Folk Music & Politics: Le Cat Trong Ly, singer-songwriter

I recently came across this singer from Vietnam, while exploring the BBC website.  Le Cat Trong Ly is a classically trained musician—a violinist—who decided to become a singer-songwriter.  Her specialty is music with a folksy feel, music that comes from the heart of the heart of the country.

Here is a link to her singing on BBC.

She’s got an interesting look, too.  There’s a Sinead O’Connor quality about her shaved pate.  The sheered locks, a very dramatic look in Vietnam, also lend her a Buddhist priestess quality, too—especially in the drab grey of her clothes (the color of a holy person).

Le Cat

In the video, there is something anti-fashion about her fashion—something pared down and the drab colors make her appear “of the people.”  There is no decoration, except upon her collar, where there appear embroidered grey-on-grey flowers—flowers that look almost as if they were sewn by peasant fingers.

Le Cat’s been tearing up the charts, putting together some pretty amazing music and she has won some accolades in Vietnam that elevate her to that Grammy-like status of Best New Artist.

Of course, I immediately wondered what folks of my parent’s generation would think.  You see:  for Vietnamese refugees who lost everything, one way to continue to fight—to fight a Cold War–was through culture.  And that is exactly what Vietnamese refugees in the United States did, producing a music industry so big that it overshadows anything in the country they left behind.  “Nobody wants to listen to that depressing Communist crap.”  That’s the consensus among folks of my parent’s generation.

Paris By Night--one of the most popular musical television shows--features the Vietnamese American mega-stars.

Paris By Night–one of the most popular musical television shows–features the Vietnamese American mega-stars.

And for the most part, they are right: musicians of the diaspora are flashy and beautiful; the tunes are poppy and catchy; the productions, extravagant and over-the-top.  Little Saigon is only a short distance from Hollywood and this means there’s a lot of spill-over talent in all those behind-the-scenes workers like hair, make-up, lighting, sound, editing:  the production values are off the charts.  And this means that, even in Vietnam, everybody listens to the big songs from abroad, even if they know that it’s kind of unpatriotic.  Why?  Because the music is as addictive as crack.

Le Cat’s return to the folk form stands in striking contrast to the stuff I’m used to.  But the return to the folk form is something that has a long history in the States; we have seen it recently revived, too.  The recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis  documents the Greenwich Village folk music scene where musicians returned to a music of the people, for the people, by the people.

Inside Llewyn

“This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” that song composed by the late great Woodie Guthrie, came out of that scene.  And though my family came to the United States well after it was popularized, a mimeographed copy of the lyrics is one of the artifacts I remember my mom dropping onto the dining room table when she came home from one of her language classes.  It is only now with the distance of years that I realize that idealistic young activists were most likely the ones who taught her this ditty.  Galvanized by the music of that scene, they would filter into the workaday world to become teachers, social workers, do-gooders. And so folk music, with all its politics, would wind up on my dining room table in the form of a ballad that would reassure my mother that she, too, had a place in the American landscape.

Were these young do-gooders pinko commie sympathizers?  I hardly thought to think that at the time.  I’m sure my mom was oblivious, too.  But many people–artists, activists, fellow travelers–who came out of that scene were Left Leaning.  Many were impacted by McCarthyism and its witch hunts.

Of course, this love of the “folk” involves a supreme act of nostalgia.  This is a cryptic way of saying that that “folksiness” was a pure fabrication.  An invention. Let me explain:  the “folk” never thought of themselves as such.  They never had a category for their music as “folksy.”  Rather, the love of “folk” and, especially, the systematic study of “folk culture” arose during the Romantic era when industrialization brought about the realization that traditional ways of living were about to come to an end.

Suddenly, we had to preserve these traditions with an army of trained scholars.  Suddenly, our art looked to the “folk” elements for inspiration.

