Ask Vietnamese to name Vietnamese female singers that they love, and you can expect to hear many names. Ask them to name a Vietnamese female songwriter, and just about everyone will be stumped by the question. For there has been little recorded popular music written by Vietnamese women. I have no explanation for the wide discrepancy. But such was the case, at least in South Vietnam and the postwar diaspora.
Among the rare exceptions is Nguyệt Ánh in the diaspora, who has performed her own songs for many years now. (There is a younger singer in Vietnam by the same name, and it helps to google the older Nguyệt Ánh by adding “nhạc sĩ” – composer – to her name.) In the early 1980s, she wrote and recorded some fine if underrated songs, including Một Lần Đi or Once Departed, which I consider one of the best Saigon-centric songs of sorrow written by refugees, partially because it is about more than just missing Saigon.
In 1980, Nguyệt Ánh released an album of songs that she wrote or co-wrote. It was the first of several albums released during the decade, and this album includes the song under discussion, which remains her best-known song to this day. Thanks to its sing-along quality, it is still performed in public in the diaspora, especially at anticommunist events.
The album also contributed to a new direction in postwar refugee music: nhạc hưng ca or nhạc đấu tranh, which could be Englished loosely as “music of nationalist pride” and “music of struggle,” respectively. Not insignificantly, this music was aligned to the growing support among refugees to the homeland liberation movement.
The shift could be discerned from the album’s title: Quê Hương 1: Em Nhớ Mầu Cờ – Homeland 1: I Remember the Colors of Our Flag. As represented by the South Vietnamese flag of three red stripes (standing for the three regions of Vietnam) against the bright gold background, this nationalist sentiment was nearly perfectly articulated as the start of a transition in the mindset of the refugees. They still missed home – “I remember” in the album’s title – but it is more than home. It is the flag of the lost noncommunist nation that is at the heart of their nostalgia, sadness, and, for the first time, hope.
(Một Lần Đi, by the way, is the first song in the album, but appears sixth in the YouTube video below. Click on the star before each song to get to it.)
The homeland liberation movement is too complicated to get into here; needed is a lot of research to sort out and interpret this history well. But we can say with confidence that this music, about which Nguyệt Ánh and Việt Dzũng were among the leading figures, marked a shift from the grief and sorrow that characterized so much of the first wave of Vietnamese refugee music. It still grieves – and grieves quite well. In addition to Một Lần Đi, for example, are two songs with the name of Saigon in their titles, thus signifying the abiding tie to the fallen city. By the early 1980s, however, grief was also situated more soundly within the noncommunist tradition of nationalism.
For the album is also about things other than grief, including the boat people exodus, especially in the eighth song: Người Đi Tìm Tự Do – Searcher for Freedom. It is one of those songs that deserve more hearing, if only because it indicates that the notion of “freedom” came from the refugees themselves, independent of how Americans viewed the refugees themselves.
Most of all, it is about the lost Vietnamese nation and the desire to recover and retrieve. There is a new assertiveness in this album. The beat is often faster than the music of 1975-1979, and the content of the lyrics is usually oriented towards the Vietnamese nation lost to the communists. For instance, the tenth song – the marching tune Ta Là Người Việt Nam: I am Vietnamese – articulates their nationalism proudly and confidently. The entire song is declaratory in form and defiant in tone, but especially the refrain at 41:50.
Việt Nam muôn năm,
Việt Nam oai hùng,
Việt Nam quận cường,
Không thể mất quê hương.
Việt Nam muôn năm,
Việt Nam anh dũng,
Việt Nam kiêu hùng
Thề diệt lũ xâm lăng.
We cannot lose this country.
We swear to kill the invaders.
Twentieth-century Vietnamese were nationalistic, and the grief of the refugees could be interpreted as encompassing the sorrow of national loss. After five years of grief over the Fall of Saigon and the certainty that they will never ever see their homeland again, the hope of return came to them in the distant hope of liberating the country from the postwar shackles of poverty, imprisonment, and oppression.
Which accounts for the popularity of the first song in the album, which follows the form AABBAABB. Not only does it express the desire to return to Vietnam someday, but it also articulates the long-standing nationalist desire since colonialism for an independent and prosperous Vietnamese nation.
The latter point is easy to forget because the lyrics begin with the desire from the immediate present. This starting point makes sense because the the refugees were most concerned with the loss of nation that occurred only five years before. Now, the notion of “dream” played perfectly as counterpoint to “grief” that had been dominant in the music written and recorded during 1975-1979.
Note: Although Nguyệt Ánh is the vocalist, the narrator of the song is male. While it’s been common to have women sing in person of a man, this case is interesting because the singer wrote the song herself.
Anh vẫn mơ một ngày nào
Quê dấu yêu không còn cộng thù
Trên con đường mòn, sau cơn mưa chiều,
Anh ôm đàn dìu em đi dưới trăng.
I still dream of one day,
Our beloved land is free of the communists.
On the small road, and after the afternoon rain,
I carry the guitar and walk hand-in-hand with you under moonlight.
