This is the fourth in a series of essays written by my third year writing students. As usual, the student’s name remains anonymous. However, it can be said she enjoys translating poetry and song lyrics. My apologies for not including the diacritical marks in the Vietnamese language portion of this post, but the student did not include them in her paper.
My students know I am a veteran of the American War. (Obviously, the Vietnamese don’t refer to it as the Việt Nam War.) I don’t make a big deal of it, and neither do they, but the topic came up during one class during which we discussed music – the day they conned me into singing a lullaby. Being the age of their grandparents, she thought I would enjoy something about music her grandparents enjoy.
I did. I hope you do too.
Student Essay One - Ancestor Worship
Student Essay Two - History of the Vietnamese Ao Dai
Student Essay Three - Comparison of a Christian and a Buddhist
Vietnam, my country, is in South East Asia and lies on the Shore of the East Sea with the shape of S letter. When I was asked to talk about Vietnam, I wanted to mention many, many things because I feel very proud of whatever belongs to my country. It has a glorious history, many beautiful tourist destinations, many special customs and an advanced culture with charming national character. Vietnam is a country in which there are more than 54 ethnic minorities and the largest one is the Kinh occupying 80% of Vietnam population. Therefore, Vietnamese culture is a varied and abundant one. If I introduce all of it to you, it would not be specific, so , I would like to open my essay about Vietnam with the main topic of Vietnam’s pre-war music and let you know some reason why the adults in Vietnam like listening to this kind of music.
Before I help you to answer this question, I would like to introduce briefly some main kind of music in Vietnam nowadays. They are: yellow music, blue music, red music, lullaby songs, folk music, royal music and ethnic minority music.
Each kind of music has it own identity. Yellow music is formed before the two wars fighting to French and American enemies as well as during war. Pre-war music songs are about the peace of life, romantic loves and the love for beautiful landscapes with many wonderful images and deep-meaning lyrics. During the two wars, songs that expressed the sadness, the separation, the death, the thirst for happiness and the troubled time are considered to be pre-war music. Red music is the music that was composed in the war to encourage the heroic fighting spirit of Vietnamese soldiers.
Different from these two kinds of music, blue music has been newly formed. It is the music of the youth, with a strong beat, emotion-exposed lyrics and fast melodies such as rock, pop, etc.
The last four kinds of music had existed from a long time ago until now. Lullaby songs are of mothers lulling their children sleep, folk songs are the music identity of three different regions: the South, the North, and the Middle. They were orally transmitted and they are composed by normal people. They sing this kind of music when working hard to ignore exhaustion. There are many topics of folk songs as: praising the beauty of the country, lamenting over one’s plight or about experiences in explaining the farming weather. It is different from the royal music that is from the nobles. Certainly, it is the Kinh who listen to these kinds of music.
Return to pre-war music or yellow music that is enjoyed by mostly Vietnamese who are more than 30 years old. As we all know, Vietnam has been free for 30 years, so these people are those who had lived during at least one war. They listen to pre-war music to return to their memories, to relax, or to sink into the world of deep-meaning lyrics.
They likely sink into their youth when they listen to pre-war songs. These songs are full of romantic images describing the feelings of the youth at their time when a new age or a strange feeling coming. In the song Tuio Ngoc (Pearl Age) of Pham Duy, the composer had told us the thought of a newly-grown up girl:
Xin cho em mot chiec ao dai
Cho em din he trong nang chieu
Mot chieu nhieu nguoi theo
O ngoai duong tren pho
Va long nguoi nu ang phan phỏ
(Give me an Ao Dai, I will walk gracefully in the sunshine of the afternoon when many boys follow me – a girl looks like a silk flying in the streets).
These songs also remind them of the time they went to school, fell in love, and their broken puppy loves. It was these songs which makes the memories more and more beautiful and dreamy. They found out their fleeting emotions or their pure loves when they had been growing up, when they got to know to like someone else. These emotions are partly stated in the songs of Truong Sa or Ngo Thuy Mien. For example, in the song Thu Ve Trong Mat Em (The Autumn In Your Eyes) of Truong Sa, he said about the sadness when love was broken:
Trong mat em mua thu ve day
Nghe nho thuong nang triu vai gay
Mua thu den goi sau tiec nho
Khoc thuong tinh chang nguu Lang
La thu lay dong hon ai
(In yours eyes I see the autumn coming, I felt the heavy grievous mood pressing on you small shoulders, the autumn reminds the sadness and the regret, crying for Nguu Lang gentleman, the leaf moved whose soul).
Or in the song Khi Nguoi Yeu Toi Khoc (When my darling cries) of Ngo Thuy Mien, we can see the confusion of a man when his darling cried:
Khi nguoi yeu toi khoc troi cung giang sau
Cho tung con mua lu xoay quanh tam hon
Khi nguoi yeu toi Khoc thanh pho buon hiu
Em oi hay noi van loi sau dang nhu anh vua trach em
(When my darling cries the sky is also full of sadness, and in my soul rain and flood come, when my darling cries the city is also sad-looking, please my darling speak out bitter and sad word as I has just blamed you)
These lyrics were simple but smooth and warm and they hide something behind the words so each one can think about it in different ways. Beside, when they listen to these songs they could see their idols that are as old as them. These singers are very famous in their time and they had experiences to perform pre-war music songs, which are simple in melodies but different in stating emotions of the composers. Recently, in Vietnam, there are many young singers who sing these songs, however, they are not as good as former singers such as: Khanh Ly, Le Thu, Mai Huong, Sy Phu, etc.
