A Quest for the Perfect Song Vol. 2
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Volume II: "Tóc Mai Sợi Vắn Sợi Dài (Long, Uneven Hair)" - Thành Mái
The greatest songs are the ones you never expect to hear. Whether you're wandering through the rows of a grocery store or exploring unfamiliar terrain, there are endless opportunities to be exposed to life-changing music, with each chance more rewarding than the last.
About three months ago I was watching an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles when I had one of these chance encounters. In this particular adventure, the NCIS team was on a mission in Vietnam when a song playing during the episode's climax unexpectedly took my attention away from the action.
Crime shows like NCIS commonly have a lyric-less score intermittently playing in the background that sets up the scene and fits perfectly with the action. But instead of a subtle orchestral backing, there was an incredibly intriguing Vietnamese garage rock song blaring over the gunfire, as the NCIS team raided an enemy compound.
I was immediately captivated by the singer's unique voice and the song's psychedelic elements, which sounded reminiscent of a Jimi Hendrix song.
So like any diligent music listener, I used Shazam and found the Vietnamese love song "Tóc Mai Sợi Vắn Sợi Dài" performed by teenage Vietnamese pop singer Thành Mái. This discovery sent me down a rabbit hole that led to finding an album full of amazing Vietnamese musicians, put together by music collector Matt Gergis of Sublime Frequencies.
Sublime Frequencies is an independent record label based in Seattle, Washington that collects obscure and often-forgotten records from various Third-World cultures and countries. They thrive on representing underrepresented art forms that exist outside of mainstream music in regions such as the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and West Africa. These musical outlets include compilations, field recordings, and radio broadcasts that showcase talents rarely seen in the western world.
For this project, Sublime Frequencies attempted to amass original recordings of Vietnamese musicians during the long-standing Vietnam War (aka the Second Indochinese War). There have been hundreds if not thousands of articles, dissertations, and playlists that show the impact that the war had on American musicians and the ensuing counterculture generation. However, it's rare for Americans to hear the war's influence on the South Vietnamese or the amazing music they created during an era of terror and uncertainty which plagued their country.
After years of searching record shops all over California, and with the help of record collector Rick Foust, Gergis was able to create a loose assortment of Vietnamese artifacts from the period. The result is the 2010 compilation "Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974," which can be found on YouTube and is the best available representation of Saigon's greatest wartime musicians. All 17 songs on the album were recorded in the midst of war and express feelings of love, sorrow and grief during this period.
The comprehensive history of Vietnamese popular music is an especially tragic tale, influenced by decades of conquest and colonialism. The two countries in particular which had a significant impact on Vietnamese culture are France and the United States, which went beyond the ruthless and bloody damage they left along the way. In essence, Vietnam became a melting pot for various musical styles, combining Vietnamese traditions with Western genres to make truly innovative music.
Adelaida Reyes' 1999 novel "Songs of the Caged, Songs of the Free: Music and the Vietnamese Refugee Experience" delves into the effects of various cultures on Vietnamese popular music and the songs of Vietnamese immigrants.
According to Reyes, six decades of strict French colonialism inevitably led to forced acceptance of Western customs, which included music. The direct result was "tân nhạc," meaning "new" Vietnamese music.
The establishment of tân nhạc began in the 1930s when a French governor in Vietnam advocated for Vietnamese songs that used Western harmonies and instrumentation. Many of these songs maintained a traditional Vietnamese sound but carried significant influence from French popular music and Latin American dances such as the tango. Tân nhạc did not include every aspect of Western music, but many were adopted during the French colonial period.
After the First Indochinese War and the Viet Minh's successful victory over French occupational forces, the United States became increasingly involved in the region as they feared a global communist takeover. During the subsequent Vietnam War, rock n' roll became increasingly popular and influential as American soldiers stationed in Saigon introduced the South Vietnamese to their favorite artists.
Fascinated by the anti-establishment sentiment of the genre, many Vietnamese locals jumped at the opportunity to make money by playing rock music for American soldiers at local bars and clubs. This included CBC Band, a garage rock group made up of a family of South Vietnamese farmers.
Their music is filled with an exciting adolescent intensity usually associated with punk rock bands and their sound contains acid rock elements similar to The Doors. They are featured twice on the "Saigon Rock & Soul" album, and despite their small musical output, they represent the voice of a youthful Vietnamese generation full of resilient freedom fighters.
