Nhac Tien Chien: The Origins of Vietnamese Popular Song

by Jason Gibbs, Mar 2, 2017 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi


By the 19th century Vietnam found itself forcibly and irrevocably confronted with the Western world. As this foreign presence intensified, the elite, ruling and mandarin classes insularly maintained a Confucian view that through their superior culture, civilization, and upright behavior they had the moral standing to defeat any foe. That outlook was shattered with a series of French military victories, culminating in the defeat, in 1873, of Hanoi's citadel and its 7,000 Vietnamese defenders by 200 far better armed French soldiers. By the turn of the century France had consolidated Vietnam under its control and was rapidly opening the region to its economic and cultural prerogatives.

From the beginning the Vietnamese resisted the French, at first viewing their colonizers as barbarians, but in time they came to realize that the military might and economic wealth of the West far surpassed anything they had previously imagined. More and more Vietnamese came to believe the only way that Vietnam could escape colonization was to learn Western ways. Starting from the turn of the century, while many of their Confucian elders went into isolation, the still tiny Vietnamese professional class began adjusting to the alien culture by studying French and "quoc ngu" (the romanization of spoken Vietnamese). They began translating western ideas ranging from Western philosophy to agricultural methods into Vietnamese. By the 1920s and 1930s literacy became widespread, owing to the popularity of "quoc ngu" and the literature it spawned.(see note 1)

After World War I, French entrepreneurs started trading very energetically producing an economic boom hastening the advance and influence of Western thought. The 1920s represent a decade when Vietnam began to finally break from its Confucian tradition and embrace Western thought. One illustration of this can be seen in a story that composer Pham Duy tells about his father Pham Duy Ton, thought by some to be the originator of the modern Vietnamese short story. Pham Duy Ton born in 1881, graduated from the school for interpreters, worked for the Indochina Bank, as a journalist, and in various other small business ventures. He was among the first generation that took the daring step against tradition to cut off the chignon that a well-born gentleman kept in memory of his deceased father, and also dressed in western clothing. He died young in 1924, his son Pham Duy speculating that this was because of a curse from his grandmother for defying tradition by cutting his hair. While his father was of the generation that took the first steps of breaking with tradition, Pham Duy and his contemporaries were prepared and eager to meet the modern world. (see note 2)

Neil Jamieson describes this generation as "a social force wielding innovative kinds of influence based on new and modern skills... In urban centers during the 1930s, especially in Hanoi, there was a sudden and self-conscious rush to replace the old with the new, to Westernize, to be modern."(see note 3) Owing to the popularity of Western novels, an energetic new romantic "quoc ngu" literature emerged in 1925 and expanded greatly in the 1930s. At the same time an art school, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine, opened in Hanoi heralding a new movement of Western-influenced painting. This is the context out of which nhac tien chien, or "pre-war music" was born.

As Bruno Nettl has noted, the first contact that most non-Western cultures have with Western music is through church and military music. Vietnam is no exception in this regard. The Catholic Church encouraged western music and also served as a training ground for many composers. Military bands also trained Vietnamese musicians. In the beginning the music was performed for and by Westerners, but as time went on more and more Vietnamese began to participate in these activities. (see note 4)

In the years following World War I, French patriotic songs like "La Marseillaise" or "La Madelon" became popular in Vietnam. These songs were first heard by Vietnamese during the cai luong, or reformed, theatre of southern Vietnam in the late 1910s and 1920s. Such performances would often include two music ensembles -- one of traditional instruments, one of western instruments, the latter performing during entr'actes as well as before and after the play. Itinerant street musicians (hat xam), whose livelihood depended upon playing music with the greatest currency interspersed these western melodies among their traditional repertory. (see note 5)

French songs became increasingly popular in the cities owing to the spread of sound recording technology. 78 r.p.m. recordings and the radio remained inaccessible to many because of their expense. But even those who found these recordings beyond their means could hear the latest "a la mode" French songs by gathering outside record stores. However, the strongest forces leading to the popularization of French songs were the introduction of ballroom dancing and sound motion pictures in the early 1930s. Singers from the French cinema like Josephine Baker (singing "J'ai Deux Amours" and "Ma Petit Tonkinoise"), Rina Kelly, and George Milton were all popular. Tino Rossi, best known for singing Vincent Scotto songs like "La Marinella" became a special favorite, to the extent that there were "Tino fan clubs" (hoi ai Ti-no). (see note 6)

