Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries - Popular Music
Tuyet A. N. Tran ©
Contemporary Vietnamese popular music is a diverse genre that reflects several combinations of ancient, modern, Vietnamese regional differences, and foreign influenced concepts borne from the effects of forced and/or voluntary migration, inter-racial unions due to a myriad of historical events occurred throughout several centuries in Viet Nam. It would be disingenuous to box contemporary popular Vietnamese music into one convenient category without considering Vietnamese ethnic and cultural differences that existed over time. The Vietnamese inherently cultural and ethnic differences woven with foreign influences that produced a variety of popular music.

Vietnamese migration and/or travelling to all corners of the world began well over a century ago. Music was and still is the common vein that runs through all Vietnamese people regardless of their nationalities, ethnic mixtures and, background. What is considered as Vietnamese music had survived acculturation during the one thousand years rule under Chinese occupation followed by one hundred years of French colonial rule.

This section is by no means a sweeping study of contemporary popular music for that would be a sizeable undertaking. It is an introduction to a cross-sectional group of composers and musicians whose music are accessible to Asian and Western audience. Their diverse works are as much the byproducts of intrinsically Vietnamese regional, ethnic, and cultural differences as the foreign influences that shaped their musical thoughts and ideas.

These artists are but isolated representation of countless Vietnamese composers and musicians who continue to develop and flourish within and without Viet Nam. The selection is mindful of each artist's multicultural experiences and ethnic differences that invariably shaped her or his musical stories. Each artist brings her or his unique talent and personal thoughts to produce their musical visions.

1. Nguyen Le musician and composer
2. Anh Quan musician and composer }
3. Huy Tuan musician and composer } Toc Ngan Group
4. My Linh musician }
5. Huong Thanh musician
6. Thanh Lam musician
7. Chris Minh Doky musician

"More Installments To Come 6/2001"


Photo credit: ACT



"A deep-minded musician, filled with mystery, whose playing is never meaningless" (Telerama)
"Magican guitarist" (Jazz Mag, Guitare & Claviers)
Like a funambulist, Nguyên Lê skips from
rock-burning intensity to Asian refinement,
from the meticulous search of new sounds
to the catching joy of improvisation.

Born 01/14/1959 in Paris of Vietnamese parents, he began to play drums at the age of 15, then took up guitar & electric bass. After graduating in Visual Arts, he majored in Philosophy, writing a thesis on Exoticism. Then he devoted himself to music, creating "ULTRAMARINE" (1983), a multi-ethnic band whose CD "DÉ" was considered "1989's best World Music album" (Philippe Conrath, Libération.)

Nguyên Lê is a self-taught musician with a wide scope of interests: rock & funk (Jim Cuomo, Madagascar tour 84), jazz standards & contemporary music (Yves Robert), electronic music (Andre Almuro, Tona Scherchen), ethnic music projects include African & Caribbean with ULTRAMARINE, Algerian with Safy Boutella, Indian with Kakoli, and Vietnamese with his "Dan Bau" (traditional one-stringed instrument) teacher Truong Tang.

In September 87 he was chosen by musical director Antoine Hervé to play with the O. N. J. (French National Jazz Orchestra). With this big band, he played with such musicians as Johnny Griffin, Louis Sclavis, Didier Lockwood, Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Randy Brecker, Toots Thielemans, Courtney Pine, Steve Lacy, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gil Evans, and Quincy Jones.

In Sepember 89, he recorded ULTRAMARINE's 2nd album "DÉ", and in May 1990, his first album as a leader, "MIRACLES", recorded in the U.S.A. with Art Lande, Marc Johnson & Peter Erskine. At the same time he works with such musicians as Michel Portal, Miroslav Vitous, Trilok Gurtu, J. F. Jenny Clarke, Aldo Romano, Daniel Humair, Dewey Redman, Andy Emler, Jon Christensen, Nana Vasconcelos, Paolo Fresu ...

