I had a lot of fun with my last cover of a trending pop song, Jason Derulo’s “Swalla.” What I enjoyed the most was really starting to find my voice in these chart-topper covers and figuring out how to bring my sound into each one. While it’s always been easier to do the remixes and covers of Vietnamese songs — I just take melodies that are really familiar to Vietnamese audiences, produce more contemporary-sounding backing tracks, and record my đàn bầu over the top — pop songs present unique challenges for my channel.
First, the đàn bầu is a strictly melodic instrument that primarily works in the highest sound registers. You can get some deeper notes and different sounds out of it with some special play techniques, but then it gets more difficult to play in a virtuosic way, because you’re just trying to make the notes come out. That limits what the đàn bầu can do in the mix. I changed it up once when I did the Selena Gomez song, “Same Old Love,” using the đàn bầu to make every element of the song, but that took a ton of work for a fun, but admittedly gimmicky, performance. Even when I use other Vietnamese instruments, they’re largely in the higher ranger too, so it’s hard to get a nice strong bass like we see in most pop music.
Secondly, I’m not singing. When people sing covers of popular songs, the lyrics keep the song recognizable as itself, no matter how much they change it or how creative they get with the mix. People can even significantly change the melody if the lyrics are still there as an anchor. But since I’m an instrumentalist, I need to stick closer to the song if I want people to recognize it.
So, except for the rare exception, like my rendition of “We Don’t Talk Anymore” as a 1960s Vietnamese bolero, I have to keep the melody pretty much unchanged.
And up until recently, I mostly felt that way about the rest of the instrumental too. Since “Swalla,” however, I’ve played with making the mix more of a hybrid of musical traditions, and this cover of “Attention” takes that a step further.
I brought in đàn tranh (16-string zither) and đàn tam (3-string lute) to meld with guitars and basses, and I’ve used 808s back-to-back with Chinese woodblocks and gongs. And I’ve leaned into my knowledge of Vietnamese traditional music with “Attention,” starting it with a 30-second intro that serves as a love letter to two genres of southern Vietnamese music, the small-ensemble genre called đờn ca tài tử and the popular folk opera style known as cải lương.
After an improvisation in the “Nam” mode with đàn bầu backed by đàn tranh and flute, the recognizable guitar riff/loop from Attention joins with the đàn tranh, and the song slowly adds both Vietnamese and “western” instruments until everything crescendos together into one big mess.
It’s basically a metaphor for my life.
Hope you enjoy the video, and see you next time!