The first indigenous attempts at Western-styled popular song came in the mid-1930s with a movement known as "bai Ta theo dieu Tay" (or "our words following Western melodies"). Soon fashioning words to French popular songs became the height of fashion. The newly fashioned lyrics turned up as pamphlets, in the newspapers and at the end of dime novels. The Beka record company recorded two cai luong performers Ai Lien, and Kim Thoa singing these songs on 78s. In many cases, the lyricist was less than fluent in French leading to some Vietnamese lyrics being almost opposite in meaning with the French original. (see note 7)

Most commentators trace the beginning of modern Vietnamese song to a performance by Nguyen Van Tuyen of his original compositions in Hanoi on June 9, 1938. Although several composers had written songs before that date and even performed them within their circle of friends, Tuyen's performance marks the first public, reviewed presentation of original songs. Tuyen, born in Hue, studied western music from his youth, teaching himself the rudiments from French music theory textbooks. In 1936 he moved to Saigon where he was the only Vietnamese student enrolled at the Philharmonic Society of Saigon. He began to sing French songs and was favorably received by the press and on the radio. In 1937 he solicited poems from his friends and wrote his first songs. The actual first performance of his songs took place in Saigon where they were performed at the Philharmonic Society. The governor of Cochinchina, Pages, heard him sing there and invited him to travel to France to continue his music studies, but Tuyen had to refuse for family reasons. Instead he requested and was granted the governor's support in making a tour of Vietnam to promote this new music. (see note 8)

While some contemporaries reported that his Hanoi concert was a mixed success, owing to Tuyen's Hue accent and to noise from the large and restless crowd, this new musical movement was lionized by the influential paper Ngay Nay which published some of Nguyen Van Tuyen's compositions as well as works by other composers. (see note 9) He repeated his performance in Haiphong and Nam Dinh to enthusiastic audiences.

Most of the first generation of Vietnamese composers had very restricted access to western music education. Many like Nguyen Van Tuyen studied from French music theory primers. Others studied through the Sinat or Universelle correspondence courses based in France, at Catholic schools, or through private lessons taken with French, White Russian, or Filipino teachers. The French opened the Conservatoire d'Extreme Orient in Hanoi in 1927, but shut it down in 1930 owing to the worldwide economic depression. The first musicians who were able to study, in turn became the teachers for those who followed. (see note 10)

New songs started to spread around the country, but were especially popular in Hanoi. Two important groups propagating this music were formed around 1938: Myosotis (French for Forget-Me-Not) with composers Tham Oanh and Duong Thieu Tuoc as principals, and Tricea consisting of Van Chung, Le Yen and Doan Man. Both of these groups wrote, published and organized the performance of their songs. Pham Duy, writing about the Hanoi of his youth, notes the popularity of songs by the above composers as well as by Le Thuong and Van Cao from Haiphong, and Dang The Phong from Nam Dinh. (see note 11)

In his memoirs, Pham Duy describes his experience, at first as a manager, but soon as a singer of new songs with the Duc Huy cai luong troupe in 1944 and 1945. The troupe's director came to know that he could sing and play guitar, so he was added to the show, where he sang during breaks in the action. This gave him the opportunity to publicize the new songs throughout the country. He met new composers in almost every city along the way, and often found that the word of mouth that preceded his arrival brought in fans expressly interested in this new musical movement. (see note 12)

During the 1940s, there were a large number of patriotic songs composed, mostly modeled after marches and French military band music. The Communist Party saw the propaganda value of such songs very early. In 1926 they translated "The International" into Vietnamese and by 1930 they were using original revolutionary songs in their organizing. (see note 13) However, the songs with the greatest popularity were from the Dong Vong (Resound) movement of Hoang Quy and the Tong Hoi Sinh Vien (General Association of Students) movement of Luu Huu Phuoc from the 1940s. During that time, several of the composers from Myosotis and Tricea also contributed patriotic music. This movement was partially a reaction to the over-sentimentality of romantic literature and song, but gained much of its strength from the Boy Scout program and from the physical fitness program instituted by the Vichy France government in then Japanese-occupied Vietnam. Patriotically minded youth also organized hikes and bicycle excursions to historic monuments. (see note 14)

Although most are not recorded or performed on the concert stage today, these marches and songs made a strong impression at the time among young Vietnamese yearning for their country's independence. "Tieng goi thanh nien" ("Call of the Youth") by composer Luu Huu Phuoc, with the alteration of some words, became the National Anthem of the future South Vietnam with the title "Tieng goi sinh vien" ("Call of the Students"). The song "Tien quan ca" ("Onward Soldiers") by Van Cao in 1945 became the National Anthem of North Vietnam. Another important composer from this movement, Do Nhuan, wrote his earliest songs from a French prison. (see note 15)

