Singing in the Rain: A Musical Odyssey
"This is not a tour and I am not a tour leader." A few eyebrows inched upward, but none of us dared dispute Dr. Phong Nguyen's disclaimer as he introduced himself to his team of volunteers in the dining room of Saigon's Tao Dan Hotel.
We had all signed on with Earthwatch, an international organization that funds field research by recruiting members of the public to assist on scientific expeditions. Though better known for its support of archeological digs, Earthwatch in this case was sponsoring a study of traditional Vietnamese music. But despite our avowed purpose, only two of the eight volunteers claimed to be serious students of music. The rest of us admitted to tangential agendas: we wanted to view Vietnam through a prism unrelated to war, and music seemed a good choice; or we wanted to see Vietnam as a distinct culture, before it succumbs to the sameness of McDonald's and Pizza Huts. Said my friend Francie, "I wanted to go someplace where I couldn't use my Master Charge."
Peering from behind owlish round spectacles, our leader, a Vietnamese-American ethnomusicologist, sized up his team: Peter, of the BBC, and his wife Jenny; Kumiko, a music student from Japan by way of Australia; and five assorted Earthwatch members from the U.S., including Hazel, a music teacher from Washington.
Earlier, Dr. Nguyen had canvassed both North and Central Vietnam, seeking out water-puppet theater, court music and dance, Mahayana Buddhist chants, and the music of the Cham minority. But the true test of the resilience of Vietnamese music lay in the south, in Saigon, where rampant commercialism threatened to engulf any remnants of traditional culture, and the Mekong Delta, where Dr. Nguyen's musical education had begun some thirty years earlier.
Our task, he explained, would be to help document what had survived of traditional music throughout long years of war and economic deprivation. Translated, this meant carrying audio and video equipment, holding the lights, and photographing local performers. We had each paid to join the expedition, thus providing financial as well as physical support. But volunteers were also useful in a subtler way, Dr. Nguyen admitted candidly: the presence of an international group of "scholars" gave the project an aura of importance that opened doors in a country only recently closed to outsiders.
Ours was a symbiotic relationship. If Phong Nguyen needed us to carry equipment and finance the operation, we needed him even more. Which of us, if abandoned among the nine tributaries of the Mekong Delta, could have found our way back to Saigon? Or even asked directions in Vietnamese? Nor would this travel itinerary have been available to us as ordinary tourists. Though Kumiko and Hazel were better able than most to fit their resumes to the job description, the opportunity to explore the more remote provinces attracted all of us.
Ulterior motives and jet lag notwithstanding, Dr. Nguyen concluded his briefing with a jovial announcement: "We will meet for breakfast at seven o'clock, so you can say, 'Good Morning, Vietnam!'"
Our first musical interludes took place in chaotic, quixotic Saigon, where the blare of motorcycle horns and percussive blasts of jackhammers announce the renewed vitality of this commercial hub. Even the official name, "Ho Chi Minh City," seems too long for entrepreneurs anxious to catch up after years of commercial stagnation.
The next day, at the Conservatory of Music, Dr. Nguyen videotaped students in glittery blue and yellow traditional dress playing nhac tai tu chamber and court music. Two volunteers monitored sound equipment while Peter diligently taped segments of a radio broadcast for the BBC. The rest of us busied ourselves snapping still photos of young musicians coaxing melodies from ancient zithers and flutes.
Next, scholars at Saigon's Cultural Institute gave us an overview of folk music in their elongated nation. They described folk songs from the north as slow-paced and graceful, while songs in the south are more straightforward and open in regard to love and sex. Lyrics are said to grow more humorous, even ribald, the farther south you travel, so that whereas a lover in the north might offer his heart to his beloved, in the south, the truly committed lover would sing, "I love you with all my heart and liver and stomach and intestines."
These same scholars had obtained recordings of southern folk songs through awe-inspiring fieldwork. Videotapes showed adventurers, armed with recording equipment, slogging through muddy jungles to find a group of elderly women who served as repositories of authentic folk music. Watching the seventy- and eighty-year-old women on tape, we were charmed by their naturalness. But since this episode had been filmed ten years earlier, there seemed little chance of repeating the experience. Our first foray outside of Saigon took us to Song Be Province, the scene of heavy fighting during the war with the U.S. and the site, according to billboards, of Song Be Golf Club. Provincial officials welcomed us with tea and speeches under the benevolent gaze of Ho Chi Minh in a ritual that was quickly becoming standard. A guard accompanied us to "arrange contacts," and a cameraman from the local television station recorded our every move. Only after nightfall did we encounter the object of our pilgrimage--a group of S'tieng people, one of Vietnam's fifty-three ethnic minorities. The chief, a handsome man in his seventies, exchanged greetings in French, and referred to his people as Montagnards, the name given the mountain people by the colonial French.
The S'tieng had arranged a musical performance for us in a perfect venue -- next to a bonfire blazing on a field in the highlands, a setting ringed by darkness and lulled by the mellow sound of gongs.
The bonfire called to mind the scorched-earth policy that had annihilated entire communities in this farming region more than twenty years ago, when retreating troops destroyed everything above ground level just before the fall of Saigon. But the music held a different message--one of timeless rhythms and simple melodies, of reassuring sameness and continuing traditions. Five barefoot men dressed in lengths of hand-woven cloth approached the fire, stepping slowly. A large round gong hung from the left shoulder of each dancer. They chanted and struck the gongs in a steady rhythm, producing an almost hypnotic effect. The men circled the fire repeatedly, changing neither the beat, the footwork, nor their intent facial expressions. Then two young women entered the arena, singing and engaging two of the younger men in a playful courtship dance. Their movements and their long wrapped skirts hinted at the nearness of the Cambodian border, some twenty kilometers away. After the performance, members of the troupe invited their audience to join them in sipping rice wine through long straws from an earthenware jar, two people at a time. I hung back in the shadows at first, until one of the dancers, a sweet moon-faced girl, walked deliberately toward me. Smiling, she took my hand and led me to the jar, where we knelt beside it and drank the strong liquid together in what I now understand was a friendship ritual.
