Cover of children's song sparks controversy

May 17, 2020 - 08:47

In a message to communications companies,up-and-coming singer Kỳ Kỳ asked them to draw a clear line between infringements and not-for-profit music covers for the public benefit.


Illustration by Trịnh Lập

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

It seemed totally incongruous to put a much-loved Vietnamese children's song, Chú Voi Con ở Bản Đôn (The Little Elephant in Đôn Hamlet) in a contemporary mash-up with the K-pop hit Nobody by Wonder Girls.

But up-and-coming singer Kỳ Kỳ offered a hip mash-up with a guitar accompaniment that made it not only possible but loved by thousands of young people.

On her Facebook account, the singer posted on May 11 that she had not contacted the composer of Chú Voi Con ở Bản Đôn Phạm Tuyên to say that she agreed to remove from YouTube the video clip where she sang the mash-up and warned her fans not to upload a copy on YouTube. She said she really liked the song but had to do this due to a YouTube copyright-related warning. 

In another message to communications companies, she asked them to draw a clear line between infringements and not-for-profit music covers for the public benefit.

Posting a screenshot of an email sent to her by Hồng Ân Communications and Entertainment Co Ltd authorised by Phạm Tuyên to represent him in copyrighting his songs, Kỳ Kỳ took the opportunity to thank her fans and subscribers to her S.K.M. Pham channel on YouTube, which currently has nearly 6,000 subscribers.  

Phạm Tuyên is a famed Vietnamese composer, who wrote hundreds of beloved children's song including the Little Elephant, Cánh Én Mùa Xuân (The Wings of Spring Swallows) and Trái Đất Này Là Của Chúng Mình (This Earth Belong to Us, the Children). It is not an overstatement to say that all Vietnamese children grow up on at least a couple of the songs he wrote. 

But he is most famous for another song, composed in April 1975, when Việt Nam was reunified after many years of devastating war and family separation: Như Có Bác Hồ Trong Ngày Vui Đại Thắng (As if Uncle Hồ Were Here on Great Victory Day). The song's chorus, "Việt Nam - Hồ Chí Minh" sang three times has become well-known nationwide. 

As the young son of decorated high-court monarchist Phạm Quỳnh of Việt Nam's last dynasty, who was killed in 1945, it sent the message that Phạm Tuyên had reconciled his family tragedies with his country's bigger accomplishments for the people.

The elephant song was written about a stray baby elephant in Đôn Hamlet, heart of the kingdom of elephant taming by the Ê Đê ethnic people. Traditionally, villagers go into the jungle to catch grown elephants and take them home to train to carry large logs, goods and later, carry tourists on their backs. The tamers would spare smaller elephants to let them live in peace.

Phạm Tuyên visited Đôn Hamlet with some other composers to look for inspiration when they heard about this Ê Đê tradition. He wrote the song about the baby elephant that strayed to Đôn Hamlet and was taken care of by the villagers.

The chorus goes: "Hey baby elephant, you shall grow up fast into a sweet giant with a beautiful pair of ivory, you would fathom the far and deep jungle and carry logs home to build new houses for our village."

The lyrics have been sung by generations of young children with naivety about the elephant, the nature and the tradition of the Ê Đê. No one ever questions otherwise. 

When Kỳ Kỳ first improvised the song, she had made the little elephant into the image of a person's love by adding a simple line from Nobody: "I want nobody but you, the Little Elephant".

Comments on her video showed people liked her cracked voice, which made her cover appealing. Nguyễn Mỹ Linh, a VTV reporter on culture and music, even commented on her voice on the cover of a popular Trịnh Công Sơn song: "Listening to you, I'm reminded of Khánh Ly in her youth." Khánh Ly is a living legend in her 70s renowned for her prowess at singing Trịnh Công Sơn songs. 

Things are complex enough to just end the matter there, but the conservation NGO PanNature took it further by uploading a video by Kỳ Kỳ with the totally new lyrics and uploaded it on their YouTube channel on April 16.

The lyrics had completely switched the original lyrics into a declaration that denounced the elephant taming tradition and denounced tourists who sit happily on the back of elephants in the Central Highlands. 

PanNature operates under the Việt Nam Union of Science and Technology Associations and receives funding from the EU and GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale or German International Cooperation).

Nguyễn Thúy Hằng, PanNature head of Communications, told Việt Nam News: "We have not sought permission of composer Phạm Tuyên upon rewriting these lyrics."

The clip has been turned into a pathetic song emphasising that only baby elephants who lost their mothers to the taming tradition would go astray.

"The little baby elephant of Đôn Hamlet, grew up without his mother, so he would not be happy and always feels lost," a couplet has it. 

The song goes on to blame irresponsible people, who became blind for profit to push the illegal and cruel trade of hunting elephants for their ivory and the hairs on their tails, which are made into gold rings, supposedly to bring good luck.

