Contestants at Vietnamese version of The Voice Kids. Photo by Pham The Danh
After contestants at the Vietnamese version of The Voice reality show drew flak last year for choosing to sing English songs, similar choices by children have sparked concern and some soul searching.
The first edition of Giong Hat Viet Nhi (Vietnamese Children Voice) show, based on Holland's The Voice Kids, was dominated by English songs in all genres from ballad to rap.
The show was brought to Vietnam early this year for contestants between 10 and 15 years, and the Blind Auditions (when coaches turn their chairs around to pick a voice for their team) was held in June.
Shortly after, many parents and members of the audience went on online forums, expressing pride over the kids' ability to sing English songs.
This was followed by some going into panic mode when it turned out the young ones could not sing any Vietnamese kids' songs.
The disinterest in Vietnamese songs among children is a bitter truth, but an understandable one, several artists say.
They say the local music industry has neglected children for far too long.
Thanh Bui, one of the four coaches at The Voice Kids of Vietnam and founder of the Soul Academy for vocal training in Ho Chi Minh City, said children and teenagers these days have more access to the world at large, where there is a diversity of music, and "they would make comparisons as a matter of course."
"Take Adele for example. She is acknowledged worldwide, so it's normal for a child to love her songs."
He also said children between 10 and 15 years of age would not accept childish songs like those below 5.
The former Australian Idol contestant who made the last eight in 2008 noted that the contestants were not singing children's songs in English. They were singing general songs about life and love, and they were not finding Vietnamese alternatives that came close to the English songs they liked.
Bui cited as an example the song "Just The Way You Are," in Bruno Mars' debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans (2010).
"The song has a little bit of the adult spirit, but the feelings are natural, the message is simple and the music is catchy, so it's normal for a 10-year-old to like it and sing it."
He said those in the 10-15 age group will also relate to songs with fast beats like "What Makes You Beautiful" by boy band One Direction, which is about a girl wearing no make-up and not caring if she looks good.
Bui said Vietnam needs songs that suit everyone.
"This is happening abroad too, as people do not focus on making songs exclusively for children, but those that everyone can relate to."
Bui said many children told him that Vietnamese songs lack lively beats.
He said children 10-15 years old have started feeling romantic love, but they would be unable to digest some of the adult aspects, like being lovesick and jealous, emotions that are featured in many Vietnamese songs. They find these "overly sentimental," Bui said.
At his academy, he has to design curricula that force children to learn to sing Vietnamese songs, and he has to do the same to his wards in the contest "so they can keep in mind some ideas about their mother tongue and culture."
He said part of his brief is to encourage them to learn to grow up and write better songs.
But he also said that the local music industry needs to change to win the children's interest.
Bui said he did not find it fair that some media reports criticized the children for not sticking to their Vietnamese roots. "They deserve sympathy rather than criticism," he said.
"The truth is we do not have enough songs for children"¦ We are losing an entire generation."
The habit of using pirated songs is one that should change so that artists can earn more from their works, he said.
Bui, 30, who came to live in Vietnam just one year ago, said a musical video could cost between half a million and a million dollars in the United States, around 200 times more than one by a top Vietnamese singer, he said.
Vietnamese children these days are exposed to all the options and they make choices without knowing that artists in a Western country will almost always get back their investment and much more as listeners play by the copyright rules while artists in Vietnam cannot do so.
Bui also pointed to the "dilution" of the local music environment to one where people can become singers and songwriters just because they have the money to release an album or a video. The industry thus has been leveled by picky audiences who have judged it as being below-average quality.
"I've watched online videos from the 1990s. We had only a few singers then but their performances were always very crowded. That excitement is gone."
For their part, organizers of Vietnam's The Voice Kids said they had planned to have songs written exclusively for the contest, but the works were of low quality and could not be used.
Bui said he hopes his academy can produce a new generation for the music industry in five or ten years, and that the new crop of artists will use their knowledge of both Vietnamese and world music to produce works that are recognized worldwide.
A "˜dead end'
Pham Tuyen, known for composing many children's songs between 1960s and 1990s said it is a crisis that his songs are still being used for children these days.
"It's a dead end," he said.
Tuyen has written songs about kindergartens, swallows bringing spring and peace that were inspirational during wartime. His songs about Mid-Autumn lantern parades and other aspects of children's lives are things that only adults can get nostalgic about, because these traditions have not been preserved.
He said he was very happy and proud when the Kim Dong publishing house, which focuses on works for children, offered to print a collection of 100 songs that he had composed.
He was happier still when they wanted to use another 100 of his songs for a bigger collection in 2007.
"But early this year when the publisher asked me for permission to make the second edition of the collection, my happiness was gone (as this meant there were no new works coming out)."
The songwriter said people in his generation produced many children's songs as they needed to travel around to entertain people and soldiers during the war and they had many chances to meet children. The songs came from real emotions and experiences, he said.
But children these days are different from children decades ago, and young songwriters these days only focus on the world of adults because they would earn much less from children's songs, he said.
"So we should not blame the children for turning their backs on Vietnamese music. Instead, we have to admit that we have not met their demands."
Songwriters say new children's songs have been composed over the last several years, but most of them have been produced on order, or for educational purposes.
"If they want to make good songs for children, songwriters should travel into the children's world instead of sitting in the room and sending out orders and warnings.
"Children love fun and lively songs, not another lesson to read out loud," Tuyen said.
Children's songwriter Nguyen Ngoc Thien also blamed television and radio stations for broadcasting children's music at inappropriate times - after midnight or 5 in the morning.
He said songwriters are reluctant to write songs which they think will not be appreciated or widely distributed.
He said many artists admitted at a recent meeting of the Ho Chi Minh City Music Association that the children's music section has been "crippled" compared to the development of adults' section.
The artists said they were willing to devote time and effort for children, but the government needs to spend money and issue policies to support them in creating the connection, the songwriter said.
Tuyen, the doyen of composers of children's songs at 83, said all stakeholders, education and culture authorities as well as artists, need to work together to invite children back to Vietnamese music.
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