ROCK, HIP-HOP AND POP MUSIC IN VIETNAM

POP MUSIC IN VIETNAM

The music scene in Vietnam is dominated by pop music and sentimental ballads. There are different kinds of tan co (Vietnamese pop). Among them are nhac ngoai (western songs), nhac tru tihn (sickenly sweet sentimental ballads and pop sung in Vietnamese). Most of the music sold in Vietnam is the form pirated CDs and cassettes from Thailand and China.

Korean pop music—K-pop—is very popular in Vietnam as it is throughout Asia. Vu Anh Tuan, executive director of An Thuan Media and music producer for Vietnam Television, is confident Vietnamese music is on the rise worldwide. "K-Pop is so popular here!" says Tuan, "J-Pop, not so much. We make K-Pop here in Vietnam, along with a lot of other pop and rock music. Live music is huge," he says. Hanoi has hosted a K-Pop festival, featuring internationally recognised acts SNSD and Girls’ Generation. In the early 2000s, hard rock, Joan Jett, Latin music were popular in Vietnam.

Concerts at Hoa Binh in Saigon usually consist of an array of singers who come up one at a time and play one or two song accompanied by the house band or orchestra or a CD or tape. The singers perform everything from punk rock to lounge ballads. The audience includes grandmas, families, youth gangs, students and couples. "Queen Bee" is a popular nightclub in Ho Chi Minh City.

Big-name concerts are still rare in Vietnam and the Communist government maintains a strict control over what is said in public. Sting and Bryan Adams played in Vietnam in the mid-1990s. Other Western rock and pop stars have mostly given Vietnam a miss. In June 2004, the Hanoi Opera House hosted 2nd Annual World peace Music Awards. Among the Western artist that apeared were Black Eyed Peas, Alanis Morisette, Lionnel Ritchie. James Brown and Gloria Gaynor. along with the Taiwanese stat A-Mei. In the 1990s, American country music was popular. You could often hear Willie Nelson singing "Always on My Mind" and heavy metal was catching on with young people.

PBS reported: "Most tourists visiting Vietnam are introduced to only the traditional music of a bygone time featuring stringed instruments in odd shapes and sizes accompanied by high-pitched vocals. But to get a feel for what the Vietnamese themselves really listen to, one needs only to pop into a CD shop or tune in the radio where performers sing ballads of love and loss reminiscent of the style of Tony Bennett or Diana Krall. Vietnam’s new sound has embraced western influences while staying true to its poetic heart.

Censorship, Attacks on Vietnamese Pop Stars and a Ban on Sexy Singers

In 1999, Reuters reported: " Communist-controlled media in Vietnam has launched a series of stinging attacks against the country's newly emerging pop stars, whom it accuses of having excessive wealth and depraved lifestyles. Over the past fortnight, some of the country's biggest circulation newspapers and magazines have carried numerous articles slamming singers for lacking ability and traditional patriotic attitudes. [Source: Reuters, August 27, 1999 <<<]

"Money would be just a small issue if these stars deserved the payments they receive,'' the weekly An Ninh The Gioi (Global Security) said in a three-page article on Friday. "Their money-making performance has killed any creativity, many sing like machines, their voices are not rooted in their soul, they contain the smell of money,'' it added. Private media ownership is banned in Vietnam and in recent years, the country's ruling Communist Party has expressed growing disquiet over the youth and what it sees as the advent of depraved Western lifestyles. <<<

"All performers in Vietnam have to be licensed ahead of their shows and song lyrics have to be cleared by state censors. Critics argue that strict controls have left many composers writing bland, innocuous material. The weekly accused many male singers of being gay. "A recent investigation into a brothel with male prostitutes found a list of male singers who had been regular customers. The worst thing is...(many) singers consider this a fashion,'' it said. "This is a common moral degradation that should be comdemned.'' In another article, Thoi Bao Ngan Hang (Banking Times) on Friday called on the government to tighten rules for the "ill-natured'' singers. "Besides, parents are concerned with current music...which is at warning level,'' it said. "This has not a small impact on the young generation's lifestyle education and ideology.'' <<<

Ben Stocking wrote in the San Jose Mercury News in 2003, "Tran My Trang, an aspiring concert promoter, is careful to consider government sensibilities when she organizes a show. The contract she uses, which is scrutinized by the Culture Ministry, guarantees that the performers won't take off their shirts or swear onstage. "If you have a good relationship with the ministry, you can persuade them," says Trang, 25, who recently won approval for a rock show to honor John Lennon on the anniversary of his death. The few Vietnamese rockers who write their own music and lyrics are careful to make sure that the words are upbeat, not sinister. [Source: Ben Stocking, San Jose Mercury News, February 28, 2003]

