Vietnamese expat strives to promote home country’s traditional music

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A revered Vietnamese-French composer and internationally recognized jazz guitarist is single-handedly bridging the gap between traditional Vietnamese music and its modern Western counterparts.

A revered Vietnamese-French composer and internationally recognized jazz guitarist is single-handedly bridging the gap between traditional Vietnamese music and its modern Western counterparts.

Nguyen Le, an internationally acclaimed guitarist, composer, and music producer, lives in France with dual Vietnamese-French citizenship.

He has returned to his home country multiple times since 2011 with his partner, expat composer Ngo Hong Quang, for performance tours through the country.

Most recently, the two artists spent late February and early March performing in Hanoi, Hue City in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City to publicize the debut of their album ‘Hanoi Duo,’ the 18 th CD in Le’s musical career.

“It seems I have become part of the art community in Vietnam,” Le told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in a recent interview.

He said that though he is biologically 100 percent Vietnamese, he considers his cultural upbringing to be about 90 percent French.

“Intriguingly, I could have stopped at being just 10 percent Vietnamese from a cultural perspective, but now my Vietnamese part has exceeded 100 percent,” Le joked.

The man spoke Vietnamese as a young child but forgot much of the vocabulary, as he learned and mingled with French children throughout elementary school.

“Just like my teen peers, I wasn’t interested in Vietnam. I disregarded its culture as something obsolete and meant for elderly, nostalgic enthusiasts,” Le recalled.

The significance of his roots began to dawn on him when he released his first solo CD ‘Miracle’ in 1989, recorded in New York with features from leading American musicians.

“In my opinion, an artist should not release a solo album unless they have something truly unique and significant to share with their audience. I realized that the best way to create my own artistic identity is to retrace my roots,” the composer noted.

Elements of Le’s Vietnamese heritage can be traced throughout ‘Miracle,’ infused into the artist’s original jazz pieces and played on the electric guitar using adopted techniques from ‘dan bau’ (monochord) with an improvised Oriental style.

“My ties with Vietnam remained quite distant, abstract and mostly conceptual until I met [Vietnamese-French singer] Huong Thanh in 1995,” Le further recollected.

“It was then that I actually met and worked with an expat Vietnamese artist in the flesh and blood instead of simply experiencing Vietnamese music through books and CDs. I learned a lot from Huong Thanh,” he continued.

World-famous Vietnamese-French composer and jazz musician Nguyen Le (right) and his partner, Vietnamese composer-singer Ngo Hong Quang, who now lives in the Netherlands. Photo: Dominigue Borker

Thanh’s reputation as a prolific, highly inspirational artist is well known in the music world. In 2007, the singer earned the much-coveted world music award presented by France Musique, a radio group.

Her renown led her to team up with dozens of artists and bands from a diverse group of nations and performance styles.

In the early 2000s, Thanh combined her voice with an eclectic mix of world music produced by Jason Carter, a British flamenco, jazz, and classical guitar performer, in a bid to promote her home country’s traditional music.

Thanh paired up with Le to produce albums which won critical acclaim in France for their hair-raising, bewitching music.

Le then began his partnership with Tung Duong, a Vietnamese singer known for his ‘weird’ musical style. The two began working together after Le paid Duong a visit following a performance in Hanoi in 2011.

“We get on really well. He sings my songs with emotion and we agreed that I’d produce his album ‘Doc Dao’ [The Unaccompanied Road] with both our names on it,” Le said.

Duong featured the album at his namesake show in Hanoi, which by all accounts was a resounding success.

The singer also featured Le’s guitar accompaniments at ‘Doc Dao’ performances in Moscow, Paris and Tokyo in February, March, and April 2014.

‘Doc Dao’ is Le’s only album to be released in Vietnam.

“It was a pity that ACT, my jazz-specializing record firm, could not release the album in Europe because it was considered world-pop,” he explained.

Le later partnered with Ngo Hong Quang, a brilliant singer and composer who settled in Amsterdam, the Netherlands four years ago.

“Quang is a real talent who formally trained in contemporary music composition and is intimately knowledgeable about all traditional music genres. He’s exactly who I had been scouting for,” Le noted.

“It’s so great to feel unlimited, except by our own imagination.”

The duo’s recently released album received ample media attention and praise in Europe and the U.S.

Following their maiden performing tour in Vietnam, Le and Quang are poised for more enthralling gigs, particularly at the upcoming opening show for Norah Jones, a beloved American singer, songwriter and actress, in Marseille, France, and at Kolner Philharmonie, a 2,000-seat auditorium in Cologne, Germany.

“The genuine soul of a country is manifest in traditions and traditional music in particular. I’ve always yearned to get to Vietnam’s innermost core and am of a conviction that the key lies in delving into traditional music,” Le stressed.

“Vietnamese traditional music enriches my oeuvre. Whatever genre I’m playing, Vietnamese music elements are always part of me.”

From left: Composer, singer Ngo Hong Quang, drummer Alex Tran and veteran composer, jazz artist Nguyen Le are seen performing during their February 25, 2017 show in Hanoi. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Le takes great pride in his ability to compose pieces that replicate classic masterpieces which use the five notes of the traditional Vietnamese pentatonic scale, accentuating their distinct traits with his electric guitar.

The veteran composer admitted that to most Europeans, Asian music in general and Vietnamese music in particular are categorized as second-rate ‘restaurant’ music and purely relaxing, content-absent, new age music.

He has noticed a change, however, in the perception of Vietnamese music by European audiences.

“Jazz artists from Western countries previously found my music alien. Now they’ve come to embrace it,” he said.

“I aspire to create melodies that are both pensive and typical of Asian nature while also fervent and upbeat, like how Westerners love their tunes. Immodestly speaking, I crave to improve Asian music’s standing on the world map,” Le shared.

He is happy that he has set off down the path less traveled.

“When asked by young Vietnamese jazz artists how to seamlessly incorporate Vietnamese sounds into fusion, jazz, or electro music, I told them to learn with the nearest dan tranh [16-chord zither] artist and practice rigorously, and most importantly not to forget their roots,” Le revealed.

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