Reform and Tradition in Early Vietnamese Popular Song

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

Among young, urban Vietnamese of the 1930s, the clarion call was for reform and renovation in all areas of life. In the midst of colonial domination, a new Vietnamese national consciousness was emerging. Having seen the negative consequences of the xenophobia and conservatism of their grandparents, they believed that in order to develop into a nation among nations in the larger world, it would be necessary to reform all aspects of Vietnamese life. There were those among the literary and artistic avant-garde and among journalists who ridiculed all that was rural, feudalist, and old-fashioned, and on the other hand promoted all that was thought to be civilized and modern. They pushed the middle class to throw away old customs and habits, and to Europeanize both materially and spiritually.(see note 1)

All areas of creative inquiry underwent reappraisal. Artist To Ngoc Van spoke of the positive results of the 1926 opening of the College of Art (Cao Dang My Thuat) in Hanoi:

Before this school opened, nobody in our country could be called an artist. The masses didn't know how to appreciate art. Ugly houses, ridiculous furniture, motley drawings were expressions of this confusion. Since the first class of students at the Art College, this situation has begun to turn around. The display of art work ...causes everyone to more knowledgeably pay attention to the beautiful&Our lives are more elegant. (originally published in Ngay Nay magazine, cited in Pham The Ngu 1965: 422).

Additionally, a new literature in the romanized quoc ngu alphabet was rapidly developing new forms, new writing styles, and exploring new subject matter. After a time restless young Vietnamese began to turn their attentions to the renovation of music. Most of this generation knew little about music; some posed the rhetorical question of whether "Vietnam could have a music?" (see note 2) The Vietnamese were looking at themselves through newly acquired Western glasses and saw largely backward practices. One journalist, lamenting the "weakness" of Vietnamese music, asked:

In former times was there music? What were the characteristics of this music? How was music education organized in our country? How important a position did music have in intellectual and spiritual life?

The author goes on to complain that Vietnamese music is:

...imparted by methods lacking a clear scientific basis that is capable of being understood or realized by everyone. Music is a kind of esoteric study, lacking universality and ubiwuity like in the West. Owing to this, new arts from abroad have easily seduced the people (Dinh Gia Trinh 1945: 83).

The question for concerned Vietnamese was how to form a music that fit with new times? At the same time with their new national conciousness, it was unacceptable to the Vietnamese to be simply "seduced" and overrun by Western music.

Vietnam is a country with a great regional diversity. Some musical traditions were known throughout the country; others were strictly local. The overall level of "music appreciation" in the country was very low. Even musicians very knowledgeable about one genre, could be unaware of, or provincial in their attitude toward other musics. Quite possibly there was no one aware of all of the country's musical forms. All of this brought the Vietnamese to feel the need for constructing a national musical culture.

By the 1930s, professional musical activity in Hanoi largely consisted of performances of traditional theatre, reformed or cai luong theatre, hat a dao, also known as ca tru - poetry sung by women for men -, or the songs of blind mendicants who performed near train and bus stations. Vietnamese society had long viewed such singers and musicians as being of low moral or social status. Educated music lovers played only for their own enjoyment, or engaged in a form of refined chamber music.

Two outside musical influences forever changed the position of music in Vietnamese life: the instruction of Western classical music, and the arrival of Western popular song. Classical music achieved its foothold through the Catholic church and Catholic schools, as well as through the opening of Hanoi's short-lived Conservatoire de Musique Français d'Extreme-Orient in 1927. Popular song swept through urban Vietnam owing to the popularity of talking films and ballroom dancing. The spread of Western classical music training worked to gradually bring about a reappraisal of musical value and a more systematic form of pedagogy. Popular song, on the other hand, went straight into the hearts of young Vietnamese.

Initially, Vietnamese youth listened to songs in French, or French songs rewritten with Vietnamese lyrics. In the late 1930s a new popular song form that came to be called nhac cai cach, or reformed music, rapidly developed. This reformed music was not clearly defined, but was generally used to denote the new western-style music composed by Vietnamese. One composer described this reformed music as "internationalized music" (Tham Oanh 1948: 2). While on the one hand it represented the invasion of an alien cultural form, it also served to spur the Vietnamese to an interest in and awareness of their own traditional music.

This cultural invasion brought a new institution to Vietnam -- the figure of the "composer." One contemporary, commenting on this new development, ridiculed the composers "who haven't had a lesson in harmony" who aspired to be like the composers they had seen on the silver screen, such as Bellini in Casta Diva and Schubert in La Symphonie inachevee (Mai Van Luong 1942: 10). Formal compositional training at that time remained an impossibility. Some classically trained musicians learned solfeggio and music theory through their instrumental studies; others studied harmony and composition through correspondence courses.