In 2003, AFP reported: "Authorities in Vietnam's southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City are preparing a ban on performances by artists displaying their navel and wearing sexy clothes, according to reports. Suggestive dances will also be banned. "We will ask to stop or adjust the shows in which the performers have their navel uncovered or dress scantily against the national aesthetic," the head of the city's Music and Dance Department, Nguyen Thanh Son, was quoted as saying in the Tuoi Tre newspaper. "Not only the dressing but also the performing style of the artists will be our concerns, as many of them have shown the low-culture and the smutty when they perform on the stage," Son added. He said the local authorities would revoke the licenses of show organizers who tolerate unsuitably-dressed artists on their stages. However, the newspaper also made it clear that not all Vietnamese people shared the official point of view. "What is the matter with the navel? Nothing bad with dyed hair, either. The audience loves the singers who dress in an inviting and exciting manner. It is cool... it is not obscene," said 22-year-old clerk, Nguyen Ngoc Dong Nghi. [Source: Agence France Presse, March 4, 2003]

Vietnamese Pop Artists

Popular artist in Vietnam is Thai Chau, a Frank-Sinatra-style singer; Tran Thu Ha, known for sexually suggestive lyrics; Ho Quynh Huong; Nam Cuong; and Trinh Cong Son, Vietnam’s Bob Dylan.

PBS reported: Trinh Cong Son, the singer/songwriter profiled in "Vietnam Passage", has inspired a whole new generation of Vietnamese singers. His star pupil and prodigy, Hong Nhung, is now one of the hottest acts in Vietnam. Nhung, 32, has experienced the rebirth of her country’s music scene first-hand. "Four to five years ago, the youth only wanted to listen to western music," she explains. "Now young people probably listen to half Western, half Vietnamese music. And that is good – people should have more choice." Nhung herself sings in Vietnamese with Western-style rhythms, influenced by the likes of Motown great Aretha Franklin. Jazz themes predominate, and Nhung’s vibrato-free vocals soar. The signature tune from her most recent album Nhung album features a moody duet with a sax player—just one hint of the sophistication some of Vietnam’s top artists have attained. [Source: PBS <>]

"Most Vietnamese singers get their bread and butter from live appearances on television and in concert. For 50,000 dong (about $3.00), fans of all ages pour into concert halls to enjoy four-hours of nonstop music by Vietnam’s most popular male and female vocalists. As popular as these concerts are for the fans, they take their toll on the performers. They are forced to take up grueling tour schedules just to make ends meet, since Vietnam’s lax copyright laws mean that their CDs are often pirated and sold for very low prices- sometimes even before they are released to the general public! <>

CNN reported: "Singer Thao Trang rose to fame as a top-five finalist in the 2007 season of Vietnam Idol, an official franchise of the United Kingdom’s "Pop Idol". Originally from the central city of Quang Tri, Trang was a student at the local conservatory when she auditioned in Ho Chi Minh. Trang sings the theme song to the new movie "De Mai Tinh" (Angel in Me) starring Dustin Nguyen (with a comical cameo by Johnny Tri Nguyen). "That song started everything for me" says Thao Trang. "The producer, who also composed the song, asked me to record a demo. He liked it so much that I ended up singing all the songs in the film. The star, who plays a singer in the film, lip-synchs six of my songs." Thao Trang’s second album was titled "The New Me." Her first, "La" (2009) is available on iTunes.[Source: CNN ><]

"Singer Quach Thanh Danh, a Saigon native, got his big break in 2004 with the song "Toi La Toi" (I Am Me). The 32-year-old has remained a favorite with his deep baritone voice, and has produced numerous albums. He travels to the United States several times each year. "I just came back from America a few days ago," says Danh "This year I performed in San Jose, San Diego, Atlanta, Virginia, Seattle, Houston, and Dallas." Danh’s latest pop album is titled "The Gioi To That To" (The Big World). His previous album "Nhu Da Dau Yeu" (Falling in Love) is available now on iTunes." ><

Rock Music in Vietnam

Ben Stocking wrote in the San Jose Mercury News in 2003, "Vietnam's communist government, whose musical preferences tend toward the wholesome, still exerts close control over what music can be played here. But lately it has eased its grip a bit, allowing a few officially sanctioned rock shows that drew thousands of passionate fans. There is no Top 40 machinery here, no all-powerful recording industry catapulting its artists to stardom. The censors permit only a few carefully chosen MTV clips on Vietnamese television. Vietnam's rockers remain part of a mostly underground movement whose gentle subversiveness is part of its allure. But as fans share their musical obsessions in Internet chat rooms and pass along favorite songs by word of mouth, rock is slowly going mainstream. With more than half its 80 million citizens younger than 25, Vietnam would seem more than ready to plug in its amplifiers and strike a few power chords. [Source: Ben Stocking, San Jose Mercury News, February 28, 2003 ***]

