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'Red' Music Is in Sync With a New Generation

Vietnamese youths who have grown up with peace flock to outdoor concerts to hear their favorite singers perform revolutionary classics.

September 07, 2003|Margie Mason | Associated Press Writer

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 Pham Dang Khuong, deputy director, 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 their favorite singers perform songs made popular 30 years ago.

Some sit in the blazing afternoon sun hours before the evening performances to reserve the best seats. And sometimes, when megastars perform, 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," Hoang Thuy, 22, said at one concert.

And although 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 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 in California, said even those who fought alongside the Americans and fled after the war still enjoy some 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 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 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 performers dance in 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 of whom 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 said.

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