In May 92, after a month tour with Paul McCandless on winds, Art Lande (p), Dean Johnson (b) & Joel Allouche (d), he recorded his 2nd album, "ZANZIBAR".

Since January 93, he has been a frequent guest soloist with Köln's WDR Big Band, especially with composer / conductor Vince Mendoza. Nguyên Lê plays on three of his projects: "JAZZPANA", "SKETCHES" with Dave Liebman, Charlie Mariano and Peter Erskine, & "DOWNTOWN", with Russell Ferrante. In April 1994 he was invited to be the soloist of "The New Yorker", a suite written & directed by Bob Brookmeyer, with Dieter Ilg (b) & Danny Gottlieb (d). With these two musicians, he set up his new trio, and recorded his CD, "Million Waves" in December 94. Michel Contat, from Télérama writes about this CD: "This trio brings him to some musical spaces which he had not even imagined, & which are pure poetry."

NL: For a long time, I had dreamt of a band mixing jazz musicians with Vietnamese traditional musicians, playing a music inspired by the songs my mother used to sing to me. Born in Paris from Vietnamese parents, I lost the Vietnames language when I began school. Only in Sept. 94 did I feel confident and experienced enough to begin "Tales of Viêt-Nam". It is a journey back into my childhood, a return to lost roots. But it also means the creation of an imaginary folklore that stems from a crossroads of contemporary influences.

In 1995 Nguyên Lê recorded "Tales from Viêt-Nam", a special project of Vietnamese music, with a 8-piece band combining jazz & traditional musicians. In the meantime, he played in trio with Michell Benita (b) and Peter Erskine, recorded on Michel Portal's new album with Ralph Towner (g), and worked with Ornette Coleman on one of his contemporary music pieces, "Freedom Statue". In June 95, he was invited by the WDR Big Band to play on "Azure Moon" with the YELLOW JACKETS and Vince Mendoza. In July 95, the Stuttgart Festival invited him to be one of the guitarists to celebrate the "Universe of Jimi Hendrix". Other participants included Trilok Gurtu, Terry Bozzio, Cassandra Wilson, Jack Bruce, Vernon Reid, David Torn, Victor Bailey, Pharaoh Sanders .... In Germany he worked with John McLaughlin & Markus Stockhausen.

In January 1997 Nguyên Lê recorded his album "Three Trios". It features the guitarist in three different settings including bassists Marc Johnson, Dieter Ilg and Renaud Garcia-Fons and drummers Peter Erskine, Danny Gottlieb and Mino Cinelu. Following the release of "Three Trios" Nguyên Lê toured in the USA, winning great critical acclaim for his concert in New York's legendary Birdland. In the fall of 1997 he joined Paolo Fresu's highly acclaimed new quartet. Together they recorded "Angel".

As early as 1992, Nguyên Lê had been working on projects with the Algerian singer Safy Boutella. 1997 the Franco-Vietnamese guitarist followed these traces deeper into the Maghreb. On "Meli Meli", Cheb Mami's most recent album (with Khaled, Algeria's most popular singer), Nguyên Lê not only played guitar, he also produced some of the songs. Finally, in early 1998 he asked Cheb Mami's drummer Karim Ziad to introduce him to the world of the Berbers and popular Algerian music. Once again he brought together a multicultural band with the Serbian pianist Bojan Zulfikarpasic, Austrian saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig, Italian jazz musicians Paolo Fresu and Stefano Di Battista, the Berbersingers of B'net Houariyat, Cheb Mami himself, and two friends out of Lê's Vietnamese project; Huong Thanh and Hao Nhien. With them he recorded "Maghreb and Friends".