Nguyen Duy wrote in the Viet Nam News in 2008, ""In the 1990s, Da Vang, The Light, Desire and The Wall were among the few big names on the rock scene, but now a variety of young, talented musicians are taking the stage, with Titanium, Unlimited and Holy Red Cross among the most popular bands. Long-standing musicians like The Wall singer Tran Lap, however, are skeptical about these newbies’ commitment to careers in rock music. "The problem of money for rock bands can be solved gradually, but it’s the people that are the deciding factor," he said. "Not everyone is willing to live for music." [Source: Nguyen Duy, Viet nam News, January 13, 2008 ||||]

In addition to exploring new themes, bands have diversified their genres, drawing from everything from ballads to heavy metal, grunge and thrash"Rock is pure. With rock, business plays a minimal factor. People still mainly play rock because they love the music," Dat said. Twenty-five years after first picking up a guitar, Dat still ignites audiences of thousands each time he appears on stage with Da Vang. "Remember The Rolling Stones? They are still performing like the stones are rolling – forever," Dat said. "As long as the stones keep rolling, we will keep on playing music." ||||

The Wall: Vietnam’s Top Rock band in the Early 2000s

The Wall, a Metallica-influenced band, was probably the hottest rock group in Vietnam in the early 2000s. Ben Stocking wrote in the San Jose Mercury News in 2003, "Even if they make it to the pinnacle of Vietnamese rock, musicians have to keep their day jobs. The members of the Wall, a Metallica-influenced band that has appeared on Vietnamese television many times, continue to work as architects, engineers and designers. "I'm sure there will be a time in the future," lead singer Tran Lap says, sounding hopeful, "where playing rock `n' roll can be a real job." "We compose our songs in a different way," Tran Lap, said."Everything is about the beauty of society." Lap doesn't mind if he can't go completely wild on stage. "This is a difference between Eastern and Western people," he says, explaining that the Wall's fans "go crazy in a civilized way." [Source: Ben Stocking, San Jose Mercury News, February 28, 2003 ***]

Nguyen Duy wrote in the Viet Nam News in 2008, The Wall—a group that broke up in 2006— "was one of the first bands to incorporate Vietnamese themes in their lyrics. In their song Chuyen Tinh Cua Thuy Than (The Love Story of the King of the Water), the band references a folk tale about two men competing for the love of King Hung’s daughter. The Red Tides followed suit, with songs like Anh Sang Noi Nui Rung (Light in the Mountain) about teachers in mountainous areas overcoming hardship to bring the light of knowledge to children..[Source: Nguyen Duy, Viet nam News, January 13, 2008 ||||]

"In the year since The Wall broke up, Lap has remained a permanent fixture on the rock scene and an inspiration to younger musicians. "For rock, my passion has never grown cold. I will continue to do everything I can to promote music in Viet Nam," he said. To musicians like Lap, the still-present frustrations of the industry, like pirated CDs, can’t detract from the thrill of performance. What’s more, because the industry is relatively new, the music hasn’t yet been complicated by big-money record deals, media attention and publicity stunts. ||||

Hard Life of Rock Musicians in Vietnam

No longer content to emulate and cover foreign hits, musicians are pioneering a new era of uniquely Vietnamese rock for an eager young fan base.Nguyen Duy wrote in the Viet Nam News in 2008, "On a silent stage that had reverberated with sound only a few minutes before, Trieu Luu Hoang Lan and his rock band, Holy Red Cross, were packing up to head home. They had lost the Rock Your Passion contest, which attracted a 15,000-strong crowd, to one of the other five bands competing, but the adrenaline from their performance kept them buoyed long after the screams of the crowd had faded away from Giang Vo Fair and Exhibition Center. "That’s life! We’ll just keep on trying," Lan said calmly, smiling. Winning the contest would have meant more than a little prize money, the 28-year-old guitarist explained. It would have been a milestone to show how far he and his partners had come in pursuing their passion: writing and performing rock music. [Source: Nguyen Duy, Viet nam News, January 13, 2008 ||||]

