Aural Breadcrumbs

Vietnamese Music and Diasporic Identities

“Opera Players,” Bủi Xuân Phái (Flickr, CC)

My two-year-old daughter and I lie on her mattress, singing the ca dao folk poem “Thằng Bờm” (“Bờm the Rascal”) as she endeavors valiantly against the tyranny of bedtime. She stops us here and there to pepper me with questions about the story and the language in which it is being sung. She knows the difference between English, Vietnamese, and Gujarati (her mother is Indian), but English is the family lingua franca and therefore her native tongue, while her parents’ ancestral languages are simply curiosities.

“Let’s sing it again,” she whispers, launching us into another round of Socratic dialogues:

Thằng Bờm có cái quạt mo [Bờm has a fan of areca palm]
“Hey bố (dad), what’s a quạt mo?”
“A quạt is a fan.”
“But bố, what’s mo?”
Mo is the part of a palm tree where the leaves spread out. That makes it a good fan.”

Phú ông xin đổi ba bò chín trâu [The rich aristocrat requests a trade with three cows and nine buffalo]
“Who is phú ông?”
“You tell me. Remember what phú means?”
Phú means rich!”
“Right. And what does ông mean? Like your ông nội (paternal grandfather).”
“So what does phú ông mean?”
“Rich grandpa?”
“Yeah, basically. Good thinking, con gái (daughter)!”

Bờm rằng Bờm chẳng lấy trâu [Bờm said he wouldn’t take the buffalo]…
“No Phú ông! Bờm doesn’t want your buffalo! Haha!”
“Why not though? Why doesn’t Bờm want to trade?”
“Because his fan is keeping him coooool…”

I had long been familiar with the story of “Thằng Bờm,” but parenthood encouraged me to dig deeper. I wanted to be ready for anything my daughter asked. In turn, the song led me down winding paths of ancestral meaning, each path an echo of the quotidian lives of people just outside our contemporary frames of reference. This obsessive desire for preparedness—perhaps a subconscious desire to be Vietnamese enough to suitably teach her—manifested in the need to go down each rabbit hole and learn what material comprises a quạt mo, what kind of wood gỗ lim is (Erythrophleum fordii), or what a bird carved from đồi mồi (sea turtle shell) really looks like.

My Vietnamese is above average for a Vietnamese American born in North Carolina in the 1980s, but these little linguistic hurdles are not about fluency or common vocabulary. Instead, they signal the receding of certain kinds of traditional and vernacular knowledge over time and changing social contexts, extending well beyond the tired trope of the second-generation children of immigrants forgetting their roots. In fact, my ignorance of these terms echoes a recurring theme across decades of Vietnamese adolescent experience. Trường Kỳ, a godfather of the 1960s nhạc trẻ (youth music) movement nicknamed “the king of hippies,” recounts in his memoir Một Thời Nhạc Trẻ (“Youth Music of an Era”) how a classmate failed an exam because of his inability to adequately translate the text of “Thằng Bờm” into French. The young man was at a loss for words not due to bad French but because a privileged teenager attending lycée in Sàigòn simply had no idea what the translation of “quạt mo” could be. Young people not learning traditional ways is a pattern as old as tradition itself.

Consequently, if we continue to dig past the unfamiliar words and melodies, our interpretations of the song begin to shift away from the superficial cultural differences between historical periods and towards commonalities. For example, as I respond to my daughter’s questions about the “rich grandpa,” I wonder about the legacy of social class in Vietnamese society, which both valorized its quan [scholar-bureaucrats] and criticized itself in tales of clever rapscallions like Bờm and Trạng Quỳnh. Indeed, as socialism became popular amongst certain cohorts in 20th-century Vietnam, Thằng Bờm was often recast as a trickster-hero lambasting the aristocracy. Thus, it would seem that the Vietnamese struggle between common people and the ruling class was not simply an innovation of Western imperialism.

The Many Paths of “Thằng Bờm”

By teasing out the various embedded meanings as I have suggested above, “Thằng Bờm” and other “traditional” art can serve as aural breadcrumbs of Vietnamese cultural identity and history. They pepper the cultural landscape with sonic threads begging to be pulled. As “tradition,” they are relatively stable. A phrase or two may change here or there, but people strive to maintain a work’s integrity when transmitting and teaching it, because they recognize it as worth preserving. Songs imbued with this metacultural air of “tradition” become time capsules, representing efforts by people in the past to project something of themselves forward and into the future.

At the same time, the preservation and transmission of music and art as “Vietnamese” is a conscious act that intentionally props up the idea that there is some particular “Vietnamese culture” to be celebrated. As we have seen in the various other nationalisms, ethno-nationalisms, and pseudo-nationalisms today, Vietnamese-ness lends itself to a hegemonic cultural logic of universalism more easily than it does pluralism. Vietnamese people want to believe that their commonalities with other Vietnamese run deeply and that being Vietnamese is primordial: the bloodline of Lạc Hồng, the descendants of dragons and fairies, etc.