Reformed music entered into Vietnamese polemics on June 26, 1938 in the magazine Ngay Nay (Today) with the publication of the article: "A hope for our musical life: Mr. Nguyen Van Tuyen." This article, written by The Lu, a leading figure of the literary avant-garde, tells of a lecture demonstration by a singer / songwriter from Hue and the great interest this event aroused among young intellectuals in Hanoi (The Lu 1938). Prior to this event, a few young Hanoians had composed songs, but had not yet overcome their fear of the attendant social stigma if they publicly performed and promoted their work. It took this concert and the publicity it received in Ngay Nay magazine to open the floodgates and bring Vietnamese composers into the open. Shortly afterward, the magazine began publishing a series of newly composed songs.

A subsequent August 21, 1938 editorial describes the resulting rush of song submissions from their readership. While stating the magazine's wish to provide a forum for new songs, the editorial's author had the following misgiving: "Glancing at the songs that you've recently sent, we've noticed that a large number lack a Vietnamese character. Usually they are Western melodies, without a trace of the Vietnamese soul." He encouraged composers "to research, compose and arrange new songs, that aren't dry, aren't lacking in determination, that aren't monotonously sad like the old melodies," but most importantly, "they must have a Vietnamese character" (N. N. 1938: 18). This admonishment for retaining a "Vietnamese character" in song has been a concern for Vietnamese composers up through the present time.

One of the first to heed this call to research and compose was Nguyen Xuan Khoat (1910-1993). His song "Binh minh" or "Dawn," a setting of a lyric by none other than The Lu, was the first song published in Ngay Nay (Nguyen Xuan Khoat 1938). This song, shown in example 1-b, falls entirely within a pentatonic scale corresponding to the Bac or northern mode in Vietnamese music. This melody is not unlike the traditional melody "Luu thuy" or "Flowing Water", a Chinese-derived melody from the Vietnamese chamber music repertory. Example 1 presents the opening of the basic skeletal melody of "Luu thuy" followed by the opening of "Binh minh."

Example 1 / Luu Thuy from (Tran Van Khe, 216) & Binh Minh (1938), Nguyen Xuan Khoat

translation: Binh minh - Dawn

Waiting for dawn, the land's soul silently lives in fog
and wind
Waiting for dawn, the beautiful flower's soul gently
sinks into scented slumber

Khoat was among the first Vietnamese musicians educated in Western classical music, studying the contrabass at the Conservatoire de Musique Française d'Extreme Orient. He was also one of the first Vietnamese to work professionally as a concert musician frequently playing alongside French, Filipino and White Russian musicians. Like many Vietnamese of the time he felt an internal conflict between the necessity to learn modern, Western ways, and a love for his country and his culture. While some of his classically trained contemporaries openly rejected traditional music, he felt strongly drawn to music of his country. Thus, in addition to his paying jobs playing chamber music and in dancehalls for the French, he used his classical music training to independently research traditional music. He sought out and studied with masters of traditional theater, asking them to sing so he could transcribe their melodies according to Western notation. He even opened a nha co dau, or a house that presented hat a dao, in order to increase his access to this music and facilitate his research and transcription (see note 3). He published transcriptions of melodies from the hat cheo folk theater and wrote articles for cultural magazines helping to make this new generation aware of Vietnam's rich and varied musical tradition.

Example 2 shows the opening a 1944 song entitled "May cao bay" or "Clouds Fly High Above" also with a lyric by The Lu (see note 4). Preceding that is a transcription of a declaimed passage, "Noi su ghe rau," from the hat cheo drama Luu Binh Duong Le. Both the song and the cheo excerpt are centered on a tetrachord consisting of a pair of D-E and G-A dyads.

Example 2 / "Noi su ghe rau,"28"-52" / May cao bay (1943), Nguyen Xuan Khoat.

translation: Noi su ghe rau

...with Duong Quan, who is my friend in study. For
ten years, 2 books, 1 (lamp).

May cao bay - Clouds Fly High

Clouds fly high, to anywhere. Anywhere, the flowers
spread the dew.

Khoat was well respected for his musicianship and devotion to Vietnamese music, but he disdained popular dance-forms, and thus his songs were not among the most widely performed of their time. Fashionable Hanoi youth were trying to outdo themselves in writing new Vietnamese lyrics to French songs, or going out to dance the foxtrot, waltz and tango. While the classically trained musicians of the Conservatoire studied the piano and bowed string instruments, the popularly influenced musicians started teaching themselves the mandolin, the guitar, the Hawaiian guitar and the banjo.