"Lan’s parents warned him that choosing a career in music would make for a hard life, but he refused to be dissuaded. After graduating from high school, Lan and his band devoted themselves to making it as rock musicians. He had become fascinated with rock music after seeing The Wall perform at a concert at the University of Architecture in Hanoi. Not long after, he had the chance to fulfill every fan’s dream: spending an afternoon jamming with the band. The Wall paved the way for bands like Holy Red Cross, popularising rock music among Viet Nam’s youth with infectious energy, catchy beats and inspiring lyrics. Now, the nation’s music scene is beginning to come into its own, complete with a name: Rock Viet. Holy Red Cross is one of the most successful of the bands that have arisen in this era, bands that are choosing to write their own music instead of covering foreign hits and drawing from their nation’s history and folklore in their lyrics. ||||

"Despite these advances, rock musicians like Lan have no illusions about the road that lies ahead should they choose to pursue careers in rock music. "Rock is the aim of my life," Lan said. But, like thousands of others, he remembers "The last Saturday", The Wall’s final performance in late 2006. He learned from The Wall’s experience of the Viet Nam rock scene, an exhilarating whirlwind that didn’t pay the bills. Payments for live performances were nominal, and, despite the band’s extensive fan base, CD sales suffered at the hands of copyright infringers. "We have to think about making enough money to care for our families and developing our own careers," band leader Tran Lap wrote on The Wall’s website. Another article on the site, published under the pseudonym Bui, explains why careers in rock are difficult to maintain. "Most rock bands in Viet Nam perform only in cafes, small shows that they organize themselves. How can rock develop if this continues? A rock band needs systematic investment and promotion to become popular," the article states. Lan can relate to these frustrations; he gives guitar lessons every day to support himself. "Without other jobs, we can’t play music," he smiled. No longer content to emulate and cover foreign hits, musicians are pioneering a new era of uniquely Vietnamese rock for an eager young fan base. ||||

In the early 2000s "after bassist Le Quang dropped out of Ho Chi Minh City rock band Da Vang, he explained his concerns about the future of rock to The Thao Van Hoa (Sports and Culture) newspaper. "Sometimes I felt lonely because there were no audiences. It’s hard to play rock here in Viet Nam; the pace of life is slow... Rock’s development is practically at a standstill. Maybe there will never again come a time like the 1990s," he said, referring to a past era in which rock music advanced greatly. ||||

Rock Music Scene in Vietnam

Describing the rock music scene in Vietnam in 2008, Nguyen Duy wrote in the Viet Nam News, "As the pace of life begins to match that of the motorbikes zooming down the streets, rock music is becoming the soundtrack of a new generation of youth. "Try standing here in the middle of thousands of people, all waving their hands high in the air, and belting out the songs you love. You’ll feel like you are all one," said Tran Manh Hung, a second-year student from the University of Construction, at Rock Your Passion’s final performance. For other young people, rock music is a way to escape the tensions that come with a phase of life full of major career- and family-related decisions and changes. "I am here [at a rock show] to act crazy," said 23-year-old Nguyen Hai Vinh. "Jumping and shouting makes me feel better; it’s a good way to relieve stress." [Source: Nguyen Duy, Viet nam News, January 13, 2008 ||||]

"Whether stressed or exuberant, young people are buzzing and need an outlet for their emotions, says Central Highlands musician Nguyen Cuong from the Viet Nam Musician’s Association. "I think the youth have a great energy inside that needs to be consumed," he said. "So it’s not hard to understand why they love rock." Vietnamese youth are also finding rock music increasingly relatable as bands explore new themes in their songs. Cuong says bands are beginning to reflect Viet Nam’s character in their music, an important step on the road to creating a professional music industry. "It’s not very obvious, but audiences can feel something Vietnamese in the lyrics, melodies and harmonies," he said. "Listening to rock, I feel such a strange mix of emotions," said 19-year-old Le Thu Phuong, who spends every Saturday night at one of Hanoi’s ‘rock cafes’, listening to a live performance. " ||||

Ben Stocking wrote in the San Jose Mercury News in 2003, "Nguyen Yen Thi had a rock `n' roll fantasy: She'd play the bass in an all-girl band. Here in Vietnam, where ballads about unrequited love and valiant soldiers dominate the airwaves, her vision seemed as farfetched as a Communist Party-sponsored Ozzy Osbourne concert. But with a little determination and a lot of help from the Internet, the 18-year-old has become part of a small but growing community of young Vietnamese who are bringing rock music to one of its last unconquered frontiers. [Source: Ben Stocking, San Jose Mercury News, February 28, 2003 ***]

