Grammy-winning producer and author, Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Malawi Mouse Boys, Zomba Prison Project, The Good Ones [Rwanda]), travelled to Vietnam with his wife, filmmaker and photographer, Marilena Delli, in search of recording artists that had survived the Vietnam War. The emotional trauma that many American veterans suffered was so profound, and commemorated in songs like “Born in the USA” and films such as Apocalypse Now. Yet the pain of the other country’s soldiers had been largely unrecognized, internationally.
Locals call it the “American War.” For a country who fought off consecutive and sometimes overlapping invaders from Japan, France, China, and the USA, this Vietnam War doesn’t necessarily carry the same weight as it does in the states as the first conflict America’s military ever lost. Those who dismiss Asian music as without an edge, may have simply overlooked the intricacy. With a whammy-bar technology that dates back to the 9th-century, it is fair to say that Vietnamese tradition had a bit of a headstart over the Sunset Strip headbangers of the 1980’s.
Led by music director and zither master, Vân-Ánh Võ (Kronos Quartet), a startling revelation was Quôć Hùng, who plays a plucked instrument (the K’ni) that is clasped between the teeth as a local dialectic language is spoken through the single string. What sounds like an extraterrestrial instrumental to the uninitiated actually contains coded, poetic lyrics. Again, futurist innovators like Theremin clearly arrived a little later to the party than commonly claimed.
Multi-instrumentalist, Master Phạm Mộng Hải carries a haunting, but muted sadness that seems only fully revealed through the music that he valiantly keeps alive in the face of the industrialization, waning regard and interest, homogenization, and “progress” overtaking their homeland. His life has been largely devoted to performing funeral rites, with songs that often last for hours to help bid farewell to the departed.