The following morning, at the foot of Ba Ra Mountain, where the French once housed political prisoners, the S'tieng repeated their performance by daylight. They demonstrated how the largest, low-pitched gong (the "mother"), and the smallest, with a high pitch (the "child"), establish the insistent rhythm. Intermediate gongs embellish the rhythm and add melody.
Back in Saigon, an instrument maker and friend of Dr. Nguyen's opened his home workshop to the Earthwatch team, displaying finely crafted zithers and monochords. A performer as well as an artisan, he then demonstrated their use, accompanying himself on a moon-shaped lute as he sang traditional melodies. By night, some of us escaped the barn-like dining room of the Tao Dan Hotel and its television set cranked to top volume to sample the music scene in Saigon at large. We found colorful folk ensembles--authentic or not, I couldn't tell-- performing for the public at the Rex Hotel and the Continental. At the Vietnam House, diners sampled regional specialties to the sounds of young women in ao dai playing the monochord and the sixteen-string zither.
On the top floor of the Caravelle Hotel, a former haunt of war correspondents, a classical string trio that I thought delightful drew thumbs down from Hazel. Maxim's Supper Club featured a succession of mini-skirted vocalists who competed valiantly with a ten-piece orchestra, serving up a smorgasbord of songs that included "New York, New York," and "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
Our exploration of the Mekong Delta started with a long drive through vivid green rice paddies under rainy-season skies. Traveling between the island provinces of the delta meant squeezing onto ferries, the all-purpose vehicle on the many branches of the mighty Mekong and a microcosm of Vietnamese life: crowded, noisy, crammed with buses, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, vendors balancing baskets of sugar cane on their heads, beggars working the crowd, and sightseers. After one inexplicable delay, when our ferry became grounded, a second ferry, equally loaded, approached on a collision course, nudged us off the rocks, and continued on its way.
Arriving in Ben Tre Province, we transferred our gear to a smaller boat and pushed further upriver. "Is that an amusement park?" someone asked incredulously. Corkscrew shapes and a spaceship-like form poked skyward from the trees. It was Phoenix Island, a tourist destination despite its remote location, and our immediate goal.
Ben Tre is home to no less than fourteen nhac le musical ensembles, groups who play ceremonial music at weddings, funerals and temple rituals. On Phoenix Island, we listened to a troupe of nhac le musicians who had won a recent competition as they played musical selections on drums, gongs and reeds. Their solemn demeanor contrasted sharply with the giggling schoolchildren posing for snapshots in the weird wonderland. One day we scrambled into a wooden boat like others we'd passed on the river. For two hours the motor throbbed and fumes enveloped us as we cut a swath through the muddy Mekong, gliding past coco palms and sugarcane fields under a threatening grey sky. Then the boatman, sitting high on the shore side of the boat, turned the rudder sharply with his foot, propelling us into a narrow tributary. "How in the world," wondered Peter aloud, "does he know where to turn?"
Indeed, no signs directed us along the watery thoroughfare, but after one false docking effort we eased up to a muddy bank, where outstretched hands steadied boat passengers unaccustomed to the slippery surface. Gingerly, Peter and Jenny carried expensive recording equipment past flooded fields to a weathered building open on one side. Some fifty villagers had congregated in and around the house.
Three diminutive women, their grey hair pulled back in buns, conversed in animated fashion. They looked somehow familiar--perhaps, I thought, because they evoked an everywoman sort of image in Vietnam--spare frames in their dark, shapeless garments devoid of ornamentation, but alert and self-possessed. When two more women joined them in a circle of straight-back chairs, Jenny echoed my feeling of déja vu: "They're the same ladies we saw on the videotape!"
On the spot, the octogenarians composed a greeting song for our group, the first Westerners to visit their village. Then the women, who had gained fame in their youth as the best singers in the rice fields, launched into their repertoire of folk songs, singing solo, in groups of two or three, or antiphonal style, with a chorus answering the soloist. False starts and memory lapses produced good-natured laughter.
One of the ladies reprised a humorous ditty she had sung as a youngster--a song composed to coax passers-by to buy her not-so-fresh bean cakes. Grandmothers singing the songs they had learned from their grandmothers, the women were all the more enchanting since they made no pretense of professionalism. Children pressed close to hear the old songs and the singers seemed pleased at the attention.
Shortly after our boat chugged away from the waving villagers, the raindrops started, slowly at first, then beating down on the boat's flimsy plastic covering with tropical intensity. I pulled out the rain poncho that I'd purchased in Saigon's Ben Thanh market, a royal blue model that did a reasonable job of protecting my torso, if not my limbs. My companions followed suit, donning bright primary yellows and reds and greens until the exposed bow of the boat resembled so many thick blobs of paint. Spontaneously, we started singing over the roar of the engine: "Raindrops keep falling on my head...," "I'm singing in the rain..."
Now, to say that music is important in Vietnamese life seems almost a truism. Vietnamese music is the faces of the old women, the whimsical curlicues of Phoenix Island, the earnest young musicians at the School of Music and the gong players of the S'tieng people. It's also the ten-piece orchestra at Maxim's, pop singers warbling Beatle hits and street vendors singing out their wares.
Vietnamese music is, in short, one expression of Vietnamese culture--dynamic, resilient, eclectic, elusive, refusing to be pigeonholed as it simultaneously draws on thousand-year-old traditions and absorbs new influences. The music of Vietnam resonates with the collective experience of its people.
Published on 6/1/96