I couldn’t really decide whether this would fit better as one of my Deep Cuts, which features songs from traditional genres, or in Đàn Bầu Remix, which until this point had only featured pop songs. And yes, this is technically a cover of a pop song, specifically “Lạc Trôi” (“Lost and Drifting”) by Sơn Tùng M-TP, but it’s another one of my time-travelling songs (the last one was “We Don’t Talk Anymore” imagined as a 1960-70s Vietnamese bolero), imagining what would happen if the melody from Lạc Trôi had somehow ended up in the hands of folk musicians in the Mekong Delta circa 1930-1950.
That was a pretty vibrant time period in the south, with individual musicians getting more widespread appeal as mass mediation (i.e. radio) brought their sound across the countryside. Imagined as a period of modernization, new styles like the opera/musical theatre genre known as “cải lương” also sprang up, mixing together the colorful and vibrant visuals inspired by French musical theatre with the sounds of “đờn ca tài tử” (literally, “the playing and singing of talented young men”), an improvisational instrumental and vocal genre that sprang out of the delta region but which borrowed tunes from across Vietnam (and sometimes the world). Today, when people think of cải lương, they often imagine something only their grandparents listen to, but at the time, it was a new genre meant to upend the old, stagnant opera styles like hát tuồng. Indeed the words “cải lương” literally meant “reinvented/renovated theatre.”
My remix or reimagining of Lạc Trôi is inspired by the unique intersections of that historical moment, and specifically by the way one particular song was transformed from a typical (though remarkably popular) ĐCTT piece — Dạ Cổ Hoài Lang (“Old Tune for Awaiting One’s Husband”) — into the primary song used in “cải lương” today — Vọng Cổ (“Yearning for the Past”).
These masters of musical improvisation were smitten with the tune of Dạ Cổ Hoài Lang, but they were also always changing things and discovering new ways to play them. First, they changed the songs mode, from “hơi Bắc” (Northern mode) to “hơi Nam” (Southern mode), the equivalent in Western music of shifting a song from a major key to a minor key. Then, they stretched it, taking every two beats and playing them as four beats (doubling the time). In between the original notes, they added more notes and embellishments. and this became the original Vọng Cổ nhịp tư (four beats). Then they doubled the beat again, so that every two beats of the original were eight beats in the new version, Vọng Cổ nhịp tám (eight beats). This rate stretching continued until every two of the original beats counted as 32 new ones (Vọng cổ nhịp 32), which we now consider the common modern version. (Some musicians even experimented with 64 beats, but it didn’t really catch on.) What was originally a two-beat measure is now a 32-beat phrase (câu), and since each phrase is now so long and some of them repeat themselves, only the first six phrases are commonly used, referred to as “6 Câu Vọng Cổ” (The Six Phrases of Vọng Cổ). Additionally, the original notes of Dạ Cổ Hoài Lang are now so sparse that they’ve become the fence-posts of the song: people improvise basically how they like, but every four beats or so, they all have to come together and hit the same notes from that original song. Having practiced it for years, I find it immensely freeing as an improvisational technique that nonetheless keeps every musician on the same page.
Now, if I had stretched Lạc Trôi that much, it would have become unrecognizable, so I only doubled the time, writing new embellished parts that still sounded like the original melody. I also structured the whole piece this way:
- Introduction (Rao) – free rhythm, introducing the song’s scale (traditionally, it was time for everyone to get tuned up)
- Lạc Trôi, first time
- Vọng Cổ, introduction (rao vọng cổ) – another free rhythm section, situating to the vọng cổ scale and mode
- Vọng cổ, first 4 beats – a small taste of vọng cổ before returning to…
- Lạc Trôi, second time
It was pretty difficult to get together, but I’m pretty satisfied. If you don’t know Lạc Trôi, it almost sounds like any other DCTT song. But if you’re familiar with it, the original melody flashes up here and there.
Hopefully this gave you some insight into all the little complexities I put into this remix and help you enjoy it more!