BAIKIDA Nguyên Lê (2000)
MAGHREB & FRIENDS Nguyên Lê (1998)
THREE TRIOS Nguyên Lê (1997)
MILLIONWAVES Nguyên Lê (1995)
SKETCHES Vince Mendoza (1994)
MIRACLES Nguyên Lê (1989)
ZANZIBAR Nguyên Lê (1992)
ANGEL Paolo Fresu (1998)
O. N. J. 88/89 O. N. J. (1987)
MEGAOCTET Andy Emler (1990)
HEADGAMES Andy Emler (1992)
MEJNOUN Safy Boutella (1991)
ANYWAY Michel Portal (1993)
CINEMAS Michel Portal (1995)

Siegfried Loch, Act

The music of his ancestral homeland has formed an important strand in his work, notably in his Tales From Vietnam project, a melding together of Vietnamese traditional song and contemporary jazz, ancient instruments and state of the art electronic sampling.

Le is an original and highly creative guitarist on an instrument where cliche can easily dominate, whether playing in a driving, rock or funk influenced style, in spacey effects-laden mode, or evoking the timbres and sound of traditional Vietnamese instruments. His guitar provides a highly malleable medium for all of those approaches, and seems a notably compatible choice of instrument.

NL: Tales from Vietnam in 1995 was really when I started to work with my own roots in the Vietnamese tradition, and in doing that project I also learned a way to do something with other ethnic traditions, working from my identity as a jazz musician. Although it sounds very different, I could not have done Maghreb and Friends, which was a project I made with Moroccan music, if I had not already done Tales from Vietnam.
NL: My mother used to sing Vietnamese songs to me when I was a small child, and I dreamed of mixing jazz musicians with Vietnamese traditional musicians for a long time. In a way, it was a journey back into my lost roots, but it was also a way of creating a kind of imaginary folklore from the ancient music of Vietnam and a whole diversity of contemporary influences.
NL: Growing up in Paris meant I was in a cross-cultural situation right from the beginning, and my band Ultramarine was one of the first ethnic fusion bands in France. Paris is like New York in that it has lots of ethnic communities within the city, and they all have their music, but in Paris the different communities mix a lot more, instead of just staying in their own ghetto. I'm very deeply into African music. I've always been very interested in African music, and in the relationship between the styles of black Africa and the Algerian and Moroccan music of the north. I explored some of those connections in Maghreb and Friends.

On Maghreb and Friends (1998), the guitarist explored another avenue long implicit in his work, and one rooted in the famously eclectic Parisian music scene, with its rich infusion of Pan-African musicians. Although both of these projects employed larger groups, the guitarist often works in a trio setting, but it is somehow typical of him that he has several such trios rather than just one. He chose to feature three distinct line-ups in his excellent Three Trios album in 1997, for example, and described the resulting music as a suite in which each part featured a different trio.
His latest disc, Bakida, featured what most people regard as his premier line up, with the remarkable bass player Renaud Garcia Fons and percussionist Tino di Geraldo, as well as a number of guests. Garcia Fons is a major discovery in recent European jazz, and brings a unique dimension to any project in which he is involved, notably through his wonderful arco (with the bow) playing.

NL: May all those colors, accents, and spices gather together in one sincere voice, like a central current flowing through the streams of cultures: West and East - middle and extreme, South and North - radiant and magnetic.
NL: I tried to learn all the different elements of the music -- melody, of course, but I also tried to analyse the sounds and phrasing of traditional instruments and incorporate them into my guitar playing. There is also a different use of space and modal scales and tonal centres that you cannot develop if you just stay in a mainstream jazz idiom. I listen mostly to traditional ethnic music these days.
NL: With Renaud the music is more oriental and Spanish, and of course, he has a very strong identity playing arco. I have worked a lot with different combinations of trios, and for me it is a very interesting experiment to discover what the different musicians will bring to the music. The players I work with have connections to jazz but also to different kinds of music as well, and that is all fascinating to me. I had this love for different cultures right from the start.
NL: What I usually like to say is that music and guitar chose me! I started first with drums for two years, just for fun at school. The first time I grabbed an electric guitar was really a shock. I heard that the instrument could really sing, and I was missing that with the drums. My first thing on guitar was really improvising. I didn't play pop songs first, and I think that was very important in the way my musical life developed. I had a kind of trance feeling when I first played it, and I try to keep that emotion in my playing.
NL: As for becoming a musician, there was not a big decision about that. I was studying visual arts at the same time, and the more I did music the less time I had for that. The big step was when I was invited to join the Orchestre National de Jazz in 1987. In that band you are paid a monthly salary, which made my parents feel better as well! For them as well as for me, it was a good way to enter the life of a professional musician. And that has been my life ever since.