The second reason is that listening pre-war music help them to relax in this noisy society. With the charming melodies, this kind of music reduces stress and tenseness. They lead listeners to the beautiful sceneries of Vietnam, for instance, in the song Mua Tren Pho Hue (Rain in Hue) of Minh Ky, he described as follow:
Chieu nay mua tran pho hue
Keip giang ho khong ben doi
Ma mua roi cu roi roi hoai
Cho long nho ai
(It is raining in Hue city this afternoon, where is the place waiting for an errant traveler, why is the rain falling continuously? That make me sink in longing to see you)
Or Hanh Trinh Tren Dat Phu Sa of Thanh son (Journey On Alluvium Land) expressing many places in the south of Vietnam with its own beauty.
The special thing is that there are also many foreign songs which were translated into Vietnamese such as: Blue Danube, Return to the Concerto, When We Were Young, The Green Field, Love is Blue, Poupee De Sous Poupee De Cire by Pham Suy. These songs help them not only enjoy the traditional melody of Vietnam but also know the good and the beauty of foreign music. Furthermore, the adults also teach their children or tell them the many legends Vietnam through out the songs as Hon Vong Phu 1,2.3 of Le Thuong (the rock has the shape of a woman waiting for her husband) these three songs describe the different looks and feelings of that rock in which the composer also add some legends of the nature forming as: Nine Dragons River, Ha Long Bay, etc. There are also Chuyen Trau Cau (Betel Tree and Areca-Nut Tree Story) the story is about two brothers falling love with a girl and when they died they became the areca-nut tree, betel tree and a limestone. When we eat these three things together, it will turn red like the constant love between them.
The most important reason why most of adults in Vietnam like listening to pre-war music is because of the deep-meaning lyrics. Trinh Cong Son is one of the composers who is famous for the deep-meaning lyrics. For example, in the son Nguyet Ca (Moon Song):
Tu khi em la nguyet
Toi nhu tung canh dieu vui
Tu khi em la nguyet
Trong toi co nhung mat troi
(Since I had known that you were not the moon, considering that moment as I just by chance knew you.)
Besides Van Cao, Pham Duy, and Vu Thanh An are the composers who have many songs with deep-meaning lyrics. Especially, Vu Thanh An is very famous for his untitled songs. From Khong Ten So 1 (Untitled Number One) to Khong Ten Cuoi Cung (the Last Untitled Song), he pointed out the mood of a man in the changes of life and love. In years through, these songs have never been forgotten. There is not only the adult but also the youth enjoy this kind of music. And, there are not only Vietnamese but also foreigners love pre-war music. Jason Gibbs is one of them, he likely has a thorough knowledge of pre-war music and he translates this song below. I hope that you could understand more about the wonderful things of pre-war music.
Giot Mau Thu by Dan The Phong and Bui Cong Ky (1939)
Ngoai hien giot mu thu thanh thot roi
Troi lang u buon may hat hiu ngung troi.
Nghe gio thoang mo ho trong nua thu, ai khoc ai than ho
Vai con chim non chime chiep keu tren canh nhu troi xanh:
“Gio ngung di Nua buon chi cho coi long lam ly.”
Hon thu toi noi day reo buon lay.
Long vang muon be jhong liep che gio ve
Ai nuc no thuong doi chau buong mau, duong the bao la sau
Nguoi mong may tan cho gio hiu hiu lanh. May ngo troi xanh
Chac gi vui. Mau con roi bao kiep sau ta nguoi.
Gio xa xoi van ve, mua chang mu le the
Den bao nam nua troi? Vo chong Ngau khoc vi thu?
English Translation The Autumn Rain Drop
Outside on the veranda, the autumn rain is gently falling.
The somber sky is quieting, suspended clouds are scattering.
Amidst the muffled wind blowing past in the autumn rain, who’s crying? who's grieving?
A couple of young birds chirp from the branch as if auguring blues skies:
“Stop wind, why bring sad rain to a plaintive heart?”
Autumn’s spirit arrives, announcing the sadness it brings along
Feelings empty on all sides, for there’s no screen to block the returning wind
Who’s sobbing, lamenting life, teardrops rush down? The world’s immeasurably sad.
We hope the clouds will scatter bringing sweet gentle breezes. The clouds open up to blue sky
Could such happiness be? The rain continues to fall, how many more incarnations until this melancholy subsides?
The distant wind still returns, the unyielding rain spreads its gloom
Oh sky, for how many more years will tears pour from the sky because of autumn?
In conclusion, I would like to mention about one problem. Although Vietnamese has a great legacy of music, the number of legally performed pre-war music songs is very small. The composers who now live in oversea countries composed most of the pre-war music songs. Because of their unclear political attitude (they had been solders of the South government before 1975) their songs are not performed in Vietnam. However, Vietnamese community in overseas countries can listen to these songs freely and by famous singers. In Vietnam, anyone who wants to enjoy the music must buy illegal-copied discs. If you want to know more about pre-war music, you can find the information from www.thingsasia.com. I am afraid that I do not have enough experience to explain clearly what I mean. Conversely, I am sure that when anyone of you wants me to explain some pre-war music songs in English I am very willing to help you.