"Vietnam's rock community remains small. On Friday nights, they find inspiration at the R&R, an American-style bar owned by Jay Ellis, an expatriate who clings unapologetically to a 1960s lifestyle. He has decorated his club with old album covers that are perennial Berkeley favorites: Hot Tuna, Jimi Hendrix and, of course, the Grateful Dead. At the front of the bar, Ellis, who runs the place with his Vietnamese wife, Huong, has placed portraits of dueling revolutionaries: George Washington and Ho Chi Minh. At the rear of the bar, White Eagle, the Vietnamese house band, plays perfect covers of American rock. And young wannabe rockers, like Thi and her friends, gather to gawk. The band plays everything from Santana to the Allman Brothers. "These are the godfathers of rock in this town," Ellis says of the band, whose leader, Hoang The Vinh, plays a mean electric guitar. Vinh began his career studying classical music at a conservatory in Hanoi. But one day, after being blown away by Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," he traded in his accordion for an electric guitar. ***

"This was in 1982, when being a rocker in Vietnam was a lonely occupation. Vinh once played a concert where his music so enraged the crowd that they hurled a brick and a can of beer at him. They wanted to hear Abba - or something they could waltz to. Even today, syrupy pop songs and traditional folk music get most of the airtime on Vietnamese radio and TV. Love is the dominant theme, and many songs celebrate the bravery of Vietnam's revolutionary soldiers. The video clips that accompany these numbers are filled with conical straw hats, pretty flowers and beautiful women in ao dais, Vietnam's traditional dress. Many of the young Vietnamese who live and breathe rock `n' roll dismiss this music as "stupid pop," as one of them put it. Among this crowd, heavy metal bands like Metallica are big. But the truly hip will tell you that they like "alternative" rock. ***

"In the R&R crowd one recent Friday was Binh, the ponytailed chairman of the recently formed Hanoi Rock Club (www.hanoirockclub.org), whose favorite bands include Nirvana and those Berkeley, Calif., punks Green Day. "Rock is always in my mind and in my heart," he says. Binh attributes the growth of rock at least in part to the growth of Vietnam's economy. As more people have more money to spend, they are able to buy musical instruments for the first time. It's hard to form a garage band, after all, if you can't afford a garage. ***

"Vietnam is still a very poor country, but now that people are becoming a little bit richer, they can afford to hear more kinds of music," Binh says. The computer revolution has also helped fuel the growth of rock `n' roll in Vietnam. Pirated music is ubiquitous here, downloaded online and then burned onto CDs that are sold for $1 apiece. And the Internet has become Vietnam's great rock `n' roll meeting place. Determined to find like-minded fans, Thi became a Webmaster and created an online forum where people can discuss everything from Kurt Cobain's suicide to Eminem's manners. She met all of the members of her band in a chat room on her Web site (www.rockvn.com). The rockers here know that they have to be careful not to take their fun too far, lest they offend the government. They can scream and dance, but any Snoop Dogg verbal outbursts or guitar smashing would be unacceptable. ***

Vietnamese All-Girl Garage Band

Ben Stocking wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, "Nguyen Yen Thi had a rock `n' roll fantasy: She'd play the bass in an all-girl band. Here in Vietnam, where ballads about unrequited love and valiant soldiers dominate the airwaves, her vision seemed as farfetched as a Communist Party-sponsored Ozzy Osbourne concert. But with a little determination and a lot of help from the Internet, the 18-year-old has become part of a small but growing community of young Vietnamese who are bringing rock music to one of its last unconquered frontiers. [Source: Ben Stocking, San Jose Mercury News, February 28, 2003 ***]

"These days, even the most determined Culture Ministry bureaucrat would have a tough time reining in the rock `n' roll passions of Thi and her friends. They gather every Saturday afternoon to jam on the tiny patio of a rock-crazy friend, a cozy spot that, like much of Hanoi, is an odd mix of urban and rural, with scruffy chickens clucking about and industrial waste flowing by in a nearby creek. "We're the first female rock band in Hanoi!" exclaims Nguyen thi Thai Thanh, the lead singer in Thi's group, the Halleys, named after Halley's comet. "Everybody wants to know, `How can these girls play rock `n' roll?' They think we are supposed to concentrate on clothes, shopping and boyfriends." ***

"The Halleys, who first picked up their instruments six months ago, have few homegrown role models. With the wiry frame and manic energy of a female Mick Jagger, Thanh revels in smashing such stereotypes. "We want to play rock!" she growls in fluent but heavily accented English. "We want to prove that girls can do everything boys can do!" Then she launches into a rough but impassioned rendition of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You": "I hate myself for loving you / Can't break free from the things that you do/ I wanna walk but I run back to you/ That's why I hate myself for loving you." ***