Kenny Mathieson



The young, beautiful and phenomenal female singer from Hanoi, Thanh Lam, is currently the most successful Pop star in Viet Nam. She has recorded numerous albums under her own name, which have been release both in Asia and the USA. Her latest Asian tour (1998/99) reached triumphant levels and drew crowds of up to 5000+ per night. She comes from a very famous musical family in Hanoi. Her father Thuân Yên, is a very renowned Vietnamese guitarist, pianist and composer. She is particularly known for her very unusual and atypical voice for an Asian singer. Her voice is dark and powerful and is incredibly expressive, and her stage appearance is extremely charismatic, in its own subtle way. She is a very beautiful and attractive woman, with complete style and class. Last year, she guest appeared at the Jazz festival in Montreux, Switzerland where she was invited to sing a duet with the French/Swiss Pop star Stephan Eicher. One of the unique qualities of Thanh Lam is that she has the ability of communicating specific emotions even to people who do not understand Vietnamese lyrics. Lam is such an expressive performer, that the message of the song comes across to anyone no matter what.

under construction!


NIELS LAN: Working with Thanh Lam and exploring Vietnamese music has turned out to be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences in my career. I felt a perfect and complete musical and personal affinity with all of the Vietnamese guest musicians who appeared on the album, and I cherish every note that each one of them contributed , as a precious gift. I was particularly impressed with the emotionally charged and divine beauty of the voice of Thanh Lam. Recently, I had her as a guest on my TV show in Paris, and the French studio audience was literally in a state of shock, and in deep awe, after she delivered her first performance, an emotionally charged rendition of the song "Mot Thoang Tay Ho."

Neils Lan Doky

Note: Neils Lan's Danish mother is a former successful pop singer, his Vietnamese father is a medical doctor and an accomplished classical guitarists, and his brother is Chris Minh Doky. Chris Minh is one of the hottest and most sought after jazz bassists/-soloists by some of the world's biggest music legends. With great success, Chris Minh continually toured the globe performing and recording as a leader and with David Sanborn, Bill Evans, Trilok Gurtu, Randy Brecker, David Sylvian, Kirk Whalum, Al Jarreau, Michael & Randy Brecker, John Scofield, Toots Thielemanns, Dianne Reeves, Kenny Garrett, Jack DeJohnette, Ryuichi Sakamoto and numerous others. Hope to hear Chris Minh's rendition of Vietnamese music soon!




under construction!

On board with silky smooth My Linh (vocalist) are Anh Quan (guitarist and composer) and Huy Tuan (bassist and composer). The production work of Toc Ngan should earned this group acclaims. My Linh voice is soft and sweet. It is not powerful and doesn't pack a punch, but the songs don't need that. They follow the "pop formula" that is designed for radio air-play. This succesful and funky collaboration remind me of Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with Earth, Wind & Fire's brass section.

With music these days seeming like an endless parade of glossy drones, Toc Ngan was bound to catch our attention, it is one of those album that is so different from the norm: verbally, musically and rhythmically. Toc Ngan 2 is the must have album, with meaningful arrangements, soulful rhythm sections and wake-me-up syncopations. It has taken Vietnamese pop music to the next level.


