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Live music trend shakes up sleepy districts

Update: September, 15/2013 - 07:28

Staging a comeback: Live music is now all the rage in Phu Yen Province but the scene is still very much in its infancy. There are many music bands equipped with modern instruments in Ha Noi but they remain rare in rural areas.

by Phong Luu & Ha Nguyen

While city people often head to karaoke lounges to blow off steam, those living in the rural area in the southern province of Phu Yen rely on their own voices.

Farmer Phan Chi Thoai, who lives in Phu Hoa District's Hoa Thang Village, said his neighbours - from youngsters to the elderly - were so interested in singing that they could sing through the entire night.

Huynh Thi Hue, 70, is among these enthusiastic singers. Her repertoire of "red songs" (those with a revolutionary theme) and "yellow songs" (romantic love songs) attract hundreds of local fans, according to Thoai.

One listener, Vu Thi Huong, marvels at Hue's enthusiasm and strong voice, as well as her remarkable memory. "She's learned hundreds of songs by heart without seeing them written down," said Huong. "Her singing has stirred the hearts of all those around here who love music."

In Dong Hoa's Hoa Vinh Village, many mobile "coffee music" bands are cropping up. Villager Nguyen Van Thanh said this new development has livened up the quiet village.

"We have to work very hard in the fields every day, so we sing together to relax and de-stress," said Thanh.

Because there are no professional singers or modern instruments here, concerts are quite cheap, he said. Tickets cost only VND15,000-20,000 (less than US$1) per person. Listeners can sit as long as possible to enjoy the music and can even sign up to sing themselves.

Can't beat experience: An elderly singer in Hoa Vinh Village receives flowers and applause from listeners. — Photos

Hoa Thang Village chairman Nguyen Phi Ho said he used to think that live coffee music could only survive in big cities like Ha Noi and HCM City. But in the last several years, he had seen this kind of music grow increasingly popular in his rural area.

"I'm very happy about this trend because I see our farmers' spirits improving. But I'm also sad because the live music has caused noise and other trouble," said Ho.

Nhuan Duc, a high-ranking monk at Canh Thai Pagoda, agreed with Ho. He said farmers had set up a coffee music shop next to his pagoda to sing and dance, screaming all day and night and making it difficult for the monks to study, pray, meditate and work.

"We have to turn our loudspeaker to its highest volume to drown out the music," the monk said.

The district has asked the Ao Anh live music coffee shop to hold concerts at a different time so they do not disrupt the monks and other neighbours, said Do Dinh Tay, head of the Dong Hoa District's Culture and Information Department.

But by now, it might be too late to stop the singing movement, which has spread to many areas of Phu Yen.

"My friend invited me to his father's death anniversary. I thought the party would be held in a simple, warm atmosphere. But when we sat down, we were very surprised. A live band began to play," said Tay.

Many adults and children joined in excitedly. But Tay kept his distance.

"I was very upset because a death anniversary should be a solemn event, not a jubilant dance party," he said.

He recalled another party to celebrate a bumper onion crop. "After the party, my friend Tran Van Sang implored me to join a band, saying I could sing any songs I liked," he said. "Sang argued that without live music, a party would be very boring. 'It's an effective way for villagers to relax after their exhausting work in the fields. I myself have become a music addict. I don't feel comfortable if I don't sign up to sing,' he told me."

Boys in the band: A group of men in a northern area of Phu Tho Province perform love songs.

Villager Truong Thi Hieu had the opposite reaction to the trend. She said she has been suffering from headaches caused by the "terrible noise", which occurs all day and night.

"Much more seriously, my children have neglected their studies to sing," Hieu said.

According to unofficial statistics from the Phu Yen Department of Culture and Information, the province has hundreds of bands. The districts of Dong Hoa and Tay Hoa alone have about 100. Being a singer or a showman is now so lucrative, according to Tay, that one person could earn as much as VND15-20 million (nearly $1,000) a month.

Yet the live music trend may be getting further from its roots.

Nguyen Van Tam, who performs in the band Song Xanh, said he had invested millions of dong in modern instruments and an audio system.

Few showmen in rural areas dare to invest in such modern instruments," said Tam. "Instead, they try to compete by using low quality instruments and charging lower ticket prices - VND60,000-80,000 per person for one hour compared with VND100,000-120,000."

Director of Phu Yen Department of Culture and Information Ho Van Tien said Viet Nam has no regulations to manage live bands the way it does karaoke operators.

"Local authorities should remind bands to be considerate of the people around them with regards to sound volume and schedule of their shows," Tien said.

Starting young: Three youngsters in Phu Tho treat crowds to a tune.

Others bemoaned the content of the music being performed. Composer Dang Huu Phuc said that while popular music was booming in the country, broadcast on such shows as Bai hat Viet (Vietnamese Songs) and Con duong am nhac (The Music Road), there was little instrumental music.

"Our nation is really missing something without an instrumental music work such as the Symphony of Beethoven or the Fuga of Bach," Phuc said.

He acknowledged, however, that composing instrumental music was very difficult compared with composing songs for the masses. Still, he said, the website, which launched several months ago and has posted thousands of Vietnamese songs on its network, could present a good opportunity for aspiring composers.

"If music continues spreading in rural areas the way it is now, a composer could attract millions of listeners," Phuc said. — VNS

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