We have different musical genres for a reason. The word “genre” is a shorthand for how we understand the differences between various pieces of music. Those differences may be stylistic, historical, philosophical, structural, etc., but they often break down when we consider human experience itself: throughout our lives, we are bombarded with music from across different ethnicities, cultures, and economic classes, and altogether, they make up our personal experiences and influence our understanding of the world.
One way to communicate with these musical differences is to take them as they are. That’s why we have cultural gatekeepers, like music critics, who will insist that this song does not sound enough like authentic rock or that song is the pure essence of jazz. But we can also communicate between musical differences, creating new musical conversations while asking ourselves where certain musical distinctions come from and why they matter.
This latter project is the essence of my most popular music series on YouTube, Đàn Bầu Remix. Through the series, I explore and dissect the lines we draw between different musical genres and what they represent by juxtaposing different sorts of musical ideas together.
Because people normally think of the single-string Vietnamese đàn bầu as a “traditional instrument,” using it to play anything other than its classic repertoire already messes with their expectations. Sometimes the juxtapositions are subtle — like playing a nostalgic Vietnamese song on đàn bầu (totally expected), but doing it over an R&B beat (NOT expected). At other times, I do it more blatantly, like using a đàn bầu as a solo electric guitar, or using it to play EDM hits like “This Is What You Came For” (Calvin Harris & Rihanna).
Sometimes, the juxtapositions are stranger, as in my recent transformation of the Charlie Puth and Selena Gomez romantic ballad”We Don’t Talk Anymore” into a bolero in the style of 1950s-60s South Vietnam. There, I wanted to take a melody familiar to my younger audience and repackage it in an arrangement that their parents would appreciate.
In other cases, the juxtapositions may be more meaningful to other Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans than they are to non-Vietnamese. For example, while most people can generally appreciate my efforts to reproduce a wailing guitar solo in my cover of “Mặt Trời Đen” by the band Phượng Hoàng, Vietnamese people familiar with the psychedelic rock of 1960s-70s in Saigon are best positioned to appreciate the project. As with anything else in life, not all meanings can be interpreted by all people, and that’s okay.