Chi D. Nguyen
May 18, 2001
Viettan Studio


Born in Saigon, Viêt-Nam, Huong Thanh comes from a family of renowned traditional musicians. Her father Huu Phuoc († 1997) was one of the singers of Cai Luong, Renovated Vietnamese Theater, a kind of opera which mixes traditional singing, dance and theater. Cai Luong was created in 1916 by a group of southern music lovers, with the heritage of traditional theater styles from the north, Hat Boi and Hat Cheo, southern chamber music and the introduction of elements of french music. Cai Luong was very popular from the 30s on. Huong Lan, Huong Thanhs sister, now established in USA, is also a Vietnamese singer, in Cai Luong as well as in traditional and modern music.

In Vietnamese singing theres a special and very strong relation between melody and words: there are six linguistic tones, and the same syllabe can have different meanings depending on the pronounced pitch. The poetry of the text has its internal melody, and the singer has to convey the emotions of both. Huong Thanh embodies the particularities of the Vietnamese traditional singing, full of detailed inflections, ornements, finesse and diversity of expression and timbres.

At the age of 10 Huong Thanh began to learn Cai Luong and traditional singing in the family context - her parents house was always full of visiting singers and musicians, who also acted as her teachers. At 13 she perfected her skills in studying intensively in Saigon music and theater schools, and at 16 she performed on stage for the first time.

Since her move to Paris in 1977, she has taken part in several shows of Cai Luong theater with great traditional artists -including her father- in the Vietnamese community in Europe (France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium). Each time Huong Thanh returned to Viêt-Nam she has worked for several recordings which include the best musicians of the country. In 1995 she met Nguyên Lê who brought her to the world of jazz, a music she had never performed before. The adventure of Tales from Viêt-Nam began: the band has toured in the most important festivals of France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, England, Switzerland. The CD (1996, ACT 9225-2) has received a great welcoming from international critics: Diapason d'Or, Choc du MONDE DE LA MUSIQUE, Choc of Year 1996 JAZZMAN (France), 2nd best CD 96 for JAZZTHING (Germany), Best CD 96 on radio TRS 2 (CH), "a minor masterpiece" JAZZTIMES (USA).

In 1996, in Banlieues Bleues festival, Paris, Huong Thanh was part of a complete show where traditional and contemporary Vietnamese dancers were integrated to the Tales from Viêt-Nam orchestra. She performed as a singer, as usual, but also as a dancer (the traditional sword dance of Trung Trac Trung Nhi, two sisters heroines of Viêt-Nam, training their troops for battle). The same year Huong Thanh was invited to sing for the celebration of the anniversary of the declaration of human rights at the UNESCO. In 1997 she recorded in Los Angeles, USA, with her sister Huong Lan. In 1998 she appeared on Maghreb & Friends (ACT 9261-2), Nguyên Lês last CD, on Louanges, a song by Algerian musician Karim Ziad. After translating the words from Arabic to Vietnamese, she sings the replica to the North African singers.

After several months of work, she now presents Moon and Wind, her first CD for ACT, produced, written and engineered by Nguyên Lê. A peaceful celebration of all the aspects of love: child love, with lullabies from different regions of Viêt-Nam, parents love, love of the one who will share our life, love of the far away homeland.

NGUYEN LE: Let us redefine World Music as the new identity the children of the diaspora are building between the streams of today and the search for the deepest tradition. Since we live here, we have integrated the tools of the West to create our own culture. From Tales from Viêt-Nam to Moon and Wind, I have always tried to weave together the threads of those encounters where each one, with his own culture, can give the best of himself. So many things are yet to be shared!

Traditional music:
Chuyên Ba Ngụi 1995
Chuyên Phim Buôn 1996
Duyên Ta Nhu Mây 1996
To Duyên 1996
Suo Em No Vôi Lây Chông 1998

World Jazz:
TALES FROM VIET NAM Nguyên Lê (1996)
MAGHREB & FRIENDS Nguyên Lê (1998)
MOON AND WIND Huong Thanh - New Sounds from Viêt-Nam created by Nguyên Lê (1999)

Resources on Huong Thanh:
Siegfried Loch, Act Music