That longing for unity is essential context whenever one of these aural breadcrumbs is excavated, as it shapes both how they were once conceived and how we interpret them now. “Thằng Bờm” did not suddenly appear across all of Vietnam one day, but ubiquity is a fundamental assumption about folk poetry, which we often treat as if it has always been there since time immemorial. 

However, if we look at its edges and boundaries, the constructedness of a folk practice makes itself known. As đồng dao (children’s poetry), “Thằng Bờm” reminds us of pedagogy’s role in the construction of Vietnamese identity. On one hand, I feel a great connection when I imagine the continuity that links my daughter and me with countless other Vietnamese parents. On the other hand, it also exists at the intersection of social struggles: most obviously, “Thằng Bờm” has been used to articulate political class struggle in modern Vietnam, but I can also imagine it, for example, as part of a program for integrating minority groups into a dominant culture. What might Chàm, H’Mông, or Êdê children have missed from their own cultural backgrounds while learning Kinh (Vietnamese ethnic majority) nursery rhymes?

Even the way people sing “Thằng Bờm” raises interesting questions about how children’s songs circulate and the kinds of Vietnamese-ness they articulate. Nearly every version of this poem uploaded to YouTube is sung by a child with a distinctly southern accent. Notable exceptions are two recordings of a version composed by Phạm Duy, the first sung by his daughter Thái Hiền on the album Nhạc Trẻ 5 (~1973) and the second performed by Ái Vân and Kiều Hưng on Paris by Night 44 (1998). Considering that Ái Vân at the time was especially popular for her interpretations of northern quan họ folk songs, her performance of an arrangement by Hà Nội-born Phạm Duy indicates a desire to position “Thằng Bờm” as northern folk art.

After some cursory research, I still lack clarity about the origins of “Thằng Bờm.” I do know that the version that has existed in my head, for as long as I can remember, is thoroughly northern-sounding—though it is not Phạm Duy’s version either. It is likely even a version of my own making. The melodic contour resembles the “southern” versions on YouTube, but it also borrows heavily from the style of northern genres like hát chèo opera and trống quân folk songs, which speaks to my individual experiences as well as my family’s history.

The way I perform and transmit this song is likely how folk culture is always transmitted: in bits and pieces absorbed from one’s social milieu and reformulated in whatever way fits the needs of the moment…such as getting my daughter to sleep. Such needs are often so thoroughly rooted in the present —I need her to sleep right now—and yet the tools at one’s disposal are almost always strewn with breadcrumbs leading to past knowledge. After all, every generation must face the monumental challenge of its insomniatic toddlers, and the remedies tend to rhyme with those of their forebears.

Cải Lương and Diaspora

My daughter and I continue to stare at the ceiling. Running out of ideas, I suddenly blurt out, in the faux accent so often used to poke fun at Vietnamese immigrant parents, “Honey!”

“Yes, Bố?” she dutifully replies, unfazed.

I dramatically take a deep breath, before launching into a rendition of the unaccompanied rao used to begin vọng cổ songs in cải lương opera: 

Do you know I love you and miss you so much?
Night after night I cannot slee-eep… soo-ooo-ooo… well!

She laughs and claps her hands, momentarily giving me the satisfaction a cải lương singer must feel when they land their rao perfectly and the audience erupts. I am tempted by her enthusiasm to continue, but I am also afraid that she will get too excited if I continue down this parodic path. Consequently, I gently shush her and switch to a calmer song in the classical cải lương repertoire, its melody etched in my mind from years of training in traditional Vietnamese music.

Filtered through the interpretive lenses of both generational and cultural difference, diasporic invocations of cải lương are particularly dense with aural breadcrumbs, each signaling one of many winding and layered paths of meaning to be deciphered. The rao described above, for example, was written by the popular diasporic singer Mạnh Quỳnh as part of a comedy bit performed on Paris by Night 67 (2002).

In the decade I spent studying diasporic Vietnamese student associations (VSAs), this bit by Mạnh Quỳnh was probably the most referenced of all Paris by Night performances. Whenever a VSA “Culture Show” skit required an actor to play the role of a cải lương-loving parent or grandparent, this particular vọng cổ verse could always ensure both recognition and applause. Young Vietnamese Americans who knew nothing about vọng cổ could nonetheless signify the relevance of cải lương to the musical fabric of their diasporic lives by mimicking Mạnh Quỳnh, the cultural barrier for doing so eased by his use of English and his self-deprecating humor.

