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Sax lyrical: Phuong Lien gets into...

Aug 11, 2003

Goliath - Saxophonist Quyen Van Minh can take a lot of credit for the rise in popularity of jazz in Hanoi over the past decade. After being forced to give up his elevated spot overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake a few years back, Minh has since managed to turn his atmospheric club on Luong Van Can street into an establishment that is now churning out a new generation of music.

Every night, dozens of avid jazz fans are held captive by Minh's subtle blend of contemporary jazz melodies and traditional folk music. And when audiences are not listening to Hanoi's musical maestro on the sax, they are tapping their feet to the beats of an indefatigable young drummer or bobbing like bantamweight boxers in a prize fight to the layered melodies of Minh's equally talented cronies.

"The melodies of jazz are nearly the same as Vietnamese folk songs," Minh says. "So I started mixing jazz tempos with traditional melodies from north Vietnam. Amazingly, they compliment each other perfectly."

Phan Anh Dung, who used to study under Minh, says that jazz is much more difficult than people usually think.

"Jazz is 99 nine per cent sweat and I per cent talent," Dung says. "You cannot play jazz without being in good shape.

"Imagine standing on stage for 90 minutes and constantly blowing into a musical instrument that weighs three kilogrammes."


Do Bao, a local musician, says older Vietnamese people are attracted to jazz because it is not based on digital technology.

"Jazz fans in Vietnam don't tend to like too much technology," says Bao. "They prefer simple instruments. [By way of analogy] they prefer to walk rather than ride a motorbike. They enjoy watching a musician create magic with little more than a piece of hollow wood."

Bao says he likes to listen to live jazz because it is not really governed by rules or regulations.

"Live jam sessions are like a running river," Bao says. "No two performances ever sound the same.

Watching a jazz performance is like watching musicians converse with their instruments. Like a trumpet player who appears to take over the entire conversation when he begins to play, or a pianist who is constantly mumbling."

As most Vietnamese people have grown up without hearing a lot of jazz, it's not surprising that everyone has different ideas about the genre.

Local pop icon My Linh says she dare not sing jazz accompaniments.

"Jazz singers must treat their voices like a musical instrument," she says. "Their voices should float in the air."

Pop star Thanh Lam says most Vietnamese people listen to jazz at home, shunning bars that offerlive jazz because they are too noisy.

"Jazz is one of my favourite types of music," he says. "But I rarely go to jazz concerts. Instead, I usually stay at home and listen to jazz CDs, especially Ella Fitzgerald and Willie Nelson. I plan to release a jazz compilation myself at some point in the future.

"While Vietnamese people might like to listen to the odd bit of jazz here and there, I don't think it will really take off as a popular form of music. European people seem to have jazz in their blood.

On the other hand, Vietnamese people need to study jazz before they can really understand the rhythms involved."

Singer Tran Thu Ha says jazz in Hanoi seems to come and go like the tide.

"Whenever foreigners leave Vietnam, jazz goes away too," she says. "It does not linger any longer than it needs to. Only a few local jazz musicians have created their own style."

Despite these hiccups, Dung, Minh's former student, believes jazz will eventually play a leading role in Vietnam's music industry.

"Jazz fits hand in hand with Vietnam's traditional music," he says. "It would be unfortunate for a country such as Vietnam to neglect jazz altogether. Vietnam and jazz go extremely well together."

Vietnam Investment Review August 11 , 2003


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