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The Music of South-East Asia

Dec 19, 2004

This Special Report from me (Chris) is really for the more musically bent readers, but others may find the odd morsel of interest...

First of all, our timing was slightly out in Phnom Penh because not only did we leave a few days before the annual Water Festival (a celebration of the Tonle Sap River's change of direction - yes, really: it's a very strange river), we equally narrowly missed the (first?) Phnom Penh International Music Festival, for which we saw one or two posters around the place. The concerts followed a roughly chronological path through western classical music, the last including works by Messiaen, Holliger(!) and... HRH Prince Norodom Sihanouk, former King of Cambodia. Now that would have been interesting to hear. (For those who missed this news, the notorious King Sihanouk abdicated in October, to be replaced by his youngest son Sihamoni, formerly a ballet teacher in Paris.)

We've already touched on the karaoke videos to which we were treated on the bus from Battambang to Phnom Penh, but let me emphasise here and now just how awful these are, and just how obsessed the whole of south-east Asia (from what we gather) appears to be with the whole phenomenon. It's bizarre. Apparently someone has written a guide for businesses about how to treat western clients, and includes the advice 'Don't take your clients to karaoke'. Sound advice indeed. It's not just a matter of well-known songs without the vocals. In fact, the Cambodian ones we saw include the vocals, with which you presumably sing along. The problem is that they're all the same. Musically, they're all a sort of vaguely eastern version of sappy, middle-of-the-road western pop ballads, but even more sentimental. They're all at more or less the same tempo and, judging from the content of the videos, all follow the same formulaic story line: boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; boy does something wrong; girl takes umbrage; boy strives to put things right; girl forgives boy; both live happily ever after. We saw that same story any number of times on that bus journey! Of course, they could have been singing about how to murder your grandmother for all our knowledge of the Khmer language, but it doesn't seem likely.

We did hear some allegedly traditional Cambodian music being played in a couple of more-or-less likely venues in Siem Reap: at a rather up-market (and disappointing) restaurant, and in a photography exhibition at the ridiculously up-market Grand Hotel d'Angkor (a Raffles establishment, top suite: US$2,000 a night). In both cases there was someone playing a xylophone and someone playing a single drum, but all terribly discreetly so as not to upset anyone, and in both cases the xylophone appeared to be wandering pretty meaninglessly up and down pentatonic scales, which got rather irritating. Going by those two (which is probably nothing to go by) it seems to be standard practice to play the xylophone in octaves throughout, and the young woman at the Grand Hotel made sure she didn't slip up by having the two beaters tied together with a piece of string an octave long, which was, well, resourceful.

Probably the closest thing we heard to real Cambodian music was what groups of land mine victims were playing at a couple of the Angkor sites by way of fairly formal, organised looking busking. They had various instruments: lutes, zithers, fiddles, flutes, and in both groups the lead line was played on a leaf. Yes, just a leaf, and extremely piercing it was too: as you moved away from the group you could hear the leaf long after the rest was inaudible. They seemed to be pretty accurately in tune too, which was impressive. Rather an amazing sound altogether. When we eventually get round to putting a selection of our photos on the web there will be at least one of these groups there. We bought a cassette, though we haven't played it yet - we haven't found it yet, though it must be somewhere in our luggage! [We have of course since found it and although it's pretty poor quality, it's very much the real thing and brings it back. If I ever get round to digitising it, I'll put a sample on the site.

We mentioned briefly in our 'Alive and well in Phnom Penh...' message an evening staged by the Mekong Project. One of the acts included some fairly startling electronic music - brutal stuff, almost worthy of Xenakis. In the Q & A session at the end I asked who had produced it, and it apparently came from a CD of Japanese electronic music, but I got no further information than that, unfortunately. It was very surprising stuff to hear in the context of our journey.

So, on to Vietnam, where our guided tour of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) took us to the Reunification Palace, including a slightly incongruous room of traditional musical instruments, complete with a traditionally dressed woman to demonstrate them. One was a kind of xylophone strung up on its end, with three banks of bamboo bars to strike. It looked distinctly 'orchestral' - ie, non-traditional - to me. This picture gives an idea of its orientation , but imagine something altogether bigger and more elaborate, with further ranks of notes either side of the one shown here. It sounded pretty much as you'd expect.

