Lee Kirby sings in Hanoi street. During his visit to Vietnam, he takes all the opportunity to sing for Vietnamese people to listen no matter at big or small stage and park
Lee Kirby looks like your typical Englishman. He's tall and blue-eyed with dark brown hair.
He can't speak Vietnamese, but when he sings, something magical happens. His ability to pronounce the multi-tonal lyrics of Oi Que Toi (My dear homeland) and Em oi, Hanoi pho (My dear Hanoi street) has captivated the Vietnamese public, and the failed minor league football player turned school administrator has become something of a superstar here in Vietnam.
Kirby has attracted quite a following. But he insists he sings for passion and nothing else. He aims to please the audience and make them happy. He's not interested in playing to huge crowds, preferring intimate venues for his performances.
Kirby is not a singer by profession. He works as director of operations at Ashbourne College where his father is principal. As a hobby, he chooses to sing Vietnamese songs by singer-songwriters Tran Tien, Le Minh Son and Trinh Cong Son, known for blending traditional folk music with contemporary tunes.
One might wonder how a privileged Londoner ended up finding out about, Vietnamese songs let alone singing them.
The love affair begins...
Kirby grew up surrounded by music. His mother, a very musical and creative individual, wrote her own musicals and plays and was a "true musical inspiration."
Kirby's love affair with Vietnam began when he met Vietnamese students that came to his college every year. "They were always friendly, chatty, cute and sometimes a bit crazy (in a good way)," said Kirby on his website.
Throughout his childhood, he dreamed of living in another country and learning the language.
This dream was to come true when he came to Vietnam and found out that he could pursue his other dream of playing professional football.
"I was fortunate enough to obtain a contract to play for a team called Buu Dien (Post Office) in HCMC. But unfortunately, from a football perspective things did not work out and the team decided not to extend my contract so I reluctantly returned to the UK in May 2004."
It was during his stay in Vietnam that he discovered the country's music. At first it took a while to grow on him. Then one day, he stumbled across the song Dem thay ta la thac do (At night I become a waterfall). He remembers, "The song captured my emotion and imagination and encouraged me to start learning the lyrics."
Learning the song was a long process but as he sang it over and over, "it slowly started to seep into my blood, and really became a part of me." The delivery of the song became easy after he spent hours translating, fully understanding and learning how to pronounce the words correctly. For Kirby, when he sings, "It is as though I am talking to someone."
An overnight success Kirby's talent has touched many.
After a friend posted on YouTube Kirby's version of Diem Xua, a song by Trinh Cong Son, known for his enchanting love ballads and gripping anti-war songs, 1,000 people from all over the world "friended" him on Facebook.
Since then, he has been invited to sing for Vietnamese groups in England and Vietnam. He sang at the L'Espace (the French cultural center in Hanoi) for the 1,000 year Thang Long-Hanoi celebrations, at Bung Sang, a center for blind children in HCMC and in the park to raise funds for flood victims in central Vietnam.
He's created quite a stir.
Tran Tien, a famous award-winning songwriter, can see why. "He likes Vietnamese people so he sings for them to listen. He does it without any desire for fame or money. He has the pure soul of a child and sings from the heart, and he sings my songs even better than Vietnamese singers. Vietnamese people should enjoy and appreciate his singing."
Guitarist Le Quang, who has performed with Kirby, also appreciates the Londoner's efforts. "I do not know what the future holds for Kirby and Vietnamese music but I am sure that his passion leads the public to appreciate Vietnamese music more."
The language barrier
Kirby's performances are full of emotion which is strange seeing as he is singing in a language he has no real grasp of.
There's no denying the huge differences between Vietnamese and English culture. Kirby spends a lot of time trying to understand the lyrics, singing the song line by line until it comes naturally. He chooses to sing songs that convey love and nostalgia for the motherland, families and childhood.
It's somewhat of a paradox that Kirby sings sad songs when he leads a happy life.
"When I sing a song I must have a picture of my life or someone's life in my mind. When I close my eyes and sing Di theo em theo em bat chim sau (Walking side by side with you, catching birds), I see images from my childhood, of my parents' house. When I sing Khoi chieu (Evening smoke), I think of my grandma and mum who cook for me."
What's in store?
With a full time job in a busy and thriving city such as London, Kirby has little time to practice singing. Despite this, he has started composing songs in English.
He's already composed ten songs about everyday life. He wrote one on the way to work.
As for the Vietnamese side of things, Kirby has no plan to step. He's got another visit to Vietnam planned for early next year. It is his passion, after all.