"I am afraid that our message to save our elephants and nature now will get a twisted reaction," Hằng said.

Her organisation's motto on the website is "reconciliation between humans and nature", but now they need to follow the law and reconcile with the composer, who wrote the song and lyrics in goodwill.

Everybody meant well in this complex matter: the composer wrote a loving song for a baby elephant, who went stray and lost its herd, the singer wanted to breathe new life into a popular song and the non-profit organisation wanted people to protect wildlife and nature. 

But they need to follow the law to carry their goodwill and intentions through. 

"I feel quite disappointed," wrote Kỳ Kỳ in her Facebook statement. "I was happy when I sang the song and wanted to channel positive energy to my audience. 

"My apologies to all my fans and those who supported me. I will never sing this song again on any stage.

"I hope I'll keep my energy and joy intact to provide you with more quality cover songs."

Sadly, it may be too early to dream about a reunion concert when Kỳ Kỳ can sing the song on stage with Phạm Tuyên in the audience and appeal to the public not to use products made from elephants or ride on their backs. VNS

The little elephant in Đôn Hamlet

Chú voi con, ở bản Đôn

The Little Elephant in Đôn Hamlet

Chưa có ngà nên còn trẻ con

He has not have any tusks so he's still a child

Từ rừng già chú đến với người 

He has come from the deep jungle to be with humans in the village

Vẫn ham ăn với lại ham chơi He still likes good food and likes playing

Voi con ơi, voi con ơi

Hey, baby elephant, baby elephant!

Mau lớn nhanh có đôi ngà to

You shall grow big fast with beautiful long pair of ivory tusks

Có sức đi muôn dặm rừng xa

Strong enough to fathom miles and miles of the jungle 

Kéo gỗ cho buôn làng của ta

To carry wood for our villagers, 

Chú voi con thật là khôn

The baby elephant is very smart
Quen thiếu nhi khắp vùng Bản Đôn

He knows all the children in Đôn Hamlet 
Đầu gật gù, lúc lắc chiếc vòi

His head nods, his trunk wags
Khéo đung đưa theo nhịp chiêng vui

Along with the gongs beat
Voi con ơi, voi con ơi Baby elephant, baby elephant
Mau lớn lên có thân mình to

You shall grow up fast to have a giant body
Khắp chốn Tây Nguyên còn nhiều voi

In the Central Highlands there are still many elephants
Góp sức xây buôn làng đẹp tươi

They would help build happy villages
Voi ơi voi ơi...


PanNature version: 

Chú voi con ở bản Đôn

Little elephant in Đôn Hamlet

Thiếu bóng mẹ khi còn trẻ con

Living without his mum when he was small

Từ rừng già lạc đến với người

Strayed from deep jungle to the humans

Rất bơ vơ nên chẳng ham chơi

So abandoned he would not want to play

Chú voi con ở bản Đôn

Little elephant of Đôn Hamlet

Chưa có ngà vì còn trẻ con 

Not having ivories yet because he was small

Mà già rồi chú cũng mất ngà

But even if he's older, his ivories would be cut off

Vẫn còn hơn mất mạng voi ta

It's better than losing his body

Voi con ơi voi con hỡi

Hey baby elephant, baby elephant

Chớ có mau lớn nhanh làm chi

Don't rush to grow up, baby

Thế giới kia bao người khinh khi

The world out there would take you down

Bất chấp lương tâm và công lý

Despite the conscience and justice

Voi con ơi, Voi con hỡi

Hey baby Elephant, baby Elephant

Chớ lớn lên với đôi ngà to

Don't grow up with a big pair of ivories

Khiến trai tim bao người u mê

Making so many people's hearts squeezed

Đánh mất trí tuệ và từ bi

They lose their wisdom and kindness


2. Chú voi con, ở bản

Đôn Little elephant of Đôn Hamlet

Thiếu bóng mẹ khi còn trẻ con

Growing up without his mum when small

Ngoài rừng già mẹ đã xa đời

Deep in the jungle his mother had passed away

Mất lông đuôi với cặp ngà voi

Losing her tail's hair and the pair of ivories (Note: Asian female elephants do not have tusks)

3. Chú voi già ở bản Đôn

The Old Elephant of Đôn Hamlet

Sống với người nên phải làm công

Living with humans thus he had to work

Vượt rừng già voi đã rã rời

Exhausted to pass large jungle

Cưỡi trên lưng người vẫn tươi vui

People riding on his back sport happy smiles

Chú voi già, ở Việt Nam

The Old Elephant in Việt Nam

Biết lúc nào mới tạo trẻ con

Who knows when to make his babies

Rồi một ngày chú cũng qua đời

One day he would die away

Voi chỉ còn là truyền thuyết thôi

All elephants become legend only