I can't believe the second instrument she showed us was genuine at all, it seemed so silly. It was a row of shortish but large-diameter, open-ended bamboo tubes tuned to a diatonic scale, with a second, gappy row on top representing our 'black notes'. The idea is that you cup both hands and clap them together so that they expel a puff of air into the note you want, sounding it with a sort of pop. It does work, and she played something quite niftily - I had a go too and got something out of it - but I really couldn't take it seriously.

The other thing she showed us, however, was - or could be - lovely. It's a monochord called (I think) a Dan Bau. Here's a description. What that doesn't tell you is that the basic notes are all produced as harmonics, in much the same way that harmonics are played on the harp: you touch the string with the heel of your right hand while plucking it with the same hand with a plectrum. A decent player can do this fluently from the second to about the sixth harmonic, and it gives an inherently rather delicate and ethereal sound. All the notes in between, as well as all the decorative flourishes, are produced with what that article rather indelicately calls the 'spout', which is really a whammy bar. I had a try at that too and got something out of it that seemed not too totally embarrassing for a first effort. Unfortunately, this was made to sound even less 'traditional' than the other instruments by being amplified with a sort of Hank Marvin (remember him?) echo - very cheesy. We bought a CD of some of this 'traditional' stuff, but that too remains unfound and unheard so far. I'm not particularly optimistic. [It's better than I expected, if rather over-produced. I'll get round to putting a sample of this here at some point too.

We witnessed some more 'traditional' music and dance - and I use the quotes even more heavily here - in Hoi An, but it was so put-on-for-the-tourists that it really made me rather cross. It was, of course, all amplified, and the instrument that provided the bass - a large, circular- and flat-bodied lute - was so obviously a thinly disguised electric bass guitar that it was laughable [it's leaning against the back wall not being played in this photo]. It was clear from the fingering that it was strung and tuned that way, and it even had a quarter-inch jack plug stuck in the front.

However, we subsequently attended a far better version of the same kind of show in the citadel at Hué (the old capital of Vietnam). The best bit of music was the opener, just two blokes playing some fairly dizzy and virtuosic heterophony on a pair of shawms(*) something like this, accompanied by a woodblock and a single drum - exciting stuff.

(* The European shawm was a precursor, rather deeper in pitch, to the oboe. George Bernard Shaw - among other things, a noted music critic - once received a letter from a non-admirer, addressed to 'G B Shawm'. Unfamiliar with the word, he found it in a dictionary, defined as an 'obsolete wind instrument'.)

There was more more-or-less traditional music with the wonderful Water Puppets in Hanoi. The aforementioned Dan Bau featured quite a bit in this, and audibly too - so again, amplified, but none the less effective.

Backtracking a bit to Dalat, there was the bizarre Clayderman episode which we've already described elsewhere, but we also visited the Lam Dong museum which included, among other things, a set of stone gongs from an ancient archaeological site. These were laid out like a sort of gross marimba, each rough-hewn piece of stone being a good half metre or more long, perhaps 15 cm wide and 3 or 4 thick in the middle. There were about eight or ten of them. When no-one was looking I gave them each a furtive tap and they produced a surprisingly clear sound: a very definite, focused pitch and a light tone like a half-damped bell of some sort (at least, as struck mezzo piano by my knuckle).

To get to Hoi An, we flew from Cam Ranh airport (which now serves Nha Trang) to Danang, but our flight was delayed for several hours while a replacement wheel was sent from Saigon, which left us cooling our heels in a small provincial airport - nobody's idea of a good time. This was greatly exacerbated by the noise emanating from some unidentified gewgaw on a souvenir stall. It was playing - as a monophonic bleep (for more on those, see 'Vehicle Emissions' at the end) - a very short medley of Christmas tunes over and over, and over... and over again. There was 'Jingle Bells', 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town' and 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas' - but only just enough of each to make it identifiable then onto the next, and in the case of 'We Wish You' the third 'We Wish You' was missing. (Jim, Eric: for good measure, at a nearby table a group of young Vietnamese were having a jolly time, one of them having a falsetto laugh like that guy on Lumpy Gravy - is his name Lenny?)

The final, and really major, surprise was Minh's Jazz Club in Hanoi. We'd read about this in the ubiquitous Lonely Planet, where it was described as being for some time the only jazz club in Vietnam, founded by Quyen Van Minh, the first (and quite probably, still the only) jazz professor at the Hanoi Conservatory. Minh first heard jazz during what the Vietnamese refer to as the American War, both via the US soldiers and from the BBC, and was immediately hooked. We assume - though we don't actually know - that he would have had to keep this enthusiasm pretty quiet until the 90s, as it wouldn't have gone down too well with the strict Communist regime. This would only have changed with the advent of Doi Moi, the Vietnamese equivalent of Perestroika.

