Originally created 09/08/03

Revolutionary music popular again in Vietnam



HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The outdoor stage is alive with flashing strobe lights, gyrating dancers and racing techno music - a concert unlike anything Vietnam's beloved Ho Chi Minh ever saw in his lifetime.

The music is loud and modern, but the lyrics are "red" - songs written decades ago to rev up communist soldiers marching onto battlefields to drive out the French, then the Americans.

Revolutionary classics like "I Was Still Marching" and "Red Leaves" are making a comeback with a new generation of Vietnamese youth who grew up in an era of peace, never running from a B-52 bombing raid or grieving for family lost to war.

The resurgence of red music, or "nhac do," began several months ago after a compilation album of old songs performed by current pop artists sold out and the Cultural Youth House in Ho Chi Minh City began organizing monthly concerts.

"In the past, when we had concerts of traditional songs, almost no young people were interested in this," said deputy director Pham Dang Khuong, who came up with the idea for the program. "When we first started, we thought no one would go to the show."

But on the last Saturday of every month since March, thousands of young people have streamed through the gates into the open venue to watch an array of their favorite singers perform songs made popular 30 years ago.

Some sit in the blazing afternoon sun hours before the evening performances just to reserve the best seats. And sometimes, when megastars are performing, the show sells out and scalpers hawk tickets up to 10 times the cost of the 40-cent entrance fee.

"I like these songs because they are about the country and the Vietnamese people," said Hoang Thuy, 22, at a recent concert with a friend.

And while many of the tunes - accompanied by CDs instead of a band - could front as dance tracks in a club, there are also folk songs and slow, sad ballads of a country ripped apart by war.

"I was born after the war and I think the traditional songs were not only about the war, they were about the country, its people," said Viet Quang, 25, one of Vietnam's most popular singers. "These songs are eternal."

Quang, who has siblings living in California, said even those who fought alongside the Americans and fled after the war ended still enjoy some of the songs because they speak of shared pain and hardship.

"Even though many of them may not like the (communist) regime, they also see memories of their past" in the music, added Khuong, the concert director.

The Vietnam War ended in 1975 when North Vietnam's communist troops swept into Saigon - the capital of the U.S.-backed South Vietnam. The country was reunified and the city renamed after revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.

Popular songs beloved in the south before the war ended are not on any current hit lists - 30,000 of them remain banned by the government, which keeps tight control over all artistic material.

However, 200 southern songs have been re-released and the government is accepting applications for others to be considered.

"Of course, we cannot allow songs that praised the former Saigon government, but songs about the country, its people and love should be considered," said Le Nam, head of the music performances division of the Ministry of Culture and Information.

Not all young concertgoers are into the old songs, coming simply to catch a glimpse of their favorite pop singers. But the revolutionary songs are growing on others in a country saturated with pop music and sentimental ballads.

Some of the concert performers dance with army green hats while others, like the popular girl band May Trang (White Cloud), wear high heels, blue eye shadow and feathers.

The four women belt out "Spring in Ho Chi Minh City" to screaming fans, some who hop on stage to crown them with flower leis. Two teenagers in the front row work themselves into a sweaty frenzy, shouting out the words and waving bouquets of roses in hopes of drawing their idols' attention.

"Red music" composer Huy Du, 77, says he's a little surprised by the newfound popularity for many of the songs he wrote decades ago.

"I was afraid that young people would not want to listen to the old music, but contrary to my expectations ... it exists forever," he said. "We should not allow the identity of Vietnamese traditional music to fade away in the face of the inflow of foreign music."

Du, who joined the army in 1945, composed hundreds of revolutionary songs. He heard his songs echo through soldiers' radios in remote battlefields. They were the melodies that carried them through the famed battle at Dien Bien Phu against the French in 1954 and onto the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Du even organized concerts for Ho Chi Minh. But he said he's not sure how the former president would react to today's rock concerts.

"He liked the Vietnamese folk songs very much - folks songs from different parts of the country," Du recalled.

The white-haired composer recently traveled to Ho Chi Minh City to talk about his songs with young people. He returned home to write a new song about his visit, proud that his music and Vietnam's history lives on through a new generation of voices.

"Good works by musicians will live forever," he said, grinning. "It's the same in Vietnam. The music, it lives with the people forever."

Some lyrics from Vietnamese revolutionary songs

With BC-Red Music

Sample lyrics from revolutionary songs that are popular again in Vietnam:

"Advancing Toward Saigon (Tien Ve Saigon)," by Huynh Minh Sieng

The nation is calling for our advance to kill the American soldiers.

Advancing toward Saigon, we swept away all enemies

Heading toward the delta, we advance toward the city

We are going back to our home village at dawn

We are going back to our home village when the foreign invaders are gasping their last breath

On the way, we heard our mothers were waiting

Advance forward to liberate Saigon

... All the losses and suffering turned to hatred

The hatred soared, people went down to the streets

Bombings were heard all over the city, gunshots were heard killing the enemy ...

Advance forward to kill the enemy, tighten the noose,

Advance toward Saigon ...

"My Country (Dat Nuoc)," by Pham Minh Tuan

My country, with the sound of the one-string guitar,

Eases mother's suffering.

Three times seeing off sons (to war), two times mother cried quietly.

The sons did not return, only mother kept quiet.

My country, my country, my country, since the time in cradle

Fought with typhoons in the morning, hot sun in the afternoon.

A folksong was heard at noon

Sing about my country

Sing about mother, my country ...

My country, sleepless in several seasons

Prevent the enemy's advances in the south, the north

Mother's bony shoulders carry the rice to feed the children

... Sing about my country, sing about mother, my country

Hardships still exist, the rice paddies shared, full or hungry

You and I share all the sweetness and bitterness with the children.