Following the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the Viet Cong began to rid Vietnam of all Western cultural aspects, including music, which was effectively wiped out from Vietnamese civilization. Musicians who refused to cooperate with the new government, including legendary Vietnamese songstress Thái Thanh, were banned from publicly performing. This meant the music of countless Vietnamese musicians was completely destroyed or lost in the ensuing chaos.
Some people stayed in Vietnam, but thousands of musicians and average citizens alike fled west, putting their faith into strangers and boarding overcrowded boats to whatever refuge they were lucky enough to reach. Many of these Vietnamese immigrants found a home in France, Australia, and the United States, thousands of whom ended up in Orange County, California.
After making it to Orange County, many prominent Vietnamese musicians formed a musical community and were able to fund their new recordings by touring for Vietnamese audiences nationwide.
Thành Mái and Thái Thanh are both parts of this vast Vietnamese musical diaspora that formed in Westminster, CA's Little Saigon neighborhood during the 1980s. Since then, the community has spread into neighboring Garden Grove, which has the largest Vietnamese population anywhere in the United States with over 180,000 Vietnamese citizens (many of whom are first-generation immigrants).
Though these prominent musicians were given new life and the ability to reach Vietnamese listeners locally and worldwide, many of their recordings from the war were lost forever. The only existing tracks from the period are somewhere in Vietnam or carried over as keepsakes by Vietnamese immigrants, many of which were forgotten or lost after being brought.
Due to these unfortunate circumstances, "Saigon Rock & Soul" not only breathed new life into the long-defunct counterculture rock genre but gave Vietnamese musicians the chance to hear their original recordings 40 years later. It's a musical portal to a forgotten era and easily measures up to the best albums from the time period.
The album is filled with a variety of incredible psychedelic rock tracks, garage-rock anthems, and soulful renditions of classic Vietnamese folk songs. But the standout track is definitely "Tóc Mai Sợi Vắn Sợi Dài."
At its heart, "Tóc Mai Sợi Vắn Sợi Dài (Long, Uneven Hair)" is a song about a woman's failed romantic relationship and how the seasons change while her love refuses to die. Her hair has grown uneven since the start of her love affair and though the lovers' passionate bond has long been over, her nostalgic feelings will last "ngàn năm" or for a thousand years.
The song was originally written and composed by the nation's most infamous and controversial songwriter Phạm Duy and sung by Thái Thanh. Their version is slower and contains jazz-infused production, as Thái Thanh's luscious vocals put you in a trance.
Both Thái Thanh and Thành Mái's interpretations are powerful and romantic, but Thanh Mai's energetic crooning and the song's beautiful rock arrangement makes her adaptation undeniably better. Her voice is soft and innocent yet she has incredible range and can echo out long emotional notes that'll make your heart drop.
The song's production is jolting and emphatic which perfectly compliments Thanh Mai's sultry vocals as she glides over the electric guitars and makes the track her own. Besides the exhilarating bass, there's a hint of a keyboard that's reminiscent of a baseball stadium organist, but it's a welcome sound nonetheless.
Aside from the production, the song's standout feature is Pham Duy's poignant lyrics which spark the pure emotion radiating from Thanh Mai's voice. The song's most poetic and reflective line comes from the breathtaking chorus, which perfectly sums up the romantic tale being told throughout.
"A à ! Lan Huệ sầu ai Lan Huệ héo" / "Lan Huệ sầu đời trong héo ngoài tươi."
The chorus's rough translation is "the orchid is sorrowful, the orchid is withered / the orchid is melancholy on the inside and fresh on the outside." Though the lovers' relationship has deteriorated and the memories are devastating, their infatuation still lingers years later.
Thanh Mai's "Tóc Mai Sợi Vắn Sợi Dài" is easily one of the most fascinating songs I've ever heard and it gives a lovely glimpse of Vietnam's burgeoning rock n' roll scene during the nation's war-torn era.
I highly recommend listening to the entire album because it gives a fantastic look at some of the best Vietnamese musicians ever and their greatest (existing) recordings. There are compilation CDs available on the Sublime Frequencies website, along with an album playlist here on YouTube.
Also, check out Vietnam's version of the Woodstock festival called Live at the Saigon Zoo which featured CBC Band (1971):