Composer for Every Country: Vietnam

When it comes to the US’s image of Vietnam, it should be no surprise the Vietnam War looms large. Granted, it’s usually from the perspective of US troops: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Rambo, uh… Forrest Gump… King of the Hill... Little to nothing is said of the cultural and historical divide between North and South Vietnam, much less the country’s long history and longer pre-history. As usual in this blog, there’s a bit too much to say, so let's get what we can.

Humans have been in the area since the Paleolithic (Homo erectus) and evidence of Homo sapiens dates back to the Middle Pleistocene. A village in North Vietnam, Đông Sơn, gives its name to the first large culture of Vietnam starting around 1000BC with the rise of wet rice farming. Our understandings of this culture come mainly from Đông Sơn drums, bronze drums decorated with various images depicting a sea-faring people. These groups of people were consolidated into one kingdom, called Âu Lạc, by Thục Phán in 257 BC, but the kingdom was short-lived. The Chinese general, Zhao Tuo, conquered Âu Lạc in 179 BC and the region would be incorporated into Han Dynasty China for the next 1,000 years.

Ngô Quyền achieves independence from China in AD 938, and the next 800 years sees the incorporation of Mahayana Buddhism, the repulsion of three (!) Mongol invasions, a gradual Southward expansion called Nam tiến, or “Southward March,” over the course of which Vietnam would take the shape we know today. Tensions between North and South Vietnam broke into civil war during the 1600’s, a conflict lasting over 40 years. Violence in the area was exacerbated by the arrival of Europeans in the 1500’s, bringing with them colonial interests and Christianity. Religion would be a point of much strife, and France would eventually bring the entire country under their rule by 1884. Resistance to French sovereignty would be constant until Vietnamese independence after World War II.

Artistically, Vietnam draws from three main sources - native Viet culture, Chinese, and French. Traditional arts include a variety of stone and wood sculpture, porcelain and ceramics, and silk screen paintings. From the French were introduced plein air painting, the use of oils, and European style drawing. Musically, there are a number of traditional genres: nhã nhạc, the music of the royal court; Hát xẩm, a style of folk singing from North Vietnam; Ca trù, a story-telling song genre usually performed by women; Hò, a folk style from the south (sorry, can't seem to find an example... probably the term itself is too broad); and many, many others. In current times, pop music reigns supreme, with V-Pop being especially influenced by K-Pop (Korean pop).

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Today’s composer is Phạm Thị Huệ (b. 1973). Self-taught in music from a young age, she went to Hanoi Music Academy at the age of 8 to study the đàn tỳ bà. She studied traditional Vietnamese music from 1992-97 with musicologist Bui rong Hien, and composition with modernist composer Tran Trong Hung from 96-96. Currently, she performs ca trù, teaches at the Hanoi Conservatory of Music, and runs the Ca Trù Thang Long Club, a group devoted to the learning, performance, and preservation of ca trù. She also has an album, Ca trù Singing House, released in 2011. The song linked below is Thét nhạc, the first track from that album.