Art critics have so far discussed much on the so-called “national identity” in arts. It is obvious that developing “an advance culture soaked with national characters” is for long an issue of concern to our leaders and critics. Even me, I mentioned this subject once here in this blog. What I believe after all is that Vietnamese music is actually characterized by several features, and songs and compositions by Pham Duy might be an example.
Pham Duy, born in 1921, was called by the French as “le poète de la chanson vietnamienne” (the poet who sings Vietnamese songs) for his beautiful melodies and poetic lyrics. And it was not all the credit he got. For his Vietnamese audience, Pham Duy was known to many as one of the composers, songwriters, and founders of a whole new world of music in Vietnam as far back as the late 1930s, the music which would later be named “nouvelle musique”.
Although to compare music composers is not a good thing to do, I find in the works by Van Cao, Trinh Cong Son, and many other composers of genius, much influence from western modern music. But Pham Duy is just Pham Duy, not anyone else. He is who he is, a composer inspired mostly, if not only, by Vietnamese folk songs, or the musical heritage of his motherland. The inspiration is shown clearly in such songs as “The Romance of Qing Ke”, “Golden Flower Hill”, “My Village”, etc. Personally I love “My Village” by Pham Duy best of all songs sharing this name, like the “My Village” by Van Cao, or Ho Bac. Every pitch and accord makes up an unmixed vietnamese sound. Unlike songs by Trinh Cong Son, Pham Duy’s works are often hard to perform, and they leave much space for different singers to experiment on performing them differently.
The melodies are haunting, and the lyrics are so beautiful that they challenge any translator who wants to take them across the border between languages.
There is a translation of “The Rain on the Leaves”, however, and I really admire the translator, Steve Addiss. He himself was also an excellent performer of this song in a duet with Pham Duy.
Giọt mưa trên lá nước mắt mẹ già
Lã chã đầm đìa trên xác con lạnh giá.
Giọt mưa trên lá nước mắt mặn mà
Thiếu nữ mừng vì tan chiến tranh chồng về
Giọt mưa trên lá tiếng khóc oa oa
Đứa bé chào đời cho chúng ta nụ cười
Giọt mưa trên lá tiếng nói bao la
Tóc trắng đậm đà êm ái ru tình già.
Giọt mưa trên lá bối rối, bồi hồi,
Ráo riết, miệt mài, anh biết yêu lần cuối.
Giọt mưa trên lá bỡ ngỡ, xôn xao,
Cuống quít, dạt dào, em biết yêu lần đầu
Giọt mưa trên lá thấp thoáng, bơ vơ
Khép nép, đợi chờ, xa cách nhau vài giờ
Giọt mưa trên lá dĩ vãng xa xôi
Sớm tối bùi ngùi, xa cách nhau một đời.
English lyrics by Steve Addiss:
The rain on the leaves is the tears of joy
Of the girl whose boy returns from the war.
The rain on the leaves is the bitter tears
When the mother hears her son is no more.
The rain on the leaves is the cry that is torn
From a baby just born as life is begun
The rain on the leaves is an old couple's love
Much greater now than when they were young.
The rain on the leaves is the passionate voice
In a final choice when last love is near.
The rain on the leaves is the voice surprised
As it realizes its first love is here.
The rain on the leaves is the heart's distress
And a loneliness, as life passes by.
The rain on the leaves is the last caress
And a tenderness before love can die.
In the second half of the song, they changed the harmony, and made "The Rain on the Leaves" a gospel accompanied on acoustic guitar with its gentle sounds. Can such a song, with its simple pitch, rhythmn, and harmony, leave such space for the performer's creativeness? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.