A new, familiar gift to the Motherland

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Viet kieu musician sets traditional Vietnamese songs in eclectic traditions


Vietnamese French composer Nguyen Le plays with Vietnamese American zither player Vo Van Anh at Que nha concert on Tuesday

"Thank you so much. Cam on qua!"

The Vietnamese was not perfect (it should have been cam on nhieu), but it added to the applause because Nguyen Le's music had transcended spatial boundaries while remaining rooted in Vietnam.

Critics praised his Que nha (Motherland) concert, held earlier this week at the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, as a "perfect music party," but he had done more.

He had reintroduced traditional Vietnamese melodies to a Vietnamese audience in a new musical setting, giving them an added verve that never jarred but made them more charming.

After serving the audience a hot aperitif, the passionately beautiful Overture with Vietnamese American zither player Van Anh, the French jazz musician and composer followed his thanks in imperfect Vietnamese with a perfect sentiment that drew fervent clapping of hands: "I am so proud to be Vietnamese!"

Then he proved what he had just said with a series of Vietnamese traditional works that were perfectly blended with Arabian, African and Indian musical influences.

Qua cau gio bay (The wind on the bridge), a love duet from Bac Ninh Province and Ly ngua o (The black horse song), the popular southern folksong, were given added zest by diva My Linh and the new arrangement by Le. The couple in the Ly ngua o seemed to come out and travel around the world on an African horse before they reached their destination.

Daisy flowers and My story, compositions by Van Anh, arranged by Le, were superb demonstrations of compatibility between the traditional zither and the modern guitar.

There is not much to say about Le's superb guitaring skills. Composer Huy Tuan, who organized the concert, said, "Nguyen Le's music is of a different class compared to current levels in Vietnam."

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But I disagreed with Tuan when he said later that the music of the French composer cannot help the music of the motherland now. It seems, he said, that Nguyen Le's music may not be "useful for the development of Vietnamese music now."

I am not sure what that comment meant, but at the concert last Tuesday, we Vietnamese heard our childhood folk songs come out in a strange harmony of saxophone, drum, bass guitar and even unusual sounds from the familiar zither. The songs seemed to get a new lease of life when played in a much stronger and faster style.

Huy Minh, 32, shared his feelings when he first heard these works. "It's like an uncanny feeling when I saw my grandmother taking off her old costume to wear a western-style vest, but when she smiled and began to sing, her old melodies were still there, sweet and familiar. Honestly, I felt weird at watching her in the new outfit, but the songs reached out as they always do.

"Here, today, the music was so perfect, though it is not easy to accept that your familiar slow sweet melodies have become faster, stronger, hotter and even sexier. And I love that his jazz harmony was kept as a background to set off the traditional music, not to kill it".

For Hans Mueller, a German tourist who stays in the center of the city and accidentally found an announcement about the concert, it was his first "official chance" to listen to Vietnamese traditional music.

"And I loved it at first sight. Nguyen Le played splendidly, and at one moment when he played solo, I felt I could see what he was feeling."

Singer Tung Duong, one of the guest performers on Le's stage, lavished praise on the composer's spirit of generosity in an interview with the Tien Phong newspaper.

"Nguyen Le has the greatness not only in his skills but also in the [music playing] spirit. He doesn't use his refined skills to swallow his partner, but he creates a beautiful moment where both can play and reach a pinnacle. This is a rare thing, since an artist usually has a very big ego."

The smile on Le's face as he directed attention with his body to other musicians on the stage, thoroughly enjoying their virtuosity, was evidence that Duong was right.

Le, who will turn 53 next month, visited Vietnam for the first time six years ago, but the country has always been a part of him, maybe through folk songs that his mother sang during his childhood, he told the audience on Tuesday.

However, it was after hearing some Vietnamese folk songs at a friend's house in France in 1994 that he could not even understand that a new chapter was opened in his musical journey and a blending of Vietnamese traditional music and jazz emerged that has earned applause worldwide.

On Tuesday, he took Vietnamese music and the audience to new musical places. Places that they will want to visit again.

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