine, throwing an elbow or two for prime positioning, and we set off to find seats, drinks in hand. The entire downstairs had already filled; Whit and I eventually improvised some seats on the floor of the balcony, our legs dangling freely above the crowd. Mildly besotted already from the afternoon’s vino, I wrapped an arm around a balcony rail and held my wine glass in the other, and I became suddenly aware of the possibility of dropping my glass on an surprised onlooker. I visualized myself being ripped from the balcony by my spindly legs, then dragged outside and assaulted with Spanish fists and salty language. I tightened my grip on my glass just as lights went down.

The emcee came to the stage to introduce the musicians to the audience. While my Spanish is generally sufficient to order entrees and find the nearest fire station, I had trouble understanding much of his introduction; the gist of it was that the musicians were students who came from longstanding flamenco families and who understood the music’s rich tradition. From the moment the trio (a singer, a guitarist, and a percussionist) took the stage, one thing was obvious: these were just kids. They couldn’t have been more than sixty-years old, combined. I braced for what might lie ahead.

Rather than grinding my teeth for the duration of the show, I listened intently, my mouth agape in amazement. These kids could really play! A guitar player myself, I couldn’t believe the sounds this young guitarist was coaxing out of his instrument. He colored the songs with left-handed flourishes up the fretboard and propelled them forward with rapid finger-picking and strumming with his right. The singer yowled with such passion and skill that he seemed to inhabit the words and melodies even as he shared them with a rapt crowd. They played for less than a half-hour, then left the stage to enthusiastic applause.

After the intermission they confidently took the stage again, now accompanied by a female dancer. Draped a bright, flowing, floor-length dress, she moved deftly across the stage for the entire second half, locked in with the rising and falling of the music. It was almost too much to take in one sitting. The music itself was overwhelming; the combination of music and dance brought tears to my eyes. To see these big-city university students performing cherished folk music, and performing it authentically and with humility and faith in the centuries-old tradition, was a moving testament to the flamenco’s enduring power.

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