An internationally-applauded expat Vietnamese singer has combined her voice with an eclectic mix of world music produced by a British musician in a bid to promote her home country’s traditional music to the world.
Over a decade ago, at a disc shop in Helsinki, Finland, Jason Carter, an international performer of Flamenco, Jazz and Classical Guitar, was recommended “Dragonfly,” a mixture of traditional Vietnamese music and jazz produced by Huong Thanh and expat Vietnamese musician Nguyen Le, one of the world’s leading jazz guitarists.
Thanh, now 56, is an internationally-acclaimed singer in traditional music who settled in France at age 18. Her “Dragonfly” instantly cast a spell on Carter, who found her music hair- raising and bewitching and listened to it repeatedly for weeks on end.
Sometime later, Carter could not believe his eyes after seeing Thanh performing at the same world music café in Paris as he was.
During their first meeting, the British performer offered to pair up with her, but she turned the offer down due to the long geographical distance.
The duo kept in touch via the Internet.
Five years later, Carter moved to Nimes, in southern France.
He has since traveled to Paris at least once a month to meet and discuss music with Thanh, his muse.
The pair are engrossed in each other’s riveting worlds of international and traditional Vietnamese music, and eventually forged a long-term partnership.
“I’m happy that my music helps accentuate Thanh’s exceptional singing voice. I’m generally a soloist, but I’m her accompanying musician,” Carter said.
An international prize-winning artist
Thanh is a prolific, highly inspirational artist.
Since claiming a much-coveted world music award given away by France Musique, a radio group, in 2007, Thanh has teamed up with dozens of artists and bands of different nationalities and diverse performing styles.
She formed a band called Camkytiwa with like-minded female artists from South Korea, Japan and China.
The group once performed in Vietnam.
Pierre Diaz, a Spanish-French saxophonist, revealed that Thanh emerged as his optimum option when he planned a trip to Vietnam in 2011 to incorporate some of the Southeast Asian country’s lullabies in his project.
It took Thanh between 15 and 20 years to acquaint Western audiences with her home country’s alluring traditional music.
“Traditional music is just like cheese. When I first arrived in France at 17, I could hardly relish cheese. But I ate the food little by little and later realized that some of its varieties are really tasty.”
“Similarly, traditional music is quite hard to appreciate at first, but familiar sounds from such musical instruments as the saxophone and piano have softened Western ears to the picky genre,” Thanh explained.
The artist has gradually carved out a niche for herself, with her faithful following of visitors to the Guimet Museum, a Paris-based museum dedicated to Asian arts.
Thanh has performed at the museum’s concert auditorium for three consecutive years. According to Hubert Laot, the auditorium’s art director, Thanh’s lengthy performance contracts are quite a rarity, as they make a point of avoiding inviting artists who have already performed at the auditorium and those residing in France.
“Thanh, however, is an exception, as she always has fresh, mesmerizing pieces up her sleeve. Her surprises include the enactment of ‘cai luong’ [reformed theater] and enthralling performances alongside artists from other countries. Her next show will feature Hue royal music,” Laot noted.
Under Thanh’s invitations, many traditional music artists in Vietnam have made their way to the Guimet Museum, one of the largest museums of Asian arts and culture in Western countries, to showcase their flair in front of a selected audience in the auditorium, which is “seemingly void of breathing sounds.”
In recent years, Thanh has switched from performing with large jazz bands to having her voice accompanied by a sole musician or a small band.
“Performing with a large jazz band tends to drown out my voice and traditional Vietnamese music. On the contrary, during my performances with Jason Carter, audiences can distinctly tell his British-style music from the signature Vietnamese tunes,” the artist explained.
She said she has been on the lookout for more talented performers to better accentuate the Vietnamese music.
Thanh is slated to release her latest CD, which features her beautiful voice with the accompaniment by Ballaké Sissoko, a noted player of the “kora,” a 21-string lute-bridge-harp used extensively in West Africa.
“The ‘kora’ seamlessly fuses with various genres of Vietnamese music, including folk songs and pre-war tunes,” she added.
Huong Thanh was born in 1959 in Saigon to an artistic family.
Her father is Huu Phuoc, a notable “cai luong” artist, and her elder sister is Huong Lan, a much-loved expat folk singer.
Thanh moved with her father to France when she was 18.
She has claimed several awards from prestigious music magazines, and is the first and only Vietnamese artist so far to win a world music award given away by France Musique.
She took home the award in 2007.
One year later, Thanh, along with a team from France Musique, returned to Vietnam to work on a CD titled “Musique du cai luong” (Music of cai luong).
The CD also featured singer Huong Lan and several other renowned Vietnamese artists.
Earlier this month, Thanh and her husband invited British guitarist Jason Carter and Hubert Laot to Vietnam to delve into the roots of the old-style Vietnamese music.
The group held two workshops/concerts in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi on July 4 and 7 respectively.