“Vấn Vương” – Notes on the Quyền Văn Minh Project: A Jazz Life Story
by Stan BH Tan-Tangbau
Maestro Quyền Văn Minh is a Vietnamese residing in Hanoi and is the pioneer Jazz musician in modern-day Vietnam. He is the first professor of saxophone and jazz in the Hanoi National Music Conservatoire of Vietnam. His journey in Jazz was one made through the doldrums of the Vietnam Wars and Socialist Revolution, where Jazz, the music from the arch-enemy in America, was much frowned upon, and unheard of in the communist North. That he not only found ways and means to self-teach himself the art of Jazz and saxophone amidst such social and ideological upheavals is by itself a remarkable story. But this is no story of resistance against the state or social conventions. His story is a multi-strand one about riding the tribulations of life through continuous innovation and self-discovery in music. It is a story of Freedom as a Lived Experience. These are the notes for this project.
Late Spring, 2009. Hàng Giấy, Hà Nội (Old Quarters of Hanoi).
Anh Minh skillfully wedged his vintage, dust textured Vespa between the leaning scooters and motorcycles neatly parked on the narrow sidewalk of a gently, ever curving, two-way street walled by contiguous rows of old shophouses on opposing sides. The interminable, gentle and short spurts of ‘beeps’ and ‘rings’ emitted from the almost ant-like crawl of motorcycles and bicycles bounced off the walls of these shophouses along the contour of the street. The ‘beeps’ and ‘rings’ would have been the most magnificently unrehearsed but seemingly coordinated a cappella of the two-wheelers had it not been enjoined by the cascading revving of motor engines, and punctuated by sustained horn blasts of the occasional Fords, Toyotas, BMWs, Benz, and Lexus, etc. The layerings of reverbs from similar productions on adjacent and parallel streets, peppered by chatterings and smatterings of passerby and children playing on the streets completed the soundscape. Ahhh, that mesmerizing sound of the streets of Hanoi!
It is impossible to shut out the sounds of Hanoi’s streets. You just don’t. It is not of the suffocating type so typically experienced in the extremely fast-moving and mechanical ‘bright lights-big cities’ that often leaves one feeling alone amidst the massive crowd, and muted and deaf in a decibel bursting soundscape. Hanoi’s aged refine emanates through and sprinkles nostalgia and charm upon the calculating and hard-edged changes that come with rapid urbanization accompanying the rolling Đồng of the market economy. The sound of Hanoi’s streets releases moments of pondering in one. It makes one slow down the pace and momentarily stop to stretch out one’s arms with palms wide open to catch the falling dust of nostalgia and aged refine. You wouldn’t shut out such charms of a place. You just wouldn’t. You want to be lost in thought, even if for just that moment; vấn vương một lúc.
“Nhà anh đây,” removing his ‘piss-pot’ safety helmet, anh Minh led me through the doorway that immediately revealed a stairwell heading to the upper floors. We climbed to the top floor. The apartment would be really quite spacious had it not been for the boxes of Minh’s own recorded CD (Compact Disc) albums stock, musical instrument parts, and old belongings strewn across the floorspace, the metal and wooden shelves flushed to the walls carrying musical scores, boxes of whatnots, etc; belying the narrow, almost claustrophobic facade viewed from the main street. The wooden windows were shut but the sound of Hanoi’s streets continued to come alive inside the apartment, albeit in a mellow tone. Just the right acoustics for a Jazz Life Story in Hanoi occasion.
Anh Minh, or maestro Quyền Văn Minh, came up with the idea for the tune, Vấn Vương, right here in this apartment. According to the sleeve-notes from his debut CD album in 1999, Birth ’99, that moment came from
the view of Minh’s window, which looked down on the streets of Hanoi, as he reminisced about his past life and imagined the future of Vietnam and it’s people.
A most nostalgic venue for our first extended interview indeed.
On the CD album’s backcover ‘Vấn Vương’ was translated as ‘Sentiment’. Whether it was a reflective moment thinking about our mortal existence or just simply stopping to ‘smell the roses’ and appreciate the nicer things in life, one could easily be absorbed into the soundscape of Hanoi’s streets and be momentarily lost in thought. The soundscape of Hanoi’s streets in 1999, when the tune was recorded, however, was much different from 2009. Some two decades since rolling out the Đổi Mới reforms in 1986, a generation or two has emerged with no recollection or experience of ration coupons and for whom owning a motorbicycle or even a car has become a norm. A rather different breed of Vietnamese people on the streets of Hanoi. And Vietnam in 1999 was a very different place from the Vietnam that Minh grew up. He captured the old charm of northern Vietnam in Muà Xuân Kinh Bắc, another tune he composed, which was recorded in the same album.
In spite of the massive changes sweeping through Vietnam, the old charm of Hanoi stays rooted in its foundations and continues to permeate through.
1999 and 2009 might have marked chronologically different nodes in one’s mortal existence but the sentiments invoked at the same place by the same view between this decade long timeline are not necessarily accumulative or teleological. Minh’s revelatory moment of Vấn Vương from the view of his window in 1999 would have been much different from 2009. But then again, the tune Vấn Vương was not composed in 1999.
This was in fact the first known recorded version of the tune Vấn Vương (along with versions of Tiếng Khèn Gọi Bạn a.k.a. Giai Điếu SaPa and Ngẫu Hứng Tây Nguyên), performed during a special solo concert in 1994.
In 1994, Minh put together a most sophisticated produced solo concert at the Hanoi Opera House. A performance made possible as part of the cultural development program sponsored by SIDA, which also supported another concert featuring a violin professor from the Hanoi National Music Conservatoire of Vietnam. Minh’s concert was a showcase for the newly opened Saxophone Department at the Conservatoire that taught both classical and jazz music when he joined the faculty in 1989 (full time in 1991). His repertoire for this concert composed of classical music (which he rearranged for the saxophone), standard Vietnamese music, and Jazz music, the latter consisting of standards and original composition by himself. Backed by a group of young musicians handpicked by himself, being the early edition of the Red River Jazz Band, this performance would be recorded by the Vietnamese television broadcast station and aired on national television later. In 1996, Minh would be invited to perform with a jazz band in Paris, France. He sent his music charts together with a video cassette of this recorded concert in advance and the French organizers specifically requested Tiếng Khèn Gọi Bạn and Vấn Vương for this concert performance.
1994 is a milestone in Quyền Văn Minh’s Jazz Life Story. Minh was working to realize his dream of bringing Jazz to the public in Vietnam when he looked out the window and found Vấn Vương. Recording the tune for Birth ’99, Minh arrived at another pinnacle of his career being on the verge of releasing his very first Jazz CD album; having already reached another high when he realized his dream of opening a Jazz Club in Vietnam a few years earlier. Only Minh could translate, through his horn, the sentiments that he inscribed in the song for this is based on his very own life story. But every time he plays the tune, the recollection of that same view from the window would be couched differently. Vấn Vương is a chronological point in his Jazz Life Story, but the telling of that story can only be understood diachronically.
1 Quyền Văn Minh, Birth ’99: Những giai điệu dân gian Việt Nam với phong cách Jazz, Hanoi: Dihavina Studio, 1999. CD Album.
2 Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.
3 Minh would formally include the Red River Jazz as his accompaying ensemble in a later album, Quyền Văn Minh, Đoàn Chuẩn-Hà Dũng với Quyền Văn Minh: Vietnamese Songs with Jazz and Blues Styles, Hanoi: Ho Guom Audio-Video, 2003. CD Album.