The 1975 Saigon audiocassette of French pop standards that haunts my dreams

Published 26 Oct 2020, last modified 27 Oct 2020

At some point in 2018 I was trawling YouTube looking for covers of the Sony Bono composition “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in different languages when I found a bilingual French-and-Vietnamese performance by pop singer and actor Thanh Lan. From there, by copying search terms from the Vietnamese video description I didn’t understand, I found Nhạc Trẻ 6, (Youth Music 6 in English), the sixth entry in a series of audiocassettes featuring various artists in the emerging “youth music” genre and produced in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during what would turn out to be the final years of South Vietnamese rule.

Partial scan of the cassette sleeve for Nhạc Trẻ 6, featuring a portrait of singer Thanh Lan

Nhạc Trẻ 6 itself was released in 1975, the same year that the People’s Army of Vietnam took control of the city, bringing a decisive end to a twenty-year war against the U.S.-backed forces of South Vietnam. So it’s already apparent just from the cassette sleeve that this is a relic of a failed state, an enclave that would not exist much longer. This is reinforced by the live introduction on the first track, featuring concert-hall applause and two announcers speaking in multiple languages. Just before the first song begins, one of the announcers concludes in English:

And remember when we air from South Vietnam… composed by Ngọc Chánh and Phạm Duy, singing by Thanh Lan. “I Have Learned Sorrow.”

This brooding, bluesy number is preformed entirely in Vietnamese and ends in more applause; no live-concert noise occurs occur on the rest of the album, but with a murky reverb on the vocals and the same consistent sound from the acoustic backing band (strings, guitar, piano, and organ) it’s not hard to imagine the cassette as the well-edited product of a single live performance—though I don’t believe it is, as some of its tracks appeared on previous tapes.

The next number is a sentimental pop ballad, perhaps a Vietnamese reworking of a J-pop song since the cassette sleeve notes “Anata” as an alternate name. But the third track in stats a pattern that characterizes most of the songs on the album. The song is “Après toi,” a French hit from 1972, and Thanh Lan sings the original lyrics all the way through with the diction of a lifelong Francophone and the passion of a Method actor, then when the song seems to be reaching it’s musical conclusion, the band keeps playing and she sings it all again, just as capably and passionately, in Vietnamese. Twelve of the album’s sixteen songs are performed bilingually like this. On all but one of these, the Vietnamese lyrics are credited to Phạm Duy, who would go on to become the preeminent songwriter of the Vietnamese diaspora.

I imagine that simply to sing so much in French would haven been quite a political act in Vietnam in 1975; the government of North Vietnam was born from armed resistance to French colonization of the region, and the South Vietnamese government was seen in a number of ways as heir to the legacy of French colonialism. Especially notable, given South Vietnam’s status as a sort of de facto Catholic theocracy in a majority-Buddhist region, is the inclusion of “Oui devant Dieu,” whose original French lyrics echo traditional Catholic wedding vows.

But for all the political portent surrounding the album’s performances, they don’t strike me as especially ideological. Granted, knowing no Vietnamese, I can’t evaluate the songs’ lyrical content in that language. But on an album that contains mostly international pop standards of its era, these are all thematically quite inoffensive—basically, they’re just bog-standardq love songs. The political element here (again, as someone who understands no Vietnamese) sounds more like a matter of ethnic/cultural signifiers (the French language, Catholic overtones). This is in contrast to other songs recorded during the war by musicians like Elvis Phương and Carol Kim that explicitly decry socialism or romanticize the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

One interesting inclusion is a French/Vietnamese performance of the traditional folk song “Scarborough Fair.” The lyrics of the song itself are not especially relevant to 1975 politics, but it was internationally fashionable at that time because of a late-1960s recording by Simon & Garfunkel that turned it into a thinly-veiled protest of the American war in Vietnam by setting it in counterpoint to an original song about a wartime massacre. Only the traditional tune and its lyrical themes are performed on Nhạc Trẻ 6.

What really gets to me about the whole album is just the depth of pure feeling throughout the whole thing, from the opening right through Thanh Lan’s duet with charismatic baritone Elvis Phương on the final number, the only song to feature a second vocalist. I’ve listened to a smattering of other music from the Nhạc Trẻ series and from Thanh Lan’s post-1975 career, and its all musically good, but none if it quite matches the emotional resonance of this tape. Part of it is simply the quality of the band—many of Thanh Lan’s later recordings use more mechanical sequenced synth instrumentals belying her powerful voice—but much of it is just the ineffable sincerity of the musicians and the mystique of the moment in time it captures. For me this is most present in the virtuosic and highly emotionally charged performance of Christophe’s “Oh ! mon amour,” a rapturous and plaintive song about love’s power to uncover the value and meaning in life.

The people who made this tape had to know that the social order that defined their lives was about to drastically change. They must have understood that the cruel war that had long surrounded them, with its constant uncertainty and massacres of civilians on all sides, was coming to a close. And at the same time they must have feared (and rightly so), that there would still be hard times ahead; there would still be displaced refugees and old scores to settle after the war. There’s something interesting in the choice to enjoy all these beautifully naïve love songs in the middle of that fraught context.

I guess this is why I enjoy the tape so much, as someone with no personal connection to the world it represents. It is obvious from the way this music is preserved online, categorized explicitly as pre-1975 music and mixed into YouTube slideshows of photographic street scenes from early 1970s Saigon, that it has a much more personal significance for much of the Vietnamese diaspora; it’s a touchstone that connects them to a period of their lives, a whole world of experiences, that had a definite and non-negotiable end date in 1975.

Maybe it’s just because I haven’t got just the right Vietnamese web search terms yet, but I wasn’t able to find Nhạc Trẻ 6 as a collection of downloadable audio files, so I ended up making mp3 files from a YouTube video of the whole tape, and I’ve put them in a ZIP archive to share here.

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