The second verse continues the vision of return to the beloved country:
Ta đứng yên nghe rừng thì thầm.
Ta ngước trông sao trời thật gần.
Anh ôm cây đàn, anh buông tơ trầm.
Em ca bài mừng quê hương thanh bình.
We stand still and listen to the whispers of the woods,
We look upward and see how close is the sky.
I hold the guitar and play warm notes,
You sing a happy song celebrating the peace of our country.
The first bridge moves from the couple to the larger community, which is the village. Regardless of the fact that most Vietnamese refugees, including Nguyệt Ánh, came from cities and towns, the village remains too appealing of a trope in the nationalist mindset of Vietnamese that she could not not employ it.
Rồi bình minh tới anh đưa em về làng
Này bà con đón kìa anh em chào mừng
Thôn quê tưng bừng, muôn chim reo hò
Hát mừng người vừa về sau chiến chinh.
Rồi hoàng hôn xuống ta say men rượu nồng
Họ hàng trong xóm thay nhau nhen lửa hồng
Sương giăng mịt mùng, đêm sâu chập chùng
Xóa ngục tù xiềng gông bao năm.
When dawn arrives, I walk you to the village,
There, our friends and people welcome us.
The countryside is in bliss, the birds sing loudly
Welcoming those returning after war.
When sunset comes, we drink strong wine,
People in our village take turns lighting warm fires,
Amidst thick mist and deep into the night,
We break down chains that imprison us for too long!
The lyrics of the first bridge moves from dawn to sunset, from morning to night. Birds, wine, and fires are supplementary to the imagined village community, which functions as a small embodiment of the larger imagined community called the Vietnamese nation. Quite clever is Nguyệt Ánh’s employment of this image.
Having painted a vision of eventual independence from communism in the first half, the composer shifts the marital and familial life, albeit always in the context of the nation.
First is marriage: that petit bourgeois notion of marriage based on affection and is meant to last until death.
Anh vẫn mơ một ngày nào
Anh với em chung tình bạc đầu.
Trên quê hương nghèo, trong khu rừng già,
Trước mái nhà cờ vàng bay phất phơ.
I still dream of one day
You and I will live forever happily after
In our poor country, in the old woods,
With the yellow flag flying in front of our home.
The next verse retains the image of the village while moving on to children, who are the ultimate symbol of future for both the married couple and the nation.
Bên mái hiên ta ngồi chuyện trò.
Khoai nướng thơm hương tình ruộng đồng.
Con thơ ngoan hiền ê a đánh vần
Vê en nờ là Việt Nam kiêu hùng.
We sit and talk under these roofs,
With sweet potatoes baked, along the scent of the land.
Our sweet children will learn to spell E and A,
The letters V and N mean proud Vietnam.
The second bridge is all about the kids, plus their inheritance of the Vietnamese nation that their parents had proudly fought for.
Rồi ngày con lớn con ca vang tình người
Hòa bình no ấm con ca vang tình đời
Thay cho cha già, thay cho mẹ hiền
Suốt cuộc đời hòa lời ca đấu tranh.
Rồi ngày con lớn con đi xây cuộc đời
Màu cờ tổ quốc con tô thêm rạng ngời
Quê hương thanh bình, muôn dân yên lành
Sống cuộc đời tự do muôn năm!
When our children grow up, they will sing of human love,
And peace, prosperity, they will sing of the love from life.
Sing for their old dad, for their sweet mom
Who have spent their lives singing lyrics of struggle.
When they grow up, they will build lives
Under the colors of the nation, they will brighten the country.
The peaceful country, the prosperous people,
Living a life of freedom forever more!
The assertive lyrics, the rhythmic beat, the nationalist pulse: they contribute to make one of the most well written songs by Vietnamese refugees. The dream of a prosperous and noncommunist Vietnam remains very much unrealized. But the song lives on because it struck both a musical and nationalistic chord among countless refugees then and later.
There have been many versions since the original recording. Below are only three examples: a duet by two young women, accompanied by the charming accordion-like sound from the synthesizer; a solo by, I believe, Quốc Anh, complete with old video clips from South Vietnam; and another recording by Nguyệt Ánh that includes English lyrics that are different from my translation above.
June 3, 2016 at 9:22 am
It’s not terribly unusual for women songwriters to be a minority in the past (and even present). The American Tin Pan Alley scene only had a few. Only with the advent of the singer songwriter (as opposed to the songwriter for hire) did that begin to change. Some of the more striking Vietnamese songwriters since 1975 have been women – Diệu Hương put out a couple of interesting albums. Khúc Lan wrote very effective lyrics. Lê Trọng Cát Lý is one of the most original voices in Vietnamese music today. In American there are two very excellent Vietnamese American songwriters Nguyen Thao and Carol Bui.
June 4, 2016 at 10:23 pm
Good points, esp. on singer-songwriters. Vietnamese have recognized it too, calling Nguyệt Ánh “ca nhạc sĩ.”