A 90-year-old folk song is embedded in the heart and mind of every southerner
World War I not only gave birth to modernism, which subsequently enraptured the arts and literature of the west for decades to come, it also marked a new musical dawn in Vietnam.
As the French colonial army plucked conscripts from Indochina, many lonely wives and mothers were left missing their loved ones who were sent to kill and die in an unknown land for unknown reasons. Many took solace in song and rhyme.
Of the lyrics and poetry from the period, it was the song Da co hoai lang (Missing a Husband While the Drum Beats at Midnight), composed by musician Cao Van Lau in the Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu, that marked a new era for southern Vietnamese music in 1920.
Da co's gentle yet haunting melody changed the way songwriters and singers thought about music.
The song's simple harmonies were easy and accessible as they did not take long years of study to learn like other Vietnamese musical traditions of the era.
As artists began to mimic the song - most songwriters simply began writing new lyrics to the same melody - and a new genre emerged.
But though Da co hoai lang was a resounding success, the song has its roots in Lau's tortured past.
According to Lau's son, 80-year-old Cao Van Hoai, his handsome father had experienced great hardships in both life and love.
Lau had his heart broken several times before he married Tran Thi Tan. But his mother forced him to leave her after she did not give birth for three years.
Lau became withdrawn and despondent upon leaving his wife. He sat in a field and played music every night looking off in the direction of his Tan's home. It was in that field, lamenting his lost love, that Lau's sadness transformed itself into a song of melancholy and longing that resonated with the nation.
Nostalgia for the past
When Lau composed Da co in 1919, cai luong (traditional southern opera) was the southland's prime musical tradition.
But after Lau first performed his song in 1920, da co spread like wildfire across the delta then the southern region as a whole. Soon artists across the land were substituting the complexities of cai luong with the simpler traits of Lau's new tune.
Cai luong songs were traditionally extremely long, while Lau's song was shorter, sweeter, and more to the point.
The songs based on Da co hoai lang formed the new genre vong co (Nostalgia for the past), which quickly infiltrated and infused cai luong, breathing so much new life into the art that people today still refer to vong co songs as "cai luong songs" even though vong co is just one of several musical categories used in the opera.
Cai luong researchers, such as late scholar Vuong Hong Sen, have said that vong co helped greatly improve the southern operatic tradition.
According to musicologist Professor Tran Van Khe, Da co hoai lang was neither too simple nor too complicated, like other existing melodies.
The song became popular so quickly, he said, because the melody suited southern musical tastes and was similar to popular lullaby tunes.
He also said it was easy for Vietnamese to relate to the lyrics of the song, which was about the contemporary problem of families torn apart by distant wars.
The utilization of vong co brought more fans to cai luong, mainly because the melodies used in cai luong prior to da co had come from scholarly sources, whereas vong co was written by, and took its inspiration from, everyday people.
Hearts and minds
The melody of Da co hoai lang can now be heard at nearly every corner shop with a radio in the Mekong Delta region via the thousands of vong co songs that have since been written.
"Da co hoai lang is deeply embedded in every southerner's mind," said Nguyen Hong Phuong, deputy chairwoman of the Bac Lieu Province People's Committee.
Phuong described it as "an immortal song that has only gotten stronger throughout the southern community over the last 90 years."
"Everyone here can sing Da co hoai lang," he added. "We are so proud of the song."
Trieu Thanh Xuan, resident of a poor rural village in Bac Lieu, said that although his family had little money, he tried to buy a karaoke machine to play da co and other vong co classics with his wife and children.
Tran Ngoc Son, 44, a Bac Lieu driver, said he plays Da co hoai lang every time he sings karaoke.
"It is very profound and touches your heart deeply," he said.
Larger than life
Songwriter Vu Duc Sao Bien, a modern lyricist greatly influenced by Lau's masterpiece, said the song was "a pearl that Lau left to future generations forever."
Vice president of the province's College of Culture and Arts Tran Khanh said, "We could not live without vong co songs as they permeate each drop of our blood."
"Da co hoai lang symbolizes the way a southerner expresses his or her feelings from the bottom of their hearts," said amateur singer Ho Duc Thach, who moved from the central province of Ha Tinh to Bac Lieu just to study, sing and play vong co in its homeland.
Fans from far and wide still come to pray for Lau at his tomb in Bac Lieu, each one giving thanks to the lonely soul who gave them their favorite music.
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