Both the romantic and patriotic song movements continued until 1954 when the Geneva Accords divided the country in two. From 1946, many composers went to the war zone to write songs for the Viet Minh resistance against the French. In French-occupied urban areas both patriotic and romantic music continued to be performed side by side on the radio, in dancehalls and in taverns. In 1950, Radio Hanoi's Viet Nhac magazine published a playlist of over 300 Vietnamese songs they had broadcast including both romantic songs and songs newly composed for the resistance combatants in the mountains and jungles. By the time they went off the air in 1954 they had broadcast over 2,000 works by over 300 composers. (see note 16)

While this movement of new Western-influenced songs took off like wildfire among urban, educated youth, it was disliked and resisted by older feudalistic intellectuals, and largely ignored by the poor and rural citizenry. (see note 17) One contemporary commentator wrote in 1942 in the French-language magazine Indochine that:

The youth of the city and provincial capitals, especially students, completely look down upon the songs of our country and insanely chase after French songs. They are afraid of being seen as ridiculous, or as bumpkins if they hum to themselves Vietnamese folksongs ...

He goes on to blame:

... films and French music, the scouting movement with its lively songs, music of neighboring countries, and finally the songs composed by our own artists that are wiping out the old songs. (see note 18)

Despite this alarm, a substantial number of the composers of these new songs studied traditional instruments when they were young. Composer Nguyen Xuan Khoat, one of the first Vietnamese to receive a western musical education, devoted a great deal of energy into notating and studying traditional Vietnamese folk songs, as well as hat cheo, a popular music theatre of northern Vietnam, and hat a dao, a refined chamber singing tradition. Pham Duy is very well known for research on folk songs and as a composer of new folk songs. (see note 19)

The earliest name for this new genre was nhac cai cach, meaning reformed music. (see note 20)One reason "reform" was needed was because of the low status music held in Vietnam. From feudal times came the saying about performers: "xuong ca vo loai" or "singers fallen from social standing." In order to avoid such scandalous associations, educated Vietnamese usually played chamber music in private homes, called nhac tai tu or music of talented amateurs. Tham Oanh described his Myosotis group as a talented amateur ensemble, no doubt wishing to avoid the stigma of being viewed as professional performers. (see note 21) Before Nguyen Van Tuyen's concert in 1938, other composers may have hesitated to present their songs because of this negative reputation. Nguyen Van Tuyen was possibly able to skirt this difficulty because the French governor had sponsored him.

Tham Oanh in a 1952 speech about the "evolution" of Vietnamese music asked his audience to consider the higher status accorded to music and the development of new musical forms in Europe, America, and in Vietnam's Asian neighbors. Emphasizing music as a basis to judge the intellectual level of a people, he affirmed the importance of this new musical movement that aimed to develop Vietnamese music to a level that would bring respect to the country. (see note 22)

In more recent years these songs have come to be called nhac tien chien, or pre-war music. This appellation probably came about as an imitation of genre named tho tien chien, or pre-war poetry, the name used in South Vietnam after 1954, where the poetry remained very popular. Although Vietnamese music historians have the tien chien period ending in 1946 or 1947 with the resumption of hostilities with the French, some songs associated with this genre were written as late as 1954. (see note 23) While they continued to find a loving audience in the South, the nhac tien chien songs were, although not banned outright, absent from the stage and airwaves of North Vietnam from 1954 until the 1980s.

Some Northern musicians I met questioned the usefulness of the name "pre-war songs." One asked "which war? We've fought so many wars." One politically correct designation I heard for these songs was "dong am nhac lang man truoc Cach Mang Thang Tam" or the "current of romantic songs before the August Revolution." (see note 24)Whatever their designation, these songs continue to be popular among Vietnamese, both overseas and in Vietnam, especially among the older generation. They are regularly performed at the concert hall of the Hoi Nhac Si Viet Nam (Vietnamese Association of Musicians) in Hanoi under the appellation nhac tru tinh or lyrical music. When this Association in 1994 presented a festival commemorating 50 years of Vietnamese song, these songs were well represented. (see note 25)

Nhac tien chien songs carry with them an air of nostalgia, perhaps nostalgia for an era when Vietnam was still unified, the era preceding nearly 20 years of civil war. After 1954 the country was split into two very different regimes, the communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam or North Vietnam, and the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam. At this time some tien chien composers went South, and others remained in the North. Most of the Northerners either ceased composing or followed the dictates of the regime for writing songs to mobilize the masses and strengthen the revolution. Southerners continued to write romantic songs. Since the North's victory resulting in Vietnam's reunification in 1975, the country's culture has continued to be divided between resident and overseas communities. As nearly all music and literature of a romantic or sentimental basis was banned by the communist regime, many of Vietnam's creative minds left the country in 1975 for Western countries like the United States, Australia, and France. Although differences between these two communities continue until this time, nhac tien chien is one of the few popular song genres that can be heard on the stage of both Vietnam and among the overseas community.

