Universal recognition

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Singer songwriter Ha Okio (left) has entered the ballots for the 2014 Grammy nominations while Tran Hai Chau (right) has signed a recording contract with Universal Music Group after winning the Vietnamese version of the Ducth TV show "˜The Winner Is.' Photos by Doc Lap

With Vietnam adapting many international singing contests over the past couple years, the audiences have expected their idols to get global recognition as well.

Such expectations were not realized, leaving proposed deals with foreign producers or music channels hanging.

Then Tran Hai Chau inked a contract with the largest American music corporation Universal Music Group. She signed a record deal with Universal Asia after winning the "The Winner Is" contest last August, earning the top cash prize of VND630 million (US$30,000) as well.

And with her colleague Ha Okio just entering the Grammy ballots and her predecessor My Tam becoming the Southeast Asia's nominee for MTV Europe Music Awards, insiders are hoping the tide has turned and that Vietnamese artists can boost their international profile, and, thereby, the nation's as well. 

Chau is going to enter the long list of artists working with Universal, rubbing shoulders with Grammy winners and nominees, legends and new, yet trendy artists, as well as the biggest cash earners in the music world. Universal's $1.9 billion takeover of EMI Music, one of the biggest record companies in the world, was approved by US and European regulators last year.

The 20-year-old from the central city of Da Nang is expected to make her debut an R&B dance album in three months, songwriter Duong Khac Linh, who signed the contract as her mentor, said in a Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper report early this month.

Universal Asia is seeking sponsors for Chau's project to "bring her voice not only to Vietnamese public, but also those in Asia, in the fastest and most impressive way," Linh said.

The label has hooked up with many singing contests in Vietnam including The Voice and The Voice Kids, also adapted from original Holland shows. A Universal contract is part of the deal for the winner.

But Huong Tram, winner of the first season of The Voice Vietnam last year, dropped the contract, with her representative saying the two sides could not reach an agreement. The representative refused to share more, saying publishing the details can hurt Tram as well as Universal.

So Chau's story has the effect of assuring the public that the deal is real, industry insiders say.

Songwriter Park Geun-tae, a representative of Universal Asia, said the company has plans to build a very strong musical team for its investment in the Vietnamese voice.

Without giving names, he said the company is going to sign contracts with some highly acclaimed songwriters in Vietnam and several music studios.

He also said that the investment into Chau won't be everlasting but depends on the success of her first work.

He said success will need more than a good voice, it needs to be different as well, and the singer must master English communication to mingle in and win different markets.

He said the company would shift its concentration from Chau to start a more practical project if the outcome falls short of expectations.

Universal's other Asian investment is in K-Pop, in the five-member boy band Boys Republic, who debuted its single last June after two years of vocal, choreography, language and cultural training with Norwegian and Korean songwriters including Park Geun-tae.

The band has become the ambassador for South Korea's leading budget airline Jeju Air.

Path to fame

Vietnamese singer My Tam last month had her music video "Nhu mot giac mo" (Like a dream) chosen to represent Southeast Asia as a nominee at the annual MTV Europe Music Awards.

She lost to Chinese pop singer, songwriter, and actor Chris Lee who won the "Best Continental Act" to take on nine other competitors from other regions for the Best Worldwide Act.

My Tam was the first Vietnamese singer to take part in the contest after winning last year's Best Asian Singer at the annual Mnet Asian Music Awards.

Meanwhile, Ha Okio has just taken the first steps on the path to global fame.

As one of Vietnam's few singer songwriters and music producers, Ha becomes the first local artist

to step into the Grammy scene, with "Your Heart" becoming eligible for next year's nomination in the Best Pop Solo Performance category.

Ha said his song had been released in the US and was introduced by his friend, American singer songwriter Anand Bhatt.

Ha said he does not take it as a big deal that he needs to go further into the Grammy awards. It could be a boost to his career, but could also be a burden, he added.

"The most important thing to me is that I know what I am capable of, what I need and what I want," said the songwriter, whose song was sung by a contestant to final victory at Vietnam Idol 2012.

"I've seen heroic people devote their lives in silence, like artists who became great with no need for awards. I like that simplicity."

But he also agreed that international awards like Grammy can give Vietnamese artists a chance to "send some notes to the world.

"They can share their culture to and learn from a broader and more diverse audience base."

Ha said his recent recording in the US was a "precious experience" that taught him a lot about an innovative recording and performing industry.

The 32-year-old resident of Ho Chi Minh City, born Luong Ngoc Ha, performed in April last year at Vietnam's biggest live music event Soundfest in front of nearly 40,000 people with local and foreign artists including K-Pop sensation Big Bang, British singer songwriter Taio Cruz, Thai singer and dancer Tata Young, and Kimberley Caldwell, Top 7 finisher at the second season of American Idol (2003).

Many Vietnamese started checking out the Craig David-style "Your Heart" only after news spread about his Grammy chance. 

"I think most of us don't believe that Vietnamese singers, songwriters can write or perform English songs. But listening to Your Heart can change that perception."

Ha Okio rarely puts himself in the media spotlight or makes music videos, saying he wants to be loved and understood merely through his music.

His music touches on social issues more than the popular theme of romance and heartbreak.

"I happened to realize that mushy love ballads can damage the souls, that music can freshen up life but can also bring depression.

"I want to see more of the positive impacts of music," said the songwriter, who is now the ambassador for Earth Hour in Vietnam and is known as one of the country's famous vegan celebrities.

Ha said he feels happy that he and other public figures around the world can offer "live" evidence of a nature-friendly lifestyle.

He said he started the diet several years ago and "it helps keep my mind clear."

The clarity helped him pen the lines for "Your Heart":

"We could have this world/ We could buy fancy things/ We could have the fortunes and fame and diamond rings/ We could have everything that money can buy/ But what is good if there's no love inside?

"What's in your heart would you let me know? If you want more love why don't you say so?"

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