Thao With the Get Down Stay Down

Thao Nguyen is the Vietnamese-American singer of the indie-country group Thao With the Get Down Stay Down. On one of their shows in New York, Jon Caramanica wrote in the New York Times, "If you paid attention to only one pair of shoes on stage at the Thao With the Get Down Stay Down concert at the Bowery Ballroom, it would have been wise to choose the one belonging to the singer, Thao Nguyen. They were cowboy boots, dark and worn in, and they were a reminder that no matter what else was happening, this was a country show at heart. That this would be the case is not necessarily obvious from this group’s recent album, "We Brave Bee Stings and All" (Kill Rock Stars), a winning, eccentric collection of pop-friendly indie rock with occasional splashes of the baroque. It is precious, but not unforgivably so, thanks largely to Ms. Nguyen’s clever lyrics, which are mostly about breaking free of claustrophobic relationships. [Source: Jon Caramanica, New York Times, August 14, 2008 /*/]

On the record Ms. Nguyen delivers her songs delicately, suggesting an earthier Regina Spektor, but there was nothing gentle about her surprising performance here. She yelped into her microphone, eyes clenched shut. She beat at her guitar with a small pipelike apparatus for a sharp reverb effect. She shifted her weight from one leg to the other and then back, rhythmically and persistently, as if she were in an aerobics class. Suddenly songs that had seemed merely whimsical were flush with feeling. "Are you unhappy for me?" she asked somewhat nastily on "Geography." "I am unhappy for you/All I can think to do/Get you, get you, get you good." /*/

"Big Kid Table" was fluid and deeply felt, and by the time she arrived at "Feet Asleep," the album’s most evocative song, she didn’t shy away from yelling when the mood struck: And I take it on the chin/ And then I patch you up/ All these years my feet asleep/ Move them around that they might breathe Ms. Nguyen primarily played an archtop guitar, which has f-holes like a violin, and she played it nimbly, especially on "Fear and Convenience." Her band — Adam Thompson on bass guitar and Willis Thompson on drums — often just seemed to be keeping pace. /*/

"Choice of footwear aside, the other giveaway of Ms. Nguyen’s intentions was her choice of opening song: "What About," which began with a briskly marching guitar line and featured vocals that occasionally flirted with yodeling. This song, like a couple of others, was taken from her 2005 solo debut release, "Like the Linen," an album that reveals deep affinities with Neko Case and other subtle tweakers of alt-country orthodoxy. Accordingly, faithfulness is not one of Ms. Nguyen’s strong suits. Early in the show, before "Bag of Hammers," she was framed by a spotlight while the rest of the stage went dark. And there she began to beatbox, giving her boots just a moment’s rest before getting back to stomping them." /*/

Trinh Cong Son: Vietnam’s Bob Dylan

Trinh Cong Son is regarded as the Bob Dylan of Vietnam. Born in the Central Highlands Province of Dac Lac and raised in the city of Hue, he had his first big hit in 1957 with Uot Mi ("Crying Eyes"). In the 1960s he became South Vietnam’s most well-known songwriter and was famous for antiwar songs like Ca Khue Da Vang ("Yellow Skinned People’s Song"), Ta Phai Thay Mat Troi ("We Must See the Sunlight") and Kinh Viet Nam ("Vietnam Prayer").

Trinh Cong Son dubbed the "Bob Dylan of Vietnam'' by American folk singer Joan Baez for his anti-war songs during the height of the Vietnam War. Hwrote over 600 songs and recorded 11 collections between 1959 and 1975. His song Noi Vong Tay Lon ("Joining Hands for Solidarity") was played on Radio Saigon the day the North Vietnamese took the city. Even though he was no friend of the South Vietnamese government he was sent to re-education camp after the war. He was always popular with students and young people. Later in his career he was popular with a wide audience. He died in April 2001 at the age of 62 of diabetes-related causes. His music is still widely performed in Vietnam and in overseas Vietnamese communities.