In closing I would like to present the song "Giot Mua Thu" or Autumn Rain Drops by Dang The Phong. Dang The Phong was born in the city of Nam Dinh in 1918, an interpreter's son. In 1940 he went to study at the Art Academy in Hanoi, where he drew cartoons for newspapers to earn money for tuition. In 1941 he traveled to Saigon and Phnom Penh, where he taught some music classes. He first performed at the Olympic Theatre in 1940. He died in 1942 of tuberculosis at the age of 24. (see note 26)

Giot Mua Thu by Dang The Phong and Bui Cong Ky (1939)


Ngoai hien giot mua thu
thanh thot roi

Troi lang u buon may hat hiu
ngung troi.

Nghe gio thoang mo ho
trong mua thu, ai
khoc ai than ho

Vai con chim non chiem
chiep keu tren canh nhu nhu
troi xanh:

"Gio ngung di Mua buon chi
cho coi long lam ly."

Hon thu toi noi day reo buon

Long vang muon be khong
liep che gio ve

Ai nuc no thuong doi chau
buong mau, duong the bao
la sau

Nguoi mong may tan cho
gio hiu hiu lanh. May ngo
troi xanh

Chac gi vui. Mua con roi bao
kiep sau ta nguoi.

Gio xa xoi van ve, mua
chang mu le the

Den bao nam nua troi? Vo
chong Ngau khoc vi thu?

English Translation

Outside on the veranda, the
autumn rain is gently falling.

The somber sky is quieting,
suspended clouds are

Amidst the muffled wind
blowing past in the autumn
rain, who's crying? who's

A couple of young birds chirp
from the branch as if
auguring blue skies:

"Stop wind, why bring sad
rain to a plaintive heart?"

Autumn's spirit arrives,
announcing the sadness it
brings along

Feelings empty on all sides,
for there's no screen to block
the returning wind

Who's sobbing, lamenting
life, teardrops rush down?
The world's immeasurably

We hope the clouds will
scatter bringing sweet gentle
breezes. The clouds open up
to blue sky

Could such happiness be?
The rain continues to fall,
how many more incarnations
until this melancholy

The distant wind still returns,
the unyielding rain spreads
its gloom

Oh sky, for how many more
years will tears pour from the
sky because of autumn?

Translation by the author

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1. Marr, David G. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 142-189 describes the development of literacy in Vietnam.

2. Pham Duy. Hoi ky: thoi tho au thoi vao doi. (Midway City, CA: Pham Duy Cuong Productions, 1989), 14. For more information about Pham Duy's father see Schafer, John C. "Pham Duy Ton: Journalist, Short Story Writer, Collector of Humorous Stories," Viet Nam Forum 14 (1993), 103-124

3. Jamieson, Neil L. Understanding Vietnam. (Berkeley: University of California Press, l993), 100-101.

4. Nettl, Bruno. The Western Impact on World Music: change, adaptation and survival. (New York: Schirmer, 1985), 11. To Vu, Chi Vu, Thuy Loan. "Am nhac phuong Tay da nhap vao Viet Nam nhu the nao?" Nghien cuu Van hoa Nghe thuat 4/4 (1977), 79-80.

5. Truong Binh Tong. Nghe thuat Cai luong: nhung trang su. (Hanoi: Vien San Khau, 1997), 47; 64; 66. Nguyen Van Tuyen. "Nhung ngay dau tan nhac," Am Nhac 15/3,4,5 (1994), 5.

6. To Vu, Chi Vu, Thuy Loan, op. cit., 82; 88. TruongDinh Cu. "Ban ve su phat trien cua nen Tan Nhac Viet-Nam," Bach Khoa 73 (15-1-1960), 92. Pham Duy, op. cit., 97-100 recounts the various French songs and singers popular at the close of the 1930s.

