After the Vietnam War, refugees from Southeast Asia began making their way to the U.S. These new citizens brought their cultures, of course, which cross-pollinated with American influences but retained distinctive aspects of their pasts, including music and instrumentation. Guitarist Elliott Sharp became fascinated by the Vietnamese guitar-driven music called vong co, which has elements of psychedelia and free jazz buried in the mix. After compiling a collection of vong co recordings, released as Eternal Voices (1993), he has continued to immerse himself in the music.
Apocalypse Now! For many Americans, the Francis Ford Coppola film is the definitive version of that chunk of history defined as the Vietnam War (or as it’s known in Ho Chi Minh City and environ, the American War). The film’s rock soundtrack forged an indelible connection between the daily travails of the American occupying soldiers and their sonic soul food. In 1965, the presence of American “advisers” in Vietnam and the definition of their role there began to make front-page news in the US., mostly as a propaganda effort to convince the home front that the boys were over there to stop the inevitable march of Communism from Southeast Asia, through the Philippines, and into everyone’s suburban backyard. In other words, the Domino Theory.
What really hit my ears were a couple of tracks that included guitars played in a way that I’d never heard before.
I was 14 in 1965, and in our social studies classes, we absorbed the prevailing doctrine and were expected to regurgitate it correctly in order to get A’s. In private, we knew it was a load of horseshit. Our deprogramming was music: we were listening to Dylan, The Yardbirds, The Stones, The Who, and when we could sneak the records past parental censors, The Fugs, an uncompromising and frequently obscene group of peace-creep poetic outcast hippie-punks led by Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg.
“Kill for Peace”-The Fugs
The year 1965 also saw the release of the Smithsonian Folkways recording Music of Vietnam, a collection of folk and traditional forms of music from various regions of the country. The album found its way into our local library and, to my unlearned ears, it was thrilling in its lo-fi exoticism and panoramic sweep, ranging from tribal sounds played on xylophones and zithers to sophisticated songs colored by dramatic glisses and bends woven into delicate webs of interplay.
Cut to 1988, when a cassette appeared in my mail from Ohio-based musicologist Terry Miller. Miller had recorded a variety of selections performed by Vietnamese exiles living in his area and was wondering if I might release the material on my zOaR label. It was a compelling compilation overall but what really hit my ears were a couple of tracks that included guitars played in a way that I’d never heard before. Clean-toned and displaying a variety of vibratos and bending techniques, it was difficult to ascertain whether they were acoustic or electric. I was astounded at how reminiscent the guitars were of the dan tranh—a Vietnamese plucked zither closely related to the Chinese gu qin or Korean kayagum.
I was told that these ballads were vong co, translating to “nostalgia for the past” or “longing for the old traditions.”
In later research, I found that guitars began to be adapted for use in Vietnam in the 1930s with the wood of the fingerboard heavily scalloped, leaving high frets very much like those of a sitar. These adapted guitars are known as ghita phím lõm. At that time I had been in discussion with SST Records about zOaR operating under their umbrella and this collection would be one of the first releases. However, with great turmoil overwhelming the relations between SST and its artists and dooming our cooperative venture, Eternal Voices: Traditional Vietnamese Music in The United States was not released until 1993, and then by New Alliance.
I was often on tour in Europe during the ‘90s and a day off in Paris would give me the opportunity to play flaneur. The 13th and 18th Arrondissements were favorite places to wander, and I would haunt the Vietnamese and Arab shops in search of cassettes, whether folk, pop, or Algerian rai. Most of the Vietnamese music was comprised of sentimental ballads with traditional accompaniment. I was told that these ballads were vong co, translating to “nostalgia for the past” or “longing for the old traditions.” There were often electric guitars or lap steels bathed in reverb blending in with dan bao, the iconic Vietnamese monochord with a sound like a theremin; dan tranh; the lute dan kim; and a bright and staccato wooden block, the song loan, used to count cadences and denote phrases. The bent strings and glissandi gave the music an intensely emotional cast, the deep beauty of sadness. The songs featured introductions and breaks rich with melodic improvisation, often quite virtuosic.
Vietnamese street musicians:
In her exhaustive study of vong co, The Syncretic Art And History Of Vietnamese Vọng Cổ Music, Clair Hoang Khuong Nguyen speaks of the importance of the title of the piece in setting the mood and emotional ambience, a trait inherited from Confucian and traditional music from China. This overriding “sentiment” shapes the improvisatory choices of the musicians as they perform introductions as well as interludes between verses, all designed to enhance the feeling of the piece. More than just the sequences of notes, the listeners to this music prize the emotional underpinnings as manifested in the improvisations. The music starts from a somewhat limited set of pitches yet they are greatly expanded by the way notes are approached, bent, vibrated, slid, and attacked for an emotional range seemingly without limit. A close cousin could be heard in the extended improvisations of free jazz and psychedelic rock.
During certain periods of my life, insomnia has been my friend with the hours between three and four in the morning especially ripe for discovery and revelation. Whether it be seeds of compositional strategies or approaching the completion of a project long in the works, that period before dawn is often where the action is. Sometime in 2011, during an insomniac couch session, I began finding YouTube videos of solo performances of vong co played on electric ghita phím lõm, reminiscent of Delta blues but also revealing DNA strands of Indian and Chinese music and psychedelic guitar: evidence of past foreign incursions. (Other evidence of this process may be found in the presence in almost every Vietnamese town of a bakery turning out perfect baguettes in the French style.) The improvisations were based on traditional folk melodies but creative extrapolation was to be expected in the manifestation. The basic songs might be heavily ornamented with myriad ways of attacking a note and the improvisations may use pentatonic scales and diatonic modes but never in predictable patterns. The electric guitars were sometimes clear toned but often distorted and appeared to be the mutated offspring of Fender Stratocasters or Teisco Spectrums.
My theory is that during the war years, the widespread presence of American military listening to rock on the radio and even playing guitars themselves was the catalyst for this opening up of orchestration to electricity in the traditional music. The electronic processing of the guitars is not a gimmick but operates in the service of the vocality of the lines, a textural and nearly vocal counterpoint. I was so taken with vong co guitar that I began looking to acquire a ghita phím lõm. Another late session online led me to one such instrument. And, within a few days, I was plugging it in at Studio zOaR. This particular Strat derivative had Adam written on the headstock and with built-in fuzz and a harsh and choppy envelope filter, it could produce a wide range of unusual sounds. To know the notes and their position on the fingerboard is one thing but to be able to truly play vong co guitar is another.
Of the many vong co guitarists heard and seen on YouTube, my favorite is the prolific Hoàng Phúc, a master of traditional music.
Considered a leading pedagogue of traditional music in Vietnam, he is also an effortless virtuoso who peals off astounding runs of fractal complexity and deeply affective power all the while keeping his extreme cool. His reading of the original songs have a burning intensity or a sweet lilt to them, feelings sustained in the improvisations. Solos that would cause most Western guitarists to display terminal “guitar face” are played with a completely stoic demeanor though with a piercing glare that lets you know how serious this music is.
Hoàng Phúc-“1,2,3,4,5,6 dây kép”:
The guitars in his collection all display high “fetish” quality including a wicked-looking double neck. It’s my dream to soon visit Vietnam and take some lessons with him in vong co!