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Looking For
A New Musical Language
(Early 1930s)
Songs Based on Old Tunes

In the early thirties, Hanoi suffered a paucity of musical activities. Traditional music such as HÁT TRỐNG QUÂN and HÁT QUAN HỌ were absent from the cities. Even in the countryside, where these songs originated, the Vietnamese living under French colonial rule seemed to sing them only half-heartedlỵ The only music children could hear was blind men singing HÁT XẨM in the streets. The adults had a choice between HÁT CHÈO VĂN MINH (Civilized CHÈO plays) at the Sán Nhiên Đài theatre and HÁT TUỒNG CẢI LƯƠNG (Reformed Opera) at the Quảng Lạc, or they could go to the geisha houses for HÁT Ả ĐÀỌ They could also listen to Mlle Nhơn sing CA HUẾ on 78 records played on wound spring players. For the Hanoians of the time, Huế songs like NAM AI, NAM B̀NH etc. were appreciated as exotic fare and several records were made by a French company called BÉKẠ

Because of the dearth of songs, adult people only had a few ancient tunes for entertainment. For example, the following love song was sung to the tune of B̀NH BÁN:

Tôi chờ cô tối qua
Suốt canh chầy chẳng thấy cô rạ
Chờ bấy lâu mới biết cô là
Cô là người tôi thường hay ước mơ...

. . . . . . . . .
I waited for you last night
All night, you didn't come out
I have waited so long, now I know
You are the girl of my dreams...
 

The following song of praise, from Cải Lương reformed theater, was sung to the tune of HÀNH VÂN (Floating Clouds):

Là hội ca cầm
Chúc cậu mợ giầu sang
Giầu sang giầu sang phú quư
Trên ô tô dưới thời ca nô
Nằm giường lèo đắp chăn nệm gấm
Đi giầy Gia Định ngồi ghế phụng loan
Cậu bịt răng vàng
Trên đầu cậu xịt dầu thơm, dầu thơm...
..........
In praise of you we sing
Let all riches be yours
A car on land, a motor boat in the water
A bed covered with brocade
Gia ddi.nh shoes, chairs with phonix carvings
Teeth capped with gold
Hair sprayed with perfume...

Thus, during the early thirties, nobody had thought of writing new songs (with both new tunes and new verses), and Vietnamese music consisted only of some familiar tunes with new verses. A few Chinese tunes had been Vietnamized for use in
Vietnamized for use in Cải Lương theater. They were given new verses, such as the following courting song to the tune of MĂI TẠP HOÁ (Hawking the Goods):

Ḿnh ơi có đi bờ hồ
Cùng ta chén kem kẹo dừa
Cứ đi, đi ḿnh nhé
Trong túi có vài Rồng Xanh...
. . . . . .
Darling, let's go to the lakeside
Have some icecream and coconut candies
Let's go, my dear
I have a few Green Dragons (notes) in my pocket.

And this song which made fun of Chinamen, sung to a Cantonese tune called BÀI TA.:
 
Bên Tầu ngộ ở bên Tầu
Bên Tầu ngộ mới qua đây
Qua Nam Việt bán buôn làm giầu
Mới đến ngộ có cái đ̣n gánh
Mới đến ngộ bán chè khô
Chè lỗ ngộ bán ḿ khô
Bán không được kéo nhau về Tầu...
. . . . . .
I am from China
I came over not long ago
To Nam Việt to make my fortune.
I have this carrying pole
I peddled chè kho,
That didn't sell, so I peddled biscuits,
That didn't sell either, so I go back to China

A number of educators, perhaps emulating Lê Ngô Cát and Phạm Đ́nh Toái who wrote the ancient epic ĐẠI NAM QUỐC SỬ DIỄN CA (History of Ddại Nam, Made into Song), wrote a number of songs about episodes from Vietnamese history, which were sung to traditional tunes. For example, the following patriotic song was set to the tune of CỔ BẢN:

Dân số 25 triệu
Ṇi giống da vàng (ứ)
Chi Hồng Bàng
Ḍng họ Hùng Vương (ứ ư)
Phi thường
Về thời hồng hoang...
. . . . . . . .

A people of 25 million
Of the yellow race
From the clan of Hồng Bàng
Descendants of Hùng Vương
Outstanding deeds
In the ancient days...

To encourage patriotic feelings, the teachers went one significant step further by putting French words to a then popular tune, the HÀNH VÂN and teaching it to the school children:
 
Mes chers enfants
Mes chers enfants
Vous êtes des jeunes gens
Il faut travailler,
Et n'oubliez pas
Que le temps passe vite...
. . . . . .
My dear children
You are still young
You must work
And never forget
That time passes quickly...

 

Another patriotic song, attributed by some to the revolutionary Nguyễn Thái Học, was sung to the tune B̀NH BÁN:

Ta là dân nước Nam
Giống Lạc Hồng nay đă lầm than
Phải làm sao giết quân tham tàn
Giết loài thực dân ḷng ta mới an...
. . . . .
We are the people of Viet Nam
Of the race of Lạc Hồng, we have suffered much
We must kill the inhuman bandits,
Kill the colonialists we must, to have peace
 

In summary, during the colonial period, we young people as well as the adults took the easy way of:
*using ancient Vietnamese tunes with new verses, perhaps French verses, to encourage patriotic feelings, or
* using Chinese tunes to make songs for pure entertainment.

These haphazardly activities indicated that there was a need for something new in music. They constituted a transitory and preparatory phase on the way to a new music, one distinct from the traditional and folk music styles of old, which were going into decline.

Pham Duy

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Last modified: 03/18/09