7. Jason Gibbs. "Our Songs, the West's Songs: The Introduction and Adaptation of Western Popular Song in Vietnam" read at the Annual Meetings of the International Association for Research in Popular Music, in Pittsburgh, PA, October 30, 1997.

8. Biographical information is taken from Nguyen Van Tuyen. op. cit., 5-8.

9. Le Thuong. "Thoi tien chien trong tan nhac (1938-1946)" in Tuyen tap Nhac Tien chien. (Saigon: Ke si Xuat ban, 1971), 63.

10. "Bach-Khoa phong van gioi nhac si: Vo Duc Thu," Bach khoa 151 (15/4/1963), 101-106. Conversation with Le Yen, Hanoi, June 1995. Conversation with Hoang Trong, Mountain View, California, June 21, 1996. To Vu, Chi Vu, Thuy Loan. op. cit., 86.

11. ibid., 63-64. Pham Duy. op. cit., 153-154; 240. Also see Tham Oanh, "Suc tien trien cua nen Viet nhac," Van Hoa Nguyet San 13 (Thang 5-6, 1953), 255-256. For the story of Myosotis, see Doan Man. "Gop phan tim hieu su hinh thanh nen am nhac cai cach Viet nam," (Hanoi: Vien Am Nhac, 1984).

12. Pham Duy. op. cit., 226-372.

13. Dao Trong Tu, "Renaissance of Vietnamese Music," in Essays on Vietnamese Music, Dao Trong Tu, Huy Tran and Tu Ngoc, ed. (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1984), 103. Thuy Loan. Luoc su Am nhac Viet nam. (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Am Nhac, 1993), 101-104.

14. For French Vichy activities see Marr, op. cit., 80-81.

15. Nhac si Sang tac Viet nam. (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Van Hoa, 1986), 125.

16. See Viet Nhac 33-34-35 (February 8 to March 16, 1950) for this roster of songs broadcast on Hanoi Radio. "Bach Khoa phong van gioi nhac si: Tham Oanh," Bach Khoa 156 (1 thang 7 1963), 92-100.

17. Composer and music publisher Le Mong Bao describes hiding from his father, an amateur traditional musician, the fact that he played the mandolin and sang new songs with his friends. (Conversation, February 3, 1996). Musician Vu Chan describes his father forbidding him to play Western music in order to not disgrace the family name (Conversation, May 29, 1996).

18. Mai Van Luong in Indochine no. 78 (February 25, 1942), 7.

19. Some of Nguyen Xuan Khoat's efforts at studying and preserving folk music are enumerated in Phan Thanh Nam "Tron doi vi su nghiep Am nhac dan toc," Am Nhac no. 4 (1993), 3-5. The composer discusses his compositional method in Nguyen Xuan Khoat " On lai quang duong sang tac Am nhac cua toi" Nghien cuu Van hoa Nghe thuat no. 2 (1979), 20-34; 73. See Pham Duy. Musics of Vietnam. (Carbondale: South Illinois University, 1975). In the volume Duong ve Dan ca. (Los Alamitos, CA: Xuan Thu, 1990), he traces the folk influence in his songs.

20. According to Pham Duy, it was poet Nguyen Van Con, the lyricist for Nguyen Van Tuyen's first songs, who came up with the name nhac cai cach. Hoi ky: Thoi Tho au Thoi Vao doi., 151.

21. Le Tuan Hung. The Dynamics of Change in Hue and Tai Tu Music of Vietnam Between c.1890 and c.1920. (Clayton, Victoria, Australia: The Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1991), 3. Tham Oanh. "Lich trinh tien hoa cua Am nhac cai cach," Nhac Viet 4 (1-10-1948), 2.

22. His speech for the Ministry of Education (Bo Quoc gia Giao duc) at Hanoi University on December 4, 1952 was published as "Suc tien trien cua nen Viet nhac," op. cit. See pp. 244-245

23. Le Thuong. op. cit., 62-70. Le Mong Bao. "Cac dong ca khuc Viet nam truoc va sau 1945 qua cac giai doan," Nghe thuat (Montreal) 13 (thang 3, 1995), 38-39; 14 (thang 4, 1995), 28-29.

24. Interview with Nguyen Ngoc Oanh, June 12, 1995.

25. See a special issue of Am Nhac no. 3, 4, 5 (1994), 83-90 for the program of this festival.

26. Biography by Le Hoang Long, printed on the verso of the sheet music: "Giot Mua Thu" (Saigon: Dien Hong, 1964).

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Originally Published: 1998/07/01