In his obituary, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times, "Trinh Cong Son "was an anti-war singer and songwriter whose melancholy music stirred Vietnamese on both sides of the war. Residents said thousands of mourners thronged his home, piling bouquets around it. With his focus on human emotions and his refusal to conform to official dogma, Mr. Son suffered pressure from both the government of South Vietnam, where he lived during the war, and the victorious Communists, who sentenced him to four years of farm labor and political education when the war ended. [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, April 12, 2001 <+>]

"But his popularity won out and his music endured; in the last years of his life he was tolerated and even embraced by the government. His songs are widely performed in Vietnam and among Vietnamese overseas. "Crying for Trinh Cong Son," read the headline over a full-page tribute in the daily youth newspaper Thanh Nien. "Truth, innocence and beauty in Son's songs surpassed all hostility," the newspaper said. In his last years, he took up painting as well as songwriting and was a fixture, with his friends and his bottle of Scotch, at a café in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. "Now, really, I have nothing to protest," said Mr. Son in an interview last April on the 25th anniversary of the end of the war. "I continue to write songs, but they concern love, the human condition, nature. My songs have changed. They are more metaphysical now, because I am not young." <+>

"Mr. Son's popularity peaked during the war years in the 1960s and 1970s when his songs propelled the careers of some of the best-known South Vietnamese singers. He became known internationally as the Bob Dylan of Vietnam, singing of the sorrow of war and the longing for peace in a divided country. Almost everybody knew the words to songs such as Ngu Di Con (Lullaby), about the pain of a mother mourning her soldier son: "Rest well my child, my child of the yellow race. Rock gently my child, I have done it twice. This body, which used to be so small, that I carried in my womb, that I held in my arms. Why do you rest at the age of 20 years?" Because of what it called "defeatist" sentiments like these, the South Vietnamese government tried to suppress Mr. Son's music -- which flourished underground and was also listened to clandestinely in the North. <+>

When the war ended in 1975, Mr. Son refused to flee as many other southern Vietnamese did, including most members of his family. Along with tens of thousands of other southern Vietnamese who remained, he was sentenced to a period of "re-education." The eldest of seven children and a teacher by training, Mr. Son never married. His siblings fled to Canada and the United States after the war, and since the death of his mother a few years ago, he was the only one of his family in Vietnam. He died on April 1 and was buried April 4 at a Buddhist temple near Ho Chi Minh City. <+>

Associated Press reported: "His pacifist songs about the futility of war were banned at the time, but bootleg copies made their way throughout South Vietnam and overseas. One of his most famous songs, "Lullaby'' (Ngu Di Con), about the pain of a mother mourning her soldier son, became a hit in Japan in 1972. He was equally unpopular with the new Communist government for his songs about reconciliation and spent 10 years in forced labor "re-education camps'' as a result. But by the late 80s, his popularity returned, and his songs are still performed by some of Vietnam's biggest pop artists, including singer Hong Nhung. Born in the Central Highland province of Daklak in 1939, Son spent many years in the ancient imperial capital of Hue. Trained as a teacher, Son quit his job to begin composing love songs in the late 1950s. . Son, who was admitted to Cho Ray hospital last week, slipped into a coma on Saturday and died Sunday, Thuan said. He is to be buried Wednesday in the province of Binh Duong. [Source: The Associated Press - April 2, 2001.

AFP reported: "He had been taken to the hospital a week earlier after suffering liver and lung complications from his long-running diabetes and collapsing in his home. Son's failing health had already landed him in hospital several times in recent years. A legendary drinker and smoker, he told AFP last year that he had given up his five-pack a day cigarette habit, but not the whisky. A survivor of four years in a reeducation camp on the Lao border in the years after the communists' victory, Son had been left alone by the authorities in recent years. Government surveillance "stopped a long time ago," although "they always seem to know what you are doing," he told AFP. But he is to be denied the accolade of a burial in the city's Martyrs' Cemetery normally accorded to the singers and composers of the regime. Instead he will be interred at the Go Dura graveyard in Binh Duong province north of the city. His death was reported in two of Vietnam's mass-circulation dailies, although not in any of the main official newspapers. "Crying for Trinh Cong Son," said the headline over a tribute penned by his longtime friend, Buu Y, in the youth daily Thanh Nien, which gave over a full page to reports of his death. [Source: Agence France Presse, April 2, 2001]

Bob Dylan Plays His First Gig in Vietnam

In April 2011, US singer Bob Dylan performed in a concert in Ho Chi Minh City. The BBC reported: "Legendary folk singer Bob Dylan, whose songs became anthems of the 1960s anti-Vietnam war movement, has played his first concert in the Communist country. Dylan, 69, jammed on stage playing guitar, harmonica and keyboard and singing hits including A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall and Highway 61 Revisited. During the time of the Vietnam conflict, many of Dylan's protest songs defined the mood of a generation, with young Americans marching for peace followed by similar protests in the UK and other western countries. [Source: BBC, April 10, 2011 /=/]

