Making art happen for its own sake

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Le Cat Trong Ly, one of few singer songwriters in Vietnam, performs at Hue Festival 2012. Praised by French art producer Philippe Bouler as the biggest musical talent in Vietnam, the indie artist will sing live at his 3D mapping show over Ho Chi Minh City's Independence Palace this Friday and Saturday. Photo by Alex Cui

Ho Chi Minh City will be taken back in time this Friday and Saturday by a 3D mapping show over the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace, which is etched into history as the site where the Vietnam War ended in April 1975.

The show presents a story of the architecture of the palace, including a brief reference to its French version Norodom, along with live music. It is part of a series of events being organized this year and the next to mark 40 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and France.

But its producer, Philippe Bouler, does not see the event just as a tribute to diplomacy. He sees it as a potential harbinger for a "big art trend" in HCMC, known more as the nation's commercial, rather than cultural hub.

"What we are going to present this Friday and Saturday is a first step for what can be the artistic direction for Saigon, with visual arts, architecture and electro music."

Bouler, who has been part of the Vietnamese art scene since the 1980s, intensively in Hanoi and Hue, said the outcome of the event might decide if he will stay and fight more to pick up artistic vibes in the city, which he said are currently too weak to be noticed. 

The show is the first Asian project by French light and stage decoration company Spectaculaires.

It will put Vietnam's singer songwriter sensation Le Cat Trong Ly in the unprecedented setting of electro music played by a French musician.

Bouler said he had organized one or two "small things" in the southern metro, known as Saigon before the Vietnam War ended, including one classical show in its music conservatory, but the weekend show is the first big thing.

Ho Chi Minh City is a much more modern city, but not many cultural events take place at its landmark sites, he said.

"Hanoi is different. There're more small spaces for a lot of young artists in a lot of things from painting to singing to cinema."

The capital city has small theaters where new artists perform for free for three months or six months, "all the underground movements that Saigon doesn't have.

"People here in Saigon are more 21st century, more connected to the world."

Ho Chi Minh City has next to nothing besides fashion designers as far as the artists community goes, said Bouler, who had directed the Oh La La contemporary music festival featuring foreign and Vietnamese artists set to be held in Hanoi in October, but cancelled owing to the passing away of General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Christian Bouaziz, a French guitarist who founded experimental music band VietVoDaHouse in 2002 to blend Vietnamese traditional music with electro, also said they found a lot of space in Hanoi and the central region instead of in the southern metro where they are based.

"The central region and the northern cultural scenes are more open to the kind of music we do."

Some artists that he knows, like Tran Kim Ngoc, who organized Vietnam's first experimental music in Hanoi recently, are from the capital city while Le Cat Trong Ly, who has performed several times with the band, is from the central city of Da Nang.

"Automatically, fusion projects happen more easily in Hanoi than in Saigon, and this is maybe why we've been playing more in the north."

The band, comprising French and Vietnamese musicians and singers, will perform at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum later this week before a live show this Sunday night in the Central Highlands town of Da Lat, also as part of the France-Vietnam celebration.

VietVoDaHouse refers to Vietnamese martial art "Viet Vo Dao," which is known worldwide, and house music, which is an electronic music genre born in the west in the 80s.

""˜Martial arts' because the music we do and the way we are rendering Vietnamese traditional music, Vietnamese traditional and ethnic sounds, is dynamic," Bouaziz said.

He said traditional music is the field where one can find the best musicians in Vietnam, and they are more impressive than modern pop artists.

"Their technical ability is very high."

But he said the collaboration was not easy for local artists sometimes when they had to work on rhythm structures not found in traditional Vietnamese music.

The musician said the idea behind the band, which has performed in France and Norway, was to make different impressions on Vietnamese and foreign audiences. Foreigners would be interested in Asian sounds that they are not used to; and Vietnamese would see how differently familiar songs could be rendered. 

Bouaziz praised Ly as one of the most interesting artists among the younger generation in Vietnam, besides contemporary music singers Tri Minh and Tung Duong.

"She has a jazz way of making music special, something unbalanced. She makes songs with different parts that don't go back to the beginning, not like a normal song when you have one, two, three, four and you come back to one to finish," he said.

He said Vietnamese music in general is "unfortunately K-popping a lot," but there are some vibrant underground movements very much like the environment in Europe decades ago.