As Vietnam hasn't exactly been exposed to or encouraged to pursue American culture, we didn't have particularly high expectations - we certainly didn't expect Ronnie Scott's - but thought we should give it a try. For starters, the food was excellent (Ronnie's could definitely take a few lessons there!), but the music was truly astonishing - easily the equal of any support band we've heard at Ronnie's, and some of the headline bands too. It was a quartet consisting of Minh's son (Dac, I think his name is) on alto sax, with piano, bass and drums all played (we think) by students of Minh's. Right from the start they were really cooking - terrific energy and considerable proficiency, and it really felt like good, straight-ahead modern jazz. Dac is very competent indeed and played some excellent sax; the pianist was an interesting player too, with some quirky touches, a bit Monk-ish in places; the young woman playing the bass was nothing special - she didn't take any solos - but she underpinned it all quite capably; but the drummer was very surprising indeed, seeming to us like an international class player. The whole thing was perhaps a little over-enthusiastic in that it was pretty full-on the whole time and thus a bit lacking in light and shade, and the sound was let down by the use of electronic keyboard and electric bass when the acoustic equivalents would have suited that kind of music better, but those are relatively minor quibbles - and we learned afterwards that the club does have an acoustic piano, which was away being repaired. Having got rather steeped

in pentatonic scales, I'd been feeling the need for a greater variety of notes, and we certainly got them at Minh's.

We bought a CD there too (and a t-shirt, and a small backpack), and because it was the end of the trip it was at the top of our luggage, so we have played that. Rather as we anticipated, it's a little bit disappointing, and I think there are several reasons for this, not least that it was recorded five years ago and the players have all come on by leaps and bounds since. More importantly, it mostly features Minh himself playing the lead saxes, with Dac in the secondary role, but although Minh is clearly the great teacher and mentor, Dac is probably the better player now (possibly helped by his having studied at Berklee with the 'real' guys). Compared with what we heard live, the CD all sounds a bit amateurish and a lot of the sax is a bit out of tune, which is unfortunate.

All in all, having started rather unpromisingly from a musical point of view, our journey did end on something of a high, and there was one final surprise.

On the flight back we mostly wanted to sleep, but I did have a bit of a browse through Singapore Airlines' extensive list of on-demand audio. Well, extensive, but on the whole fairly predictable and, above all, safe... apart from, to my astonishment, a recording of Webern's Variations Op.27 (from a Piotr Anderszewski CD along with Bach and Beethoven). As it turned out, my headset had a dead channel, but Mary's worked. It was still entirely unlistenable though, as most of it was drowned out by engine noise even at full volume, when the occasional forte would blow my head off. I did subsequently find Brian Eno's excellent 'Before and After Science' album rather misplaced in the 'new age and ambient' section, so that whiled away half an hour or so.
And finally...
Vehicle Emissions

Drivers in Vietnam tend to use their horns a lot (less so in Cambodia), and there's a considerable variety. None of yer plain old more-or-less dissonant chord, you understand. Many vehicles use at the very least a rapid two-note tremolando, usually an approximately major or minor third - a sort of speeded up Philip Glass - but in one case a major seventh, which was a bit more interesting. Or it might be a three- or four-note repeating figure, or a staccato chord repeated rapidly. But we started to hear the weirdest as we got further north in VN: horns with a long release time. In other words, when the driver takes the finger off the button it doesn't just stop, but fades out over a second or two. The true virtuoso of this happened to drive a minibus we were in for one journey and it got really maddening! His horn had two notes, a slightly wide minor third apart, which he could play together as a chord, alternately as a tremolando, or in the staccato dat-dat-dat style (how he controlled all this I don't know) - but in every case there was the fade-out. Aarrgghh! (Mary liked it.) And we did encounter one young lad up in the wilds near Sapa testing out the new horn on his motorbike which sounded like a quieter (and very cheap) version of a car alarm - one of those ones that go through a repertoire of different noises. He seemed really pleased with it.

But that's only the horns. As you know, large vehicles over here these days warn you by beeping when they're reversing. Over there, they do this when turning left or right. When reversing, as often as not they... play a tune. Imagine this: you're standing around in the parking area by a café, waiting for your bus to arrive, when only a few feet away a truck starts up and reverses, monophonically bleeping 'Für Elise' at you. Poor old Ludwig. Not exactly his masterwork, granted, but even so...

And that's quite enough of that.


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