One of the early participants of the foxtrot, tango, waltz school in the late 1930s and early 1940s was Duong Thieu Tuoc (1915-1995). He played guitar and Hawaiian guitar in the "Orchestre Myosotis," perhaps the first Vietnamese band that played their own original material. They performed at first in private homes and salons, but in time also performed in public at movie theatres and cafes. Tuoc wrote his earliest songs to French lyrics with titles like "Souvenance" or (Memories) and "Ton doux sourire" or (Your sweet smile). After that he composed a number of successful songs in Vietnamese after that, such as: "Tam hon anh tim em" (My Soul is Looking for You), "Ky niem mot buoi chieu" (An Afternoon's Memory) and "Thuyen mo" (The Boat of Dreams).

All of this popular song activity belies his background. He came from an upper-class literate family, educated in the older Chinese-derived han script and in Confucian values. His grandfather Duong Khue was a mandarin and respected poet (see note 5). His father, also a mandarin, enjoyed playing chamber music and encouraged his son's early musical studies, buying him a smaller-sized dan nguyet, the traditional 2-string lute, which he began studying at age 7. For the next several years he continued studying the dan nguyet as well as the dan tranh, the 16-string zither, with a variety of teachers from the Southern and Hue chamber music traditions who taught him their repertory and playing techniques.

At the age of 14 he began to study Western music, learning the piano with a French teacher. Then at 16 (in 1931) he began his study of the classical guitar, the instrument that became the enduring musical love of his life. He became very proficient and remained a respected guitar teacher up until his death. Like other youth, he became smitten with Western songs that he heard through phonograph records and talking films. He was especially bewitched by the Hawaiian guitar, an instrument that he also learned to play skillfully (Duong Thieu Tuoc 1948a: 2).

He continued to write successful, well-crafted songs to dance rhythms throughout the 1940s. Toward the end of the decade his outlook developed and he consciously returned to the traditional music he grew up with as an inspiration for his song writing. In a memoir he later wrote:

It's my point of view that new Vietnamese music must have compositions that when performed express the Vietnamese national character. In order for that to be possible, we composers should know our national music through the study of an instrument, or through singing this kind of music; only from there can there be development (see note 6).

He goes on to discuss a trilogy of songs he had written, each song reflecting the music of Vietnam's three principal regions: "Tieng xua" (Sounds of the Past) from the South; "Dem tan Ben Ngu" (Night's End at the Royal Docks) from the Center; "The non nuoc" (Prayer for the Fatherland, a setting of a poem by Tan Da) from the North.

"Dem tan Ben Ngu" or "Night's End at the Royal Docks" is a composition dating from around 1951 that is based upon the modality of Hue traditional music. Duong Thieu Tuoc would have been very familiar with this repertoire from his youth. Around the time this song was composed, he was also spending time in Hue courting his second wife, Minh Trang, a famous singer of the time and a Hue native. His is reputed to have spent time seeking out the folk music of the region and transcribing it into western notation (Le Hoang Long 1996: 129-130).

The song itself is about the encounter of a man with a former love, who sings traditional Hue music, or ca Hue in a boat upon the Huong river. The lyrics themselves refer to two melodic patterns of this repertoire, the Nam binh and the Nam ai. Example 3 couples three passages from the song with excerpts from Nam binh and Nam ai transcribed by Tran Van Khe from a 78 rpm record on Columbia Records (see note 7).

The Nam binh figure in example 3.1 is a transposition of a portion of Tran Van Khe's example 87, and prominently features a Bb-C-F trichord. This trichord appears in measures 1-2, 7-8, and 9-10 of "Dem tan Ben Ngu." The C-D-C-Bb-C of the Nam binh example is found in the song with the text "cho ta nhan."

Example 3.1 / Nam binh (after ex. 87, Tran Van Khe 1962) & Dem tan Ben Ngu, mm. 1-9

translation: Dem tan Ben Ngu - Night's End at the Royal Docks

Whoever goes back to Ben Ngu docks, allow us to
send along out message

Surely you remember the huong fatherland

Tran Van Khe designates the passage presented in example 3.2 as a metabole within Nam binh. The G-F-Eb-F figure in the center of this passage is like measures of 32-33 of "Dem tan Ben Ngu." This figure is also framed by a Bb-C-F trichord in measures 30-31 and 35-36.

Example 3.2 / Nam binh "metabole" (after ex. 87, Tran Van Khe) & Dem tan Ben Ngu, mm. 30-36


Like sobs crying for a love tinged with shame
The glimmering moon dims. Who grieving, who's

Example 3.3 presents a transposition of part of Tran Van Khe's example 88, a transcription of Nam ai. The succession Bb-C-(F)-D-C-F is very similar to measures 35-37 of "Dem tan Ben Ngu." Additionally the F-G-Bb trichord of the Nam ai example is also found in measure 42-43 of the song.

