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In 'Tình Tính Tang,' a Progressive Metal Take on Vietnam's Folk Melodies

‘Trong Com’ is unassuming; ‘Trong Com’ is simple and easy to memorize; much like its namesake — a small drum played during traditional ceremonies, the song evokes an idealized image of Vietnam, one that’s enveloped in bucolic pastures and lined by verdant fields.

Perhaps due to all of the above-mentioned values, the traditional folk song has become one of the country’s most recognized tunes. It’s played during diplomatic events. It’s usually one of the first songs tiny children learn during their time in kindergarten. It’s also been covered, remixed, jazz-ified, rock-ified, sampled and harmonized by generations of Vietnamese musicians.

Dzung was aware that he would be treading a road well-traveled when he embarked on a personal project to produce a dân ca trilogy, taking a range of traditional melodies of various degrees of obscurity and deconstructing them in progressive metal. The project’s first volume, an extended play named Tinh Tinh Tang, was released last year to an encouraging reception, something of a surprise, Dzung admitted. The EP features four tracks, two folk songs from northern Vietnam (‘Trong Com’ and ‘Co La’) and two from southern Vietnam (‘Ly Cay Bong’ and ‘Ly Ngua O’), all part of a body of cultural knowledge that’s ingrained in the minds of Vietnamese both young and old. Most of them are even part of the music education syllabus in public schools.

Photo by Ha Nhat Quang.

As a solo artist, new listeners might only know him through a few EPs and singles, mostly instrumental, throughout the past few years, but long-time rock fans are already well-aware of his body of work as a piece of Hac San, an award-winning progressive metal band established in the early 2010s. The group’s only album, "Set Danh Ngang Troi," released in 2015, is an all-time favorite and was even nominated for an Album of the Year award in 2016.

I met Dzung for the first time in a coffee shop in downtown Saigon; he looked the metal guitarist part — with long hair and a sleeve tattoo of the solar system covering his right arm. Still, if one had any stereotypical assumptions about the aloofness of rockers, those would be immediately dispelled upon talking to him. Dzung carries himself with a cheerful and affable disposition and dedication to his craft that have translated well into the extended play.

According to him, selecting the first four tracks, which are all well-known folk melodies, was a carefully deliberated “tactical” decision. “I picked these four songs partly because of my ‘pride.’ They have been done many times by many people before, I want to do them in my own style. That’s the first challenge [to be different], if I can overcome that, the remaining two [EPs] will be easy,” Dzung explained.

“So, I chose the four most popular and also most difficult songs to challenge myself. If it fails then there will be no more trilogy,” he laughed.

The resulting EP, a 17-minute roller coaster ride of instrumental goodness, turned out to be one of the most exciting and dynamic explorations of traditional folk music in recent years. The first track, ‘Trong Com,’ begins with a soft murmur and then quickly builds into a heady rush led by Dzung’s guitar. ‘Ly Cay Bong,’ originally from the southern region, is the EP’s most energetic track, hitting listeners with a fast pace right from the start. ‘Co La,’ on the other hand, is perhaps the most atmospheric and languid, as it seeks to emulate the northern folk melody’s subject matter — the cranes of rural Vietnam, a symbol of the countryside. Last but not least, the EP closes with ‘Ly Ngua O,’ a frenzied horseback ride straight into a satisfying end.

Even though the four songs have been given a completely new life in this incarnation, one can easily hum along, so long as their breathing ability can keep pace with the rapid guitar licks. Nonetheless, Dzung is adamant in his emphasis that Tinh Tinh Tang is not a “cover” EP. “These [the folk melodies] are our ancestors’ legacy, so you have your share and I have mine,” he asserted. “This is the way I make use of my share, through these four tracks — my original take on them.”

Such conviction in one’s cultural identity as a musician can’t be established in one day, but is the result of years going through the trials and tribulations of being a music enthusiast in Vietnam in the age of constant influence by foreign musical products, brought about by the advent of the internet. Like most guitar players, Dzung spent his formative years perfecting difficult techniques and playing songs from his favorite artists, things that one would come across on the old MTV channel or the odd YouTube video here and there.

“At the end of the day, upon reflecting on the techniques that I mastered and the speed that I achieved, I realized that it’s still other people’s music,” he reminisced. “So what can we play that’s completely ours?”