While it is primarily a comedy bit, Mạnh Quỳnh’s original performance also has a pedagogical quality. It occurs during the interview portion of his appearance on Paris by Night, where he stands at the podium alongside affable host Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn and longtime singing partner Phi Nhung. To introduce the bit, Nguyễn Ngọc Ngạn notes how people love translating foreign songs into Vietnamese, but that the reverse is rarer—especially vọng cổ. Mạnh Quỳnh feigns nervousness, stating that he has been in America for ten years, during which time he has forgotten most of his Vietnamese but has hardly learned any English. After more banter, he sings the verse in Vietnamese, and the crowd dutifully applauds. “Uncle” Ngạn declares, “But ladies and gentlemen […] the English is the important part!”

The two men pretend to translate the song on the spot. They first debate whether “em ơi” is best rendered as “honey” or “sweetheart,” but they settle on the former:

[Rao] Honey! Do you know I love you and miss you so much?
Night after night I cannot sleep so…well!

[Vọng Cổ] You leaving me because of money.
I do know I, who have nothing, I just love you by my heart my soul,
I don’t know what to do! No car, no job, no money, no home.
I will die very soon! Honey, come back, you can save my life!

Mạnh Quỳnh’s skill as an accomplished cải lương singer and lyricist is on full display. Despite the purposefully bad Vietglish, he does not break the melodic, rhythmic, and thematic norms of vọng cổ. His voice is clear and strong, and he imbues the English lyrics with the little melodic ornamentations so crucial for giving cải lương its sound. His piece follows the standard musical structure, beginning with a rao that introduces the first câu (phrase/verse) of vọng cổ, modified to end instead of transitioning to the second câu. Before singing, he also introduces the cải lương guitarist to show that he means business. Yes, the song is intended to be funny, but it is also real, authentic cải lương.

Laying Breadcrumbs

As for me singing this particular cải lương piece to my daughter? Let’s just say certain things had to happen—both individually and within the broader arc of Vietnamese history—for a second-generation bố who speaks Vietnamese with a northern accent to put his daughter to bed with the thoroughly-southern cải lương. As with Mạnh Quỳnh’s performance, my rendition generates its own breadcrumbs, gesturing both to the idiosyncrasies of my experiences and the social patterning of Vietnamese histories.

Our stories are unique to us, but they also rhyme with those of others. Both my maternal and paternal families hail from the north (Hà Nội and Hải Dương, respectively) and migrated south during the 1954 partition. While my mother’s aristocratic family maintained many northern customs when they moved to Sài Gòn, my father’s working-class family integrated into the culture of coastal Bình Định. Both backgrounds are reflected in my identity, from a northern-inflected Vietnamese speaking voice inherited from my mother to a love of the cải lương recordings my paternal grandparents constantly played when I was a child. That music stuck with me so much that when I began studying with đàn bầu (monochord zither) virtuoso Phạm Đức Thành two decades ago, I begged thầy (teacher) to teach me all six câu of vọng cổ. (To my credit, I learned three that year.)

Today, though I adore the music of northern Vietnam—genres like ngâm thơ poetry recitation certainly fit better with my natural accent—when I play Vietnamese music, the cải lương repertoire is what flows from me first. Perhaps there is some universe in which Vietnamese people did not feel the need to bifurcate their homeland and negotiate a mass migration, where my preferred genre might have been northern hát chèo opera instead of cải lương. But in this one, where northern migrants learned to love the culture of their new southern home so much that they were nostalgic for its sounds when they resettled in the West decades later, the cải lương playing on VHS tapes was what lulled me to sleep when I crawled under the covers of my ông nội.

And so I, in turn, laid my own breadcrumbs for my daughter—for whom I have no expectation of fluency in the Vietnamese language or anything more than a passing acquaintance with its cultural artifacts, from “Thằng Bờm” to a silly Vietglish vọng cổ. Perhap she will, in her own nostalgic moments, remember that her bố, a man equally likely to praise her with “that was dope” as “hay lắm con” (“very good, kiddo”), liked to put her to sleep with songs in a language that was important to him, containing strange melodies and words sounding as if they stretched far into the distant past and yet were part and parcel of his everyday being. Perhaps, if she is feeling especially curious, she will wonder why her bố spoke Vietnamese with one accent but often sang it with another. If we are both lucky enough, that curiosity will come while she can ask me those questions directly, but if not, the aural breadcrumbs will have already done their job, illustrating the richness of our Vietnamese identities and pointing the way home for those who seek it.

Jason R. Nguyễn is a scholar, musician, and composer specializing in the sounds, musical genres, and instruments of Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora. He specializes in playing the “đàn bầu,” a one-string Vietnamese instrument, which he has studied for over twenty years. Jason’s music reflects his life, synthesizing styles as diverse as hip hop, electronic music, and “cải lương” folk opera. Using guitar pedals, synthesizers, and the ethereal sounds of đàn bầu, his tracks are meditations on the nature of identity, tradition, and modernity. Finally, he earned a dual-doctorate in “Ethnomusicology” and “Communication & Culture” from Indiana University in 2021. His academic research focuses on Vietnamese expressive culture and identity in diasporic contexts.


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