An Open-Door Musical Polity

BY BOB BLUMENTHAL AND CHARLES M. YOUNG

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ost Westerners probably associate Vietnamese music with its use in the occasional Hollywood movie, where it is contrasted with American popular music for a few seconds, as if to say,

“Wow, these people are really foreign.” A more concentrated exposure wi 11 generate a “wow” based on the similarities and differences and the bottomless well of complexity in between. Such an exposure happens to be available on The Music of Vietnam (Celestial Harmonies), a historic three-CD boxed set recently recorded on state-of-the-art equipment and propitiously timed for America’s diplomatic recognition. The first two discs concentrate on folk music, while the third deals with the more formal imperial court music of Hue. Although Western pop has heavily infiltrated the culture since the war, traditional Vietnamese music obviously retains its vitality. Guitar fans will relate especially

well to the dan nguyet, or “moon-lute,” a stringed instrument with irregularly spaced frets that allow for extremely expressive note-bending and much the same finger acrobatics that jazz and metal virtuosos employ. If Nguyen Xuan Hoach ever gets to play “People and Fighters Unite”on MTV, he will likely spend the rest of his life being followed by teenaged boys who want to steal his licks. The other instruments take a bit more getting used to but are played with

equal skill and passion. Like folk and blues players in the United States, Vietnamese musicians tend to work with a five-note scale, playing stark melodies with ornate decoration. Having been invaded by the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and the Americans in its tortured history, Vietnam has been a unique melting pot of musical styles, and is now finally free to influence others as it has been influenced. —C.M.Y.