Example 3.3 / Nam ai (after ex. 87, Tran Van Khe 1962) & Demm tan Ben Ngu, mm. 35-43


What happiness is there in life's fog and wind
Who's missing who? Here at night's waning, feelings
have faded

Performers of "Dem tan Ben Ngu" will sing the melody with additional ornamentation and try to reflect the intonation of Hue music. The note Bb of the song is usually sung sharp with extra vibrato, also reflected by the raised Bbs of Tran Van Khe's transcriptions in examples 3.2 and 3.3. It would go to far to say the Duong Thieu Tuoc composed his song in Nam ai or Nam binh, but the influence of these modes is unmistakable. Vietnamese audiences have no trouble in identifying this song as "Hue music." (see note 8)

With such reverence and respect for their traditional music, why did men like Nguyen Xuan Khoat and Duong Thieu Tuoc feel compelled to create works that, however successful, were musical hybrids. Duong Thieu Tuoc felt that traditional music was limited by its small repertory of compositions, thus there was a need for new compositions that "use Western techniques to write out musical gestures intensely filled with a national character" (Duong Thieu Tuoc 1963, 93). Nguyen Xuan Khoat, inculcated with the internationalist outlook inherent in a classical music training, in a 1942 interview spoke of his hope to use what is beautiful from Western music to try to contribute something of value to the world's musical life. He insisted that such a goal was only possible for Vietnamese composers if they wrote a purely Vietnamese music that was informed by the study of traditional music (Nguyen Xuan Khoat 1942: 28-29).

Both composers remained advocates for traditional music throughout their lives. Nguyen Xuan Khoat, later the Premier of the Musician's Association in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, encouraged further research into traditional music and served as an exemplar for many musicians; he has been called the "anh ca" or "elder brother" of modern Vietnamese music (Nguyen Thuy Kha 1996). Many of his later works were written for traditional instruments. Duong Thieu Tuoc, along with his guitar teaching at the National School of Music (Truong Quoc gia Am nhac) in South Vietnam, organized concerts which he called "Co kim hoa dieu", or "Melodies Harmonizing the Old and New," where traditional instruments played alongside Western instruments, performing a mixed repertoire including his songs.

The arrival of Western culture gave all aspects of Vietnamese life, including music, a strong jolt. A previously conservative culture now rushed to adapt to the changes brought to them from the West. The French occupation, the adoption of new learning and values all brought changes to the social activities and institutions that had previously nourished older musical forms. Some music disappeared; other music underwent changes and development. Still other new musical forms came into existence. New institutions also came into being: institutions very basic to Western musical culture like the conservatory, staff notation, music pedagogy, the concert stage, and, of course, the composer.

The title of this paper "Reform and Tradition in Early Vietnamese Popular Song" requires some explanation, because the Vietnamese do not use the term "popular song." I have used it because the music I am concerned with corresponds to our Western understanding of popular music; it's a urban music, often market-based, performed with chordal progressions and a rhythm section, distributed through the mass media, etc... But I should emphasize that composers like Nguyen Xuan Khoat and Duong Thieu Tuoc were not trying to create "popular music" but to create Vietnamese music. They were concerned that if their country's music did not advance it might one day be lost. This first generation of Vietnamese composers were committed to the preservation and study of traditional music, but at the same time, as Duong Thieu Tuoc put it, they "wished that Vietnam's music could progress and escape its restrictive ancient framework"; they wanted to "lay the first bricks to reconstruct and renovate the nation's music" (Duong Thieu Tuoc 1948b: 4). Simultaneously attracted to and apprehensive about the invasion of Western music, they saw themselves as modern Vietnamese creating Vietnamese music that derived its value from the traditional and met the demands of their changing world.


1. This article was originally published in Nhac Viet: The Journal of Vietnamese Music, Fall 1997. An earlier version of this paper was read at the 1997 Society for Ethnomusicology meetings in Toronto. I would like to thank Thach Cam, Le Ngoc Chan and Nguyen Thuy Loan for making suggestions that helped me focus my study.

2. The title of an interview with Nguyen Xuan Khoat. See Nguyen Xuan Khoat. 1942.

3. From an April 1995 letter from To Hoai to Van Tam. Cited in Van Tam 1995: 52.

4. "May cao Bay" is a song written for a play by The Lu entitled: Tram Huong Dinh. See Nguyen Xuan Khoat 1979: 27.

5. Duong Khue (1836-1898) is well known for the poem "Hong Hong Tuyet Tuyet" (Miss Pink, Miss Snow) a staple of the hat a dao repertory. See the special issue of Nhac Viet devoted to ca tru (Norton 1996, 34).

6. Quoted from a hand-written memoir by the composer in a private collection (n.d.).

7. Columbia records G. F. 568. Item 73 in Tran Van Khe's discography (Tran Van Khe 1962: 341).

8. Singers of ca Hue performing on boats on the Huong river in Hue in August 1996 told me that they will include "Dem tan Ben Ngu" if it is requested by the audience.

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