This month, MTV’s “Cover of the Month” is “Swalla” by Jason Derulo and featuring Ty Dolla $ign and Nicki Minaj, so I figured I’d jump in and give it my own spin. This is a little different than my other reinterpretations: I stuck really closely to only using instruments that you might see in a Vietnamese traditional-style ensemble.
That actually ended up working really well, because the main chorus line is basically a variation on that most stereotypical of Asian-themed melodies, the “Oriental Riff” (or sometimes called the “Asian Riff” when you don’t want to sound too imperialistic).
What is the Oriental Riff? It’s that short melody that you probably recognize from the song “Kung Fu Fighting,” but you can actually find its origins in the mid-1800s (See Kat Chow’s piece on it in NPR). In “Kung Fu Fighting,” the melody happens pretty early, playing on a flute as he sings “hooo oooh oooh….” (YouTube embed is cued up at 0:11).
I’m not sure if whoever produced “Swalla” was trying to intentionally homage this pseudo-Asian sound, but the line that goes “Shimmy shimmy yah, shimmy yay shimmy yah (drank) / Swalalala (drank)” totally reminds me of the the Oriental Riff, with an identical descending line in a pentatonic (five-tone) scale (the YouTube embed is cued up at 0:47):
Hearing this motif immediately, I figured I’d have some fun with it and engage in some cultural reclamation. I re-imagined the song as if it was only played by instruments in a traditional Vietnamese ensemble, like the royal court music they still play for tourists in Vietnam.
For the arrangement, I had the three main vocal lines split between the Vietnamese one-string zither, ĐÀN BẦU, and the Vietnamese two-string moon-shaped lute, ĐÀN KÌM, the primary instruments I play and the ones I have on hand. Since I don’t have my other Vietnamese instruments with me right now, all the other sounds are virtually synthesized versions of the following:
- Đàn Tranh, the Vietnamese 16-string zither/harp, closely related to the Chinese guzheng (I actually used a combo of guzheng and đàn tranh samples for the recording).
- Đàn Nhị, the Vietnamese 2-string fiddle, also related to the family of Chinese fiddles like the erhu and gaohu.
- Sáo, the Vietnamese bamboo flute.
- As for the percussion, different kinds of Vietnamese ensembles use different drums, so this is where I took the most liberties. I wanted the big booming sound like the drums used in lion dances during the Lunar New Year festivals, because that seemed to lend itself the most to pop music. Rather than go and find one, I decided to go with a set of sampled Taiko drums. Yeah, I know, Taiko drums are Japanese, but they’ve long been played by pan-Asian American groups, so I figured it was forgivable. By really focusing on the side slaps and other techniques common in Vietnamese playing, I felt that my taiko samples would hold up pretty well.
One of the most challenging parts of this arrangement was turning the rapping parts (by Ty Dolla $ign and Nicki Minaj) into something that wasn’t boring on melodic instruments. I tried to play up the percussive elements of rap as an idiom, adding some runs to the lute part to make it more interesting, and I added some vocal-style ornamentation to the đàn bầu part during recording. I liked the final result, but I’m particularly happy with my interpretation of Nicki Minaj’s bars. While Ty’s part was all đàn kìm, I split her more rhythmically-diverse lines between đàn bầu and đàn kìm.
When I get all my instruments with me later this year, I’d really like to arrange a four-instrument version with đàn bầu, đàn kìm, đàn tranh, and đàn nhị, as if it was a southern Vietnamese-style ensemble piece. You’ll definitely see it here first if I get to it.
Finally, we had a ton of fun filming this one, with lots of outfit changes and locations (at home and Little Saigon’s Mile Square Park). Parul’s turning into an iPhone filming prodigy, and she was super-patient while I spent two days doing literally nothing other than editing a music video and discovering that a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 can’t really handle anything past 1080p.
If you enjoyed the fruits of our labors, please share the video’s MTV Cover of the Month link: http://www.mtvcoverofthemonth.com/v/252853
Thanks for the support!