The EP's poster.

Taking a step back and looking inward to one’s relationship with dân ca, according to Dzung, are apparently the answer. In the mid 2000s, two works became instrumental in the Vietnam “reckoning” of the rocker’s future direction: renowned composer Quoc Trung’s "Duong Xa Van Dam" project and "Tales From Viet-Nam," an album by French-Vietnamese jazz musician Nguyen Le. Both are celebrated figures in the world music genre, known for their creative incorporation of various Vietnamese folk musical art forms in contemporary music mediums. “It was then that I confirmed that this is what I want to play,” Dzung said. “It took so long because there were many things I need to experience.”

Apart from the music, art direction was another aspect of the record that stood out. According to Dzung, the artwork for the EP was drawn by Duc Den and designed by Dzung himself. Each of the song gets a surrealistic image that pulls elements from the lyrics to form a mishmash of macabre, whimsical and occasionally cheeky visuals. The color scheme takes after cờ ngũ sắc, a five-hue flag commonly found in traditional festivals, while design motifs are inspired by those found on hoa lam ceramics, an ancient form of pottery characterized by the intricate use of blue paint. The attention to detail, Dzung admitted, is something he has developed from the non-musical aspect of his professional life as a creative director at an advertising agency in Saigon.

The EP's album art.

“A thing that’s different about me is that I have the ‘advertising mindset’ when I approach music, I like logical thinking,” he explained. “One can’t just play whatever they want, there needs to be some thought — what to do, how efficient will it be. Being in advertising provides a ‘spatial’ way of thinking. In the music, there’s imagery.” The impetus for his career branch into advertising started from music too, but the two have coexisted closely since; in some cases, like the creation of the artwork for Tinh Tinh Tang, they complement each other neatly.

Dzung’s personal connection with music commenced when he got his hands on a Da Vang CD when he was 10. Established in the 1990s, Da Vang was one of the biggest and most iconic rock bands in Saigon at the time, one that many consider the catalyst that kick-started the Saigon rock scene from the 1990s through the rest of the 2000s. To Dzung, Da Vang’s music was vastly different from the three “chunks” of musical influence he was absorbing at the time — first, his parents’ taste for foreign classics like Smokie and Lobo; second, his brother’s obsession with pop boybands like Backstreet Boys; and third, his contemporaries’ love for V-pop household names of the 90s like 1088.

Da Vang’s music compelled him to sign up for guitar lessons; because his father didn’t approve, his mother used to take him to class. A few years later, Dzung joined his first band in Hanoi when he was 14 years old, making him the youngest member. The internet had become a thing, so teenage Dzung started teaching himself design to create a website for the band, and thus his bond with design was formed.

“That was when I was 14, and now I’m 31; those two things now go on parallel trajectories,” he said. “I’ve determined design as a means to make a living. Music, on the other hand, is something to go all out.”

Dzung's love for the guitar comes from an encounter with Da Vang's music in his childhood.

Because of this passion-driven music philosophy, the overwhelming success of Tinh Tinh Tang EP when it was released came as surprise to Dzung. In only 10 days, 300 physical units of the EP were sold. He’s also in the process of producing it on vinyl, even though he doesn’t own a record player himself, as he’s proud of the record. The shock also came from his self-assessment that metal, and especially progressive metal, is an extremely niche genre in Vietnam because it’s very challenging for the average listener to understand and appreciate.

“To understand progressive metal, we can use the metaphor of a table,” Dzung pointed to the tiny coffee table beneath our drinks. “In a pop song, for example, people will only see that ‘oh, this is a table,’ but in progressive metal, you’ll get to know the intricate patterns of the wood surface, how the glossy finish is applied. Everything goes into detail with more texture and more layers.”

Regardless of how Dzung feels about the market share of progressive metal in Vietnam, it seems that — judging by the success of the first volume — there has always been an audience for all types of music in the country, as long as it's produced well and with a touch of hearty dedication. According to his personal calendar, 2020 will hopefully see the materialization of Hac San's second album as the first item on the agenda. Second, he's already started experimenting with new material for Volume 2 of the trilogy. Stay tuned.

Tinh Tinh Tang EP is available on Spotify and Apple Music. The digital version can be purchased here.

[Top photo via Facebook page Hãng Đĩa Thời Đại]

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