A diva's homecoming

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Tran Thu Ha's three new albums and poetry collection traverse the personal and the political, revealing a dynamism rarely found in young artists


Ha Tran posed with a fan and her first book of poetry Thap ky yeu at Phuong Nam Bookstore in Ho Chi Minh City

For 34-year-old singer Tran Thu Ha, releasing four major projects at the same time was the only thing to do.

"I feel like a tree that naturally gives flowers and fruits when it's grown enough," she said. "I love that nature."

Ha will perform in Hanoi September 23-25 as part of the release of her three new albums: "Minimal Beasts", an indie-electronic record, Hat mam, a Vietnamese pop album, and Hat ru, an album of lullabies for the child she is expecting. The former two records will be released after the September concerts while Hat ru will be released in December. All the albums have already been released in the US, where Ha has worked and lived since 2004.

"Minimal Beasts" comprises four songs, many of which deal with the anxiety caused by an increasingly globalized world, and 11 instrumentals, while Hat mam recounts the journey of a person solving internal conflicts to create a new life, according to Ha, who moved to the US after her wedding in 2004.

The release of the lullabies on Hat ru is scheduled for December this year, when the singer expects to have her first child.

Considered one of Vietnam's "four divas," along with Hong Nhung, My Linh and Thanh Lam, and known for her simplicity on the stage, Ha also released her first book of poetry Thap ky yeu (Love decade) at Phuong Nam Bookstore in Ho Chi Minh City on Monday.

The collection recounts the singer's childhood, adolescence and early adulthood with 15 poems written since 1998, when Ha was 21 and her mother died.

"Poems bring me to a pinnacle of feelings, another way of thinking and another spiritual solution besides music," Ha wrote in the collection's preface.

"Music is what I have studied properly and what has become a career, so sometimes I want to do something different," the singer told the Saigon Tiep Thi in a report published on Monday.

Her poems were inspired by her mother Vu Thuy Huyen, former head of the vocal music faculty at the Hanoi Conservatory of Music.

Ha began writing poetry when she was eight. Her mother was her only reader and critic until the day she died.

Ha said her poems were too private and she didn't share them with anyone for almost two decades. But recently her friends encouraged her to give publishing a shot and she began to revise her old work and write new poetry.

Ha said her poems have a lot of "feminity."

"They are not only poems about romantic love, but about the concerns, bitterness and experiences I have gone through during my young life," the mother-to-be told the Saigon Tiep Thi.

One section of the book translates as "In the decade of love, look around and feel sick/People getting old without growing up smart/They love and chase meaningless things/ The earth is getting hot and people get cold."

The poems also talk about war: price wars, wars over the stock market, oil wars"¦ and Ha asks: "who is pulling the strings?"

"I have nurtured the poems like a single mom worried for her little child, worried that life and the prejudices of the literary world might hurt them," Ha said, as quoted by the Tuoi Tre on Monday.

Outside the mainstream

Ha, also known to the public as Ha Tran, began singing professionally in the late 1990s and enjoyed the peak of the career in Vietnam in the early 2000s with hits like Em ve tinh khoi (Purity) and Sac mau (Colors).

Ha possesses an emotional and sophisticated voice and the spirit of a pioneer, but her style of music has been criticized by some as "too Western" for the Vietnamese market.

But though Ha's fan base may be slightly smaller than Vietnam's biggest stars, they are probably more loyal and dedicated.

In the US, the singer has been working with underground music figures like Whodat who want to develop contemporary, independent music.

Ha said there's a difference between stars, who are famous because of the public and the press, and artists, who are famous because of the impact their creativity has on people. Artists are more talented and their pride keeps them from changing their craft just to suit new trends. Ha says an artist should change audiences, not the other way around.

"An artist needs to find their audience and let it grow."

Ha said she is at peace with the risk she's taking by releasing an indie electronic album. She says too many people are busy making money and don't care enough about music for music's sake.

Her music has always been a kind of acquired taste for a more select demographic of listeners, even before she was famous and struggled to get by on the meager earnings her singles' releases made.

But though the response to much of her work form the public in Vietnam has rarely been overwhelming, her album sales have always been stable.

Ha, whose father is People's Artist Tran Hieu and uncle is famous songwriter Tran Tien, said that while her family helped her with her success, growing up in a family of artists was not as convenient as people think.

Ha said fame does not motivate her anymore and she has been forced to work harder to step outside her family's shadows.

"I'm creative with an independent spirit"¦ but it's easy to get lost in the market where anyone who becomes famous mingles in the mainstream and becomes more common," Ha said.

"I want to be a diva in the world of indie artists."

But that will be a hard goal to accomplish in the US, where Asian artists still struggle.

Ha can still make a pretty penny singing love songs and prewar ballads to overseas Vietnamese. Her song Sac mau is still earning her good money as well. But these are only popular with Vietnamese audiences, and Vietnamese are a tiny minority of residents in the US.

"Asian artists in the US have to be a banana, yellow outside and white inside," said Ha. "And that's just so they can have a chance, just a chance. If you're more yellow than white, don't even think about it."

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