Nguyen Le performs in the Que nha program in Hanoi this week
French jazz guitarist Nguyen Le does not speak any Vietnamese, but Vietnam haunts him almost all the time.
He remembers that during the Lunar New Year festival (Tet) in 1994, he heard Huong Thanh sing some Vietnamese folksongs at a friend’s house in France.
“I was really moved (by the singing) though I didn’t understand a word,” Le told The Thao & Van Hoa newspaper in an interview in 2008.
Hearing those songs marked a milestone of sorts in his musical journey – one that has presented Europe – and Vietnam – with an interpretation of Vietnamese music that has captivated audiences everywhere.
The 52-year-old musician has since visited Vietnam several times, most recently for the Que nha (Hometown) program last Tuesday and Wednesday at The Rooftop Bar and Restaurant in Hanoi.
Some Vietnamese musicians in attendance said that Que nha was the most impressive musical performance they have seen in Vietnam in a decade, according to a VietNamNet report Wednesday.
Program organizers said that it was a chance to introduce Le, a musical talent who has done a lot for Vietnamese music, to the local audience.
Songwriter Huy Tuan, an organizer of the program, said that Vietnamese composers and singers “have been looking forward to this event for a very long time as Nguyen Le is the only Vietnamese musician who has gained success at an international level.”
He told Tuoi Tre newspaper that the musical night was a precious opportunity for the Vietnamese audience to understand more about “an open genre of music in globalizing times.”
Named after the song Que nha by songwriter Tran Tien, the concert was joined by six artists, including singer Tung Duong, violinist Khac Quan and dan tranh (16-cord zither) player Van Anh from the US. Le performed the lead guitar and the guitar synthesizer.
Le had come to Vietnam six years ago, and along with award-winning singer Thanh, who also lives in France, won applause for an adventurous blend of Vietnamese traditional music and jazz.
The new music first came into view with his 1996 album, “Tales from Vietnam,” which had six Vietnamese folksongs from all regions including Qua cau gio bay (Coat blown on the bridge), (Cylindrical drum), Ly ngua o and Ly cay da, two folksongs about a black horse and a banyan tree, respectively.
Many people in Vietnam were amazed that songs so familiar to them were given a fresh new sound with Western instruments complimenting Vietnamese traditional instruments like the flute and dan tranh as well as Vietnamese singing voices.
The record was made with Thanh and several Vietnamese and international artists.
After listening to Thanh in 1994, Le called her later about making an album to introduce the songs to a European audience.
Thanh said that she had received one of Le’s jazz albums for consideration and she hesitated at first.
“I couldn’t imagine how I could sing Vietnamese folksongs in jazz, but Le managed to talk me into it, telling me that it would be easier for Westerners to listen to Vietnamese music with a jazz background,” she told The Thao & Van Hoa newspaper.
According to several critics in Vietnam, the lack of a Vietnamese background could have acted in Le’s favor, helping him feel Vietnamese music better.
As a foreigner, Le would be free from all the stereotypes about how traditional music should be played, unlike those who live and grow up in Vietnam. So he would not be afraid to “distort” the music to create a new style, critics said.
Le’s music uses elements from different countries, including Algeria, Morocco, India and China.
He has performed with Randy Brecker, Vince Mendoza, Eric Vloeimans, Carla Bley, Michel Portal, Paolo Fresu and Dhafer Youssef.
Songwriter Tuan said that Le “has developed unique guitar techniques,” mixing rock, funk and jazz with the traditional music of many countries.
Tuan called the guitarist “an important face in modern world music.”