Bouaziz said Vietnamese music has opened up more to the world, its sounds heard better abroad, thanks partly to Bouler who has made the collaborations easier by bringing foreign artists to local stages and vice versa.

Bouler has traveled back and forth between Vietnam and France more than 40 times since he first came in 1984 to organize a puppet show with the Association Francaise d'Action Artistique (French Association for Artistic Action).

The 57-year-old has been a producer, trainer and consultant for the Hue Festival on behalf of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and several French regions including Nord-Pas de Calais, Poitou-Charentes and Rennes, since 1999 to prepare for its first edition in 2000.

He said that for many years, he tried to get French and Vietnamese artists together in all of his events.

He will have Ly perform with foreign artists next year in France.

"She's such a big talent, biggest talent of the country."

He discovered the 26-year-old artist through a friend's suggestion six years ago when he was on the search for something new in Vietnamese art scene, and has been promoting her through most of his artistic programs.

"To work with artists, I definitely have to be in love with them, their personality, because it's so complicated to organize things on the long term. I cannot say I'll buy this and I'll sell this"¦ I don't care for this approach.

"When I think something is very interesting and I like it every much, I can fight a lot to give them a place, to find money for them, to promote them."

Old and the new

"Mr. Festival," as he is sometimes referred to by local media for his 14-year commitment to the biennial Hue Festival, said the collaboration took a lot of hard fighting, as there were differences of opinion on several issues between him and local governments as well as artists.

 

Philippe Bouler, art director and producer. Photo courtesy of VietNamNet

"I think we can preserve the heritage, or architecture and traditional arts by confronting modern arts. We don't need to always separate them and put modern arts in a different place."

In a Tuoi Tre newspaper report, Bouler said one successful combination of heritage and modern arts happened during Hue Festival 2008, when French artist Denis Tricot made King Tu Duc's tomb site lively with one of his trademark wood installations: cylindrical wood beams hung with wires that swirled through the hills and courtyards.

The birch wood strings curved and rippled like waves and pine-tree hills. The lines hid themselves in garden leaves and reappeared at a lake house, and disappeared again into the lotus pond surrounding the tomb of the Nguyen king.

He said there was disagreement at the way Hue Festival has disturbed the antiquity of the former capital where Vietnam's last ruling family was based like their frustration at seeing iconic and historical Trang Tien Bridge being illuminated in multiple colors.

It is a puzzle any country faces at a certain point in their development, and the answer should be to combine the old and the new, he said.

He said Vietnam, and Hue in particular, possesses a big number of heritages, and they should not only be maintained, but made more alive and vibrant by artists.

He was also unhappy with Hue Festival's organization as it does not have an artistic formula that is friendly to the public.

"Two things are important in arts, the artists and the audience, nothing else. My job is to make artists and public meet, and all the politicians, all the foundations, they're just here to help that meeting."

He said the Hue government needs to cater better to the public and set the standards for shows, as there are currently high quality shows and some that are not good at all.

"I prefer to have fewer and much better ones, and better information for the public. Usually they discover the program the day before the opening of the festival, with like 254 shows, and having to wonder where it is and at what time, it's very complicated."

Bouler said he had quit the festival for the moment, and will not be there for next year's edition, explaining that he has been working this whole year in Vietnam and would like to go back to France, where he will help organize the performances of Vietnamese and French musicians next year.

Having organized festivals in many countries, Bouler said it is difficult to do art in Vietnam as the rules and the authorities are not open to experiments.

"It takes a long time to convince the authorities about what you're going to do because you work in concepts that sometimes they don't understand," he said.

"I tried to bring each time new things, so they don't have references. It's difficult to explain. I have to explain, explain and explain again."

But he has not given up on Vietnam, especially with the HCMC show coming up.

Although saying decision about whether to commit to the art atmosphere in the city depends on the reaction of the public and the authorities, he also expressed confidence it will be positive.

"I think what we are trying to do, presenting in Saigon, is something exactly for the public of Saigon."

He said his rule is to adapt himself to any place that he organizes a show in, and that's why he has made fewer tours.

"The main actor in a festival is the city itself. I choose to stay for a long time in a city to understand how it works, how its people work, and I'd make something that talks to the people."

Bouler said the city government was interested in his idea of bringing up the Norodom images. To people who were born in the city before that French icon was bombed in 1962, "it'll be a big surprise to see it again."

The show will be open for free from 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday night, and on Saturday night from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. The Independence Palace is located at 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1.

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