Nostalgic melodies: the music of the past
Our family has always been fond of music. It has become intrinsically connected to my memory of my youth and my impressions of our identity as a family.
My earliest memory of my sister is a musical one: the two of us lying together on a futon in the one bedroom all four of us shared when we first immigrated to Hawaii, me half asleep, my sister singing songs from a lyrics book she held in one hand as she stroked my hair slowly with the other.
MY TRANSLATION OF STUDENT DAYS
Pure white dresses coloring the campus
The chaste everyday life of a student,
Beautiful and vibrant like a fresh flower
With its small worries, its trifling sorrows
The soul unburdened, untouched by anyone
Eyes full of innocence, hair flowing freely
The word ‘love’ flows across the ears,
Yet love has not yet touched the heart,
The beginning of spring beckons with the promise of tomorrow
Youth has passed by, friends scattered here and there
Far and distant, a horizon away
Remembering them affectionately, you say a few words
Recalling the sound of their names, in those moments side by side,
Happily passing time in that beloved school,
All those deep feelings, so hard to forget
Now, the memories flow with the passage of time
The days pass by, flowers bloom, then wilt away
Trying to survive amidst a lavish world
Drifting in the vicissitudes of life
Looking back in fondness to those long-gone memories.
Even before we came to the U.S., I was already old friends with Vietnamese music. By the time I was three I knew by heart all the lines of at least two cai luong (Vietnamese renovated opera) plays. I loved going to the theater to watch cai luong shows with my nanny, delighting in the rich story-lines, the vibrant costumes, and most of all, the splendid voices of the lead performers.
A cai luong performance often features music from a variety of genres, with lots of melodies borrowed from foreign music as well as folk melodies, but the most celebrated bits are the stanzas of vong co. Vong co (literally meaning “nostalgia for the drumbeat”) is made up of less than two dozen lines of melodies, originally derived from a single song written by South Vietnamese composer Cao Van Lau. In cai luong, the various melodies are re-used, over and over, in different permutations, to convey the emotion felt by the characters in the story. Vong co is so difficult to sing that it takes decades of training to perfect one’s voice. It’s common for a show to boast only a handful of really good singers among the many roles in a production.
Listening to a vong co performance, one can somewhat predict the turns and bends a singer’s voice will take based solely upon what has already been sung. The melody has become ingrained in one’s mind; it is like recalling a conversation with an old friend. Despite this constant repetition, each vong co song retains its individuality, and one never gets tired of listening to it, but instead relishes in the familiarity, marvels at the poetry of each separate incarnation. No music in the world moves me the way vong co does.
(Sorry, too complicated to translate, but you can just feel the emotions. Sung by the legendary King of Vong Co, Ut Tra On:)
There are things that come quite close to vong co in my heart, however. I have a deep love for the way Vietnamese music represents nostalgia. The Vietnamese music that I love the most are those songs that existed before the Vietnam war and those that are a direct result of the war. I’m not a very patriotic person by nature, and I don’t have the same nostalgic feelings towards Vietnam, in particular–other than the overwhelming urge to eat All The Food again!–but these songs about loss and love and nostalgia for a time that has gone by are just so beautiful I almost can’t bear them.
Especially when they are sung by the incredible Khanh Ly. Her voice just evokes nostalgia. She’s so good that she’s even mentioned in the lyrics of the song:
MY TRANSLATION OF: SAIGON, A NAMELESS MEMORY
O, Saigon. I’ve lost you, the way you’ve lost your name
Like a river whose waters have been swept away
Like a person departed, face at a distance, far from the heart
I wonder to myself, do you still remember?
O, Saigon, where are the days when the city was in a bustle
Within that joy of a question, a word of greeting
The dawn of life full of freshness and a multitude of colors
What is left of it now?
Who has gone, who still remembers the line of old tamarind trees
The parks in autumn, the yellow flowers, the stone statues
They’re all at an end now, those distant dreams
Swept along the tide of life
O Saigon, where did those rainy-season days go, walking under a coat,
Hand in hand, whispering some phrase or other?
Where are the flower stands, the road home from a music performance
Where is the lively sound of Khanh Ly’s singing?
O Saigon, the days in which we sang side by side have ended
Where now is Pham Duy and the sorrowful love songs
My tears fall, mourning those moments in the beginning
What is left of them now?
O Saigon, I’ve lost you the way you’ve lost your name
Like a row of red leaves, waiting, expectant
The sky reflects a small, gentle figure
Such a pitiful sight, leaving only silence upon the lips
O Saigon, I’ve lost you the way you’ve lost your name
Like cold incense upon a lonely grave
The faraway sky that has abandoned the soil
What is left now?
Cai luong and wartime/post-war Vietnamese music have influenced my aesthetic as a writer more than anything else. I find that what draws me most in writing are stories about loss, about longing, about disconnects. This soundtrack of my life not only allows me to tap into the memories of my own past, but is also a doorway to understanding the collective experience of an entire generation of people. Music brings with it a different perspective, done up in the broad strokes of an artist’s hand. My writer’s soul would be less vibrant if not for these songs.
I will be listening to them until my very last days.
This week’s Write or Die Wednesday prompt was inspired by “Springsteen” by Eric Church: “Funny how a melody sounds like a memory / Like the soundtrack to a July Saturday night.” Which song(s) brings back memories for you and why?