Ironically, while the North won the war, is is the once-banned yellow music of the South which Vietnamese love.
In recent years, to relish boléro songs written before 1975 has somehow become trendy in Vietnam. An increasing number of young listeners turn to this slow-tempo genre of music as an emotional release. Many new singers choose boléro to start their careers. Some singers whose names have been known for other genres of music have started singing boléro to please their fans.
This is not just a spiral curve of tastes, which is common in fashion. It is part of an untold 60-year-old story.
Vietnam’s modern music was born around the 1930s and quickly grew as a mixture of Western elements and traditional music. It would have had a delightful journey without the turning point: the 9-year war against France, breaking out in 1946.
The Viet-Minh government, with its harsh position on shaping a working class culture typical in communist-led countries, started to show its hatred towards romantic and emotional poetry and music. Feeling cramped, some artists who used to favor the Viet-Minh decided to leave the war zone and returned to cities, among whom were Pham Duy and Thai Thanh, the greatest Vietnamese composer and diva of the 20th century
The hatred got worse after the war with France ended in 1954. The Geneva Accords resulted in the first mass migration of about one million people from the North to the South, in which there were true talents who later became famous. Among romantic composers who stayed back in Hanoi was Van Cao, the author of many famous pre-war ballads and especially the anthem of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He all but ceased to write since then.
During the next war — the Vietnam War — the official music genre allowed by Hanoi was revolutionary or red music. The content of such music was to honor leaders, the communist party, and support production in the rear and war in the front. The tempo was usually fast, and the melody vehement. A few songs were emotional, but they were in general not encouraged.
There was no entertainment or music industry in the North as the singers worked for state-managed units, either civil or military, and got paid as public servants. Recording and broadcasting was monopolistic, primarily through the Voice of Vietnam radio. The release of music for commercial purposes was beyond imagination.
To the contrary, below the 17th parallel, music took on quite another life. Since the late 1950s, songs were written mainly using boléro, rhumba, and habanera rhythms. In combination with Southern traditional music, a genre of music that was peculiar to Vietnam was born – slow and sad. With simple but poetic and meaningful lyrics, the songs told a lot about life: family, country, sadness, happiness, but most significantly: war and love.
Remarkably, anti-war songs were also accepted, they co-existed with the songs honoring the soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam. Yet, there was no such songs in the North to honor the president or his party.
Moreover, the music industry boomed in the South with lots of recording firms and music stages which, within two decades, introduced to the market hundreds of singers, many of whom became boléro legends: Thanh Thuy, Hoang Oanh, Phuong Dung, Thanh Tuyen, and Che Linh. These singers have been famous since the early 1960s and are still singing.
It is not clear from which point the music of South Vietnam started to be called yellow music. The reason may stem from the yellow national flag of the Republic of Vietnam, as opposed to the red one adopted by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
During the war, it was understandable if yellow music was not allowed in the North. But after 1975, when the South was defeated and Vietnam was unified, it was still not allowed as it was deemed a vestige of the former polity. There were propaganda campaigns to discourage audiences from listening to yellow music. At its peak, those caught listening to yellow music would be punished, their cassettes, discs, and music sheets confiscated.
Despite such control, yellow music, the main component of which was boléro songs, was still secretly sung by Southern singers who did not (or did not have the chance to) leave Vietnam, and by the listeners themselves. The music industry was killed, but the music lived on.
After the fall of Saigon and until the mid-1990s, the second mass migration of Vietnamese people took place. The refugees, known as boat people, tried to get away from Vietnam to seek freedom. Yellow music accompanied them to many corners of the world, especially to the United States, the second homeland of anti-communist Vietnamese. Yellow music continued to be sung by pre-1975 singers and passed to the next generations. The people survived and so did the music.
In Vietnam, after 1986, the state’s control over culture in general and music in particular was loosened. Yellow music was not officially allowed but no longer severely banned. By the 1990s, when more love songs were allowed to be sung and composed again, some neutral yellow songs were also accepted. Sometimes names of composers were changed, but the music remained.
Even before the wide use of the Internet, although prohibited, Vietnamese refugees’ musical products such as the Paris By Night and Asia series found their way back home under the new name: overseas music. Interestingly, the government deviated from a strict control to a kind of de facto allowance. But the larger part of South Vietnam’s music legacy, even until these days, remains silent in the dark: songs are slowly reviewed and accepted one by one upon request by a state committee governing arts.
In recent years, the change has been dramatic as many overseas singers get permits to return and perform in Vietnam. More young domestic singers have begun to turn to boléro and the audiences have become younger and not limited to any certain class. Singing and listening to pre-1975 music seems to have become trendy in Vietnam.
Not only being allowed to perform, there are even reality shows named Solo with Boléro and Boléro Idol – competitions looking for talents in this once banned genre of music. Most of the invited judges for Solo with Boléro are overseas singers, some of whom used to be banned.
There are yet some restrictions. The term “yellow music” is not officially used in media. It is intentionally called country music, old music – and most often boléro ( many of the most popular yellow songs are not, in fact, boléro). Some pre-1975 singers manage to get licences to organize live shows anywhere, except Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
Apart from the revival of yellow music, there are often complaints about contemporary music in Vietnam. “Rubbish” and “meaningless” are the words used to describe it. Returning to the past, in this context, is there the preferable option. Ironically, it is the past of South Vietnam which Vietnamese audiences are embracing. Red revolutionary music is no longer favored by young listeners and is performed mainly at official events.
Many people attribute the revival of yellow music to the fact that it best exhibits the country’s cultural characteristics and is closer to traditional music. It speaks to the soul and the heart of ordinary individuals, in many ways differing from the political themes of red music. So, while the North may have won the war, the music and culture of the South lives on. More than just living on, it is thriving.
Dinh Duy is a freelance columnist and PhD candidate in Milan, Italy