"Around half of the 8,000 seats at RMIT University were sold, to a mix of Vietnamese and foreigners, Associated Press reported. Correspondents say many in youthful Vietnam have never heard of the man who wrote Blowin' in the Wind and The Times They Are A Changing. About half of Vietnam's 87 million people are under 30, with no memory of the years of war with the US. But Dylan remains important to those who were living in the country at the time. "Bob Dylan's music opened up a path where music was used as a weapon to oppose the war in Vietnam and fight injustice and racism," Tran Long An, 67, vice-president of the Vietnam Composers' Association told AP. Bob Dylan fans buy merchandise in Vietnman Bob Dylan merchandise was on sale outside the venue just like at any other gig. "That was the big thing that he has done for music." /=/

"Another concert-goer said Dylan's music was a source of hope during the war. "We listened to anything that spoke of peace. We called him the peace poet," said Stan Karber, 60, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, who served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 and has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for the past 15 years. Dylan's song list had to be approved in advance by the government, although the concert's promoter Rod Quinton said no restrictions had been imposed. /=/

Hip Hop in Vietnam

In 2005, Trung Hieu wrote in the Viet Nam News, "Hip-hop is a new wave which has overflowed from the West and infiltrated many areas of Vietnamese modern society. The phenomenon is attracting a lot of young people, especially youth who were born in the 1980s and 1990s. Currently, most music shows are accompanied by dancers who perform break-dance. In an effort to soar to fame, many young singers have "renewed" themselves, using the hip-hop style. They include singers such as Hong Ngoc, Doan Trang, Ly Hai, Thanh Thao and Quang Vinh. [Source: Trung Hieu, Viet nam News, July 3, 2005 ////]

"While singing his songs, Ly Hai is supported by a break-dance group named The ABC, and a woman rapper, Thuy An. Songs that have hip-hop features such as Bup Be Biet Yeu (Puppet Knows to Love) or Dem Khong Sao (Night without Stars) sung by Thanh Thao have continually ranked among the top-ten of Ho Chi Minh City’s Lan Song Xanh (Blue Wave) music programme. Following the trend, many young composers now write their songs following the hip-hop style. Some have gained initial successes, such as composers Vo Thien Thanh and Tuan Khanh. ////

"Hip-hop has also made an appearance in amateur performance establishments. Most of the universities now have hip-hop groups, even, the Hanoi Art College has hip-hop as a training programme, in addition to its academic music lessons. Dang Anh Tuan, a student of the Viet Duc senior high school says a "movement" to learn break-dance – a part of hip-hop – is now popular among students. "We learn hip-hop to have a healthy and quick body," Tuan says. His friend, Thai Bao, says Vietnamese youths are quickly adapting to hip-hop. "Hip-hop is like a kind of language, which helps us express our personalities," he says. ////

"Some students’ parents also says they agree with the movement. "There’s no reason to protest hip-hop. I’d rather see my children practice hip-hop dance skills than seeing them lured to use heroin or drugs," says Hoang Thanh who lives in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. To meet the rising demand of young people, many training centers for hip-hop dances have emerged and most cultural clubs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City now have break-dance classes. ////

In Ho Chi Minh City, the Young People’s Cultural Club has eight classes for hip-hop dances, while the Labor Cultural Palace has 10 classes. Cultural centers of other districts also organize break-dance classes. Even the classic dance clubs have also put hip-hop in their training programmes to catch up with the new trend. Each class often has between 10 and 50 students. Keeping pace with the young people’s "movement", the shops of hip-hop fashion are also mushrooming in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. /////

"Hip-hop followers often wear their distinctive clothes, including loose trousers, colorful T-shirts, headbands, necklaces and metal chains with monstrous images. It is this side of the cultural phenomenon that can cause discomfort to many people. Hip-hop spreads out so that we can see hip-hop clothes or breakdance performers everywhere, especially in schools. Many schoolboys perform their skills of hip-hop, such as handstands or head-spins during their breaks in school hours. This is not so good, I think, because a school is not a club and hip-hop clothes are not suitable to cities with hot weather, such as Ho Chi Minh City. Hip-hop also penetrates youth language. Many young Vietnamese now prefer to add into their conversation a few words that they learn from the rappers, such as "oh yeah", "come on", or "check it". Unfortunately, these words are not enough to express all their feelings. ////

"By choosing hip-hop style, many young people try to prove that they are sanh Dieu, or stylish, but in the wrong way. They speak in a devil-may-care manner, and they swear as if they are the real street children.Hip-hop followers in their typical clothes walking around solemn places such as lecture halls or pagodas can cause bad feeling to many others. Hip-hop penetrated into Viet Nam in the early 1990s. Before that, hip-hop came to Japan and China, but in these countries, it is still not considered a part of the culture. ////

Ho Chi Minh City rapper DJ Samurai

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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