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I recently discovered the Brazilian singer Emilio Santiago through NPR’s Alt.Latino program. Went look for more of his music on youtube and instantly saw a song named Saigon that seems decently popular based on number of views. How curious is that, a Brazilian singing about Saigon! I had to email my friend Marvin from Sao Paulo right away to dig for more info. Turned out both Emilio and Saigon are huge in Brazil. The song was written during the Vietnam war and Saigon is a metaphor for hell on earth. Two lovers that can’t stop loving and fighting, and their small apartment in Rio de Janeiro is a piece of Saigon.

Tantas palavras/ Meias palavras/ Nosso apartamento/ Um pedaço de Saigon/ Me disse adeus/ No espelho com batom

So many words/ Evasive words/ Our apartment/ A piece of Saigon/ She said goodbye/ In the mirror with lipstick

Vai minha estrela/ Iluminando/ Toda esta cidade/ Como um céu/ De luz neon

My star goes/ Illuminating/ All this city/ Like a sky/ Of neon lights

Seu brilho silencia/ Todo som/ Às vezes/ Você anda por aí/ Brinca de se entregar/ Sonha pra não dormir

Her brightness silences/ All sounds/ Sometimes/ You walk around/ Pretend to surrender/ Dream to not sleep

E quase sempre/ Eu penso em te deixar/ E é só você chegar/ Pra eu esquecer de mim

And almost always/ I think of leaving you/ Right then you arrive/ So that I forget myself

Anoiteceu!/ Olho pro céu/ E vejo como é bom/ Ver as estrelas/ Na escuridão/ Espero você voltar/ Pra Saigon

Night fell!/ Eyes to the sky/ And I see how good it is/ Looking at the stars/ In darkness/ I hope you return/ To Saigon

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Can’t get this song out of my head.

Recently chilled with my Wes crew, including an underclassman I never met before who is a senior this year. He spent the summer in Sapa and was given a huge bag of hemp to smoke in a water pipe and he was trying to finish it all before leaving for the US in a couple of days. Was really missing you and thought you’d have had such a good time with us and no doubt could have easily helped the kid out. Now regretting that I didn’t take some with me to bring to Hanoi for you.

 

For years I lamented the state of contemporary music in Vietnam: unoriginal and artificial. Only once in a looong while did an interesting name emerge: Lê Minh Sơn’s folk fusion (most notably as interpreted by the flirtatious Ngọc Khuê such as Chuồn chuồn ớt), the rock band Ngũ Cung (Cướp vợ, tục lệ người Mông), and most recently the meditative indie singer-songwriter Lê Cát Trọng Lý (Tám chữ có). The overwhelming majority of my playlists are foreign names or old Viet from 1940s-1970s. And that explains my excitement when a couple of months back I discovered a group of young underground rap and reggae artists, small but impressive. Some songs are funny while others thoughtful and poetic; lots have catchy tunes; and most importantly, they are sincere. Have been listening to them on repeat for a few weeks and still ain’t fed up. I’m gonna replay here my favorite pet theory that Vietnam’s history is repeating itself. In arts, specifically music and literature, the 1910s was searching and learning, the next decade was a lot of trials and brave first steps, and then a fast boom in the 30s all the way into the 40s. I just can’t wait to see.

I just watched an ad of a friend’s friends’ clothes store. Artfully shot video. The merchandise of $280 polyester dresses didn’t interest me a single bit. But the music certainly did. I had never heard similar Viet music. It was funky and fresh. And obviously pre-1975. (Female singers in South Vietnam all had very distinctive voices, but shared the same unmistakable quality that makes them easily distinguished from later performers. In Vietnamese, I’d describe it as . I can’t find the word in English so I’m gonna say “raw.” And my hypothesis is that since they didn’t go through formal musical training, their voices never got polished and smoothed out.)

The tune is sung by Mai Lệ Huyền and comes from a compilation titled “Saigon Rock & Soul 1968-1974.” I found the whole album on youtube and I’m in love. My award goes to the rock band called CBC. It’s been ages since I last listened to a Vietnamese rock song. If only this band existed today. Drum solo, guitar riff, it all flows and is so much fun to listen to. The drummer looked no older than 13. AND the lead singer is a girl! Yes, take that. She sounds total badass.

The story of the band is fascinating. Brothers and sisters from a poor family, they played music to American GIs in Saigon to earn money and became one of the top rock bands in the city, if not the top. In 1974, they left Vietnam and sought refugee status in Australia but were denied. They ended up in India and were taken in by Tibetan monks in Delhi. (Watch this precious footage of their life at the temple.) They later were admitted to the US and apparently now still play music somewhere in Houston, TX.

I know cultural expressions were suppressed and artifacts destroyed after the fall of Saigon. Owning anything remotely Americanized or sentimental was a punishable crime. But I’m surprised it’s taken this long for me to rediscover these gems.

[I started this post long time ago and ran out of energy to finish it. Hula is an important topic to me and I wanted to make sure to say exactly what I mean to say and avoided all the faux-pas. It’s a difficult task since I’m an absolute beginner and have only my instinct to comment on these very fine performances. But it’s time to publish it and move on.]

Merrie Monarch – the most coveted hula dance competition, the pinnacle show of Hawaiian culture and spirit – took place earlier this April. In honor of King Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch and the great patron of Hawaiian arts, every year one week after Easter, the best halaus (hula schools) are invited to the town of Hilo on the Big Island to showcase their talents and their hard work. I didn’t get to follow it live this year, but the local channel KFVE has a dedicated web page and most of the festival program is available there.

The festival is a week-long with many public activities. The four performance and competition nights are in this order: Ho’ike (exhibition), Miss Aloha Hula (female solo), Group Hula Kahiko (ancient style hula), and Group Hula ‘Auana (modern style hula). Halaus spend months perfecting their dances and costumes to the smallest details. Many travel to important places mentioned in the songs to better understand the nuances, to feel the spirit and energy of the place and of a time past, to give prayers and ask for blessings.

In this post, I’ll cover only the Group Hula Kahiko, which is my favorite night. This year there were 29 performances on kahiko night: 11 kane (men) dances and 18 wahine (women) dances. Each performance usually has the following elements: an opening chant to announce one’s presence and to ask for permission to enter, the entrance, the main part of a mele oli (chant) and mele hula (accompanied by dance and instrument), and the exit. Often, the entrance and the exit are done as dances as well. Read the rest of this entry »

We just had our performance last Sunday. I haven’t seen the video yet, but I think it went better than I’d expected.
This is a photo of the ensemble right before we stepped out on stage.

We played 5 pieces, and my favorite was 漁歌 (Fisherman’s Song – Ngư Ca). The arrangement for erhu – the instrument that I played – is definitely not the most complicated, but it is so peaceful. I can imagine myself in a small boat, cradled in a big body of water. It’s early morning, the air is brisk, and there’s some rice wine to keep the body warm 🙂

Learning the erhu was definitely one of my two big accomplishments this semester, the other one being learning how to (kinda) swim. I’d love to keep practicing, but not sure how I’d do it on my own from now on.

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