The most famous book of poetry to come out of the Romantic era in England was William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads—folk poems, told in the plain style.  He would take long walks in the countryside, encountering the rustic simpletons who would people his poems–beautiful young girls whom he often compared to wildflowers, sad old men who told tales of industrialism’s many woes.   Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend (later his enemy) often accompanied him on these walks and, when their friendship soured, Coleridge mocked him, saying these poems were put in the mouths of men whose necks were so thick that their heads were even closer to their heart.

So here is the paradox of the “folk”:  to think about “folk” meant to already be distant from those simple people in embroidered skirts; to collect folktales, as the Brothers Grimm did, meant to move them from oral to written tradition; it also meant to impose a structure—a taxonomy, a system—that was never a part of the culture among people who simply wiled away the hours singing songs and weaving stories.


So when folks (as they often do) get angry at Disney for changing the original Cinderella story that the Grimm Brothers transcribed, when they pine for the original folktale, they do not know exactly how much is already lost; they are already quite distant—remote–from the original.

There just isn’t an original when it comes to oral traditions.

I suspect my parents would be very wary of Le Cat, because Communists loved the folk traditions, too.  They thought of it as coming from the people, uncorrupted by the colonizations of the West.  And so they favored folk forms, as opposed to corrupt imitations of the West.  And I wonder if this type of music—instrumental ballads inspired by the countryside sung in a non-flashy voice—is part of a neo-conservatism of a generation born in the cradle of Communism, a generation suddenly seeing a country transform into a bastion of Capitalism, a generation that just might be nostalgic for a certain flash of patriotism.

Of course, the irony of the Communist love of the “folk” as a method to return to a pure, untainted past is this:  the ideas about the “folk” was itself a borrowing from Europe.  Only the most educated minds, quite often those minds that themselves spent time in France, were exposed to these very sophisticated ideas about simpletons.  And they returned not only to Vietnam but many parts of Southeast Asia in order to pursue this agenda, which became bound up with Independence movements throughout the region that, at one time, was collectively called Indochine.

We see this return to the “folk” at its most extreme in the Killing Fields of Cambodia.  Anybody seen to be tainted by the West was executed.  If you wore glasses, you were executed.  If you owned a library you were executed.  In fact, if you were going to be executed or tortured, there was a code phrase:  you were going “to school.”

Killing Fields

These are ideas first and foremost on my mind when I hear the beautiful stylings of Le Cat…but they are ideas, too, that I think about a lot when I write.  I am, after all, working within a borrowed form with its own history, with a lineage not my own.  I often wonder if it’s fair on myself or on other artists that I ask of their work these kinds of questions.  Isn’t this a peculiarly Western question?

Goya Bats

And I guess it is a Western question.  But now it is a question that has spent well over a century hanging upside down like bats in the heads of our finest thinkers, so it is no longer a novelty but very much a concept as common as the flower embroidered on the collar of a peasant girl walking by herself, fiddling with a guitar, in the tall, emerald grass of the rice paddies.


LA Art Book Fair 2014

The LA Art Book Fair took place in Little Tokyo during a Superbowl Weekend that coincided with the Lunar New Year.  I decided that, since it was literally in my back yard, I would check it out.  It was kind of awesome—a bit of a mixed bag.  The books were slightly less interesting than the people-watching:  everybody was dressed up in their idea of “artistic.”


The weather had dipped down to the fifties and this allowed folks in LA the opportunity to wear the dramatic coats and hats they had been saving up all year.  The hall was packed with people who were busy texting, tweeting and sweating.

My pronouncement about the event:  it was a mixed bag.  Some good.  Most mediocre.  Little excellent.

My favorite part was the first exhibit—a curated chronological history of the Queer Zines.  There was care in assembling this material, much of which usually goes uncollected, so it was a rare opportunity to educate myself on these artifacts, which are otherwise so ephemeral.

There were a lot of penises.  Penises everywhere.

When you dump out into the rest of the Festival, it’s mostly vendors:  independents, small publishing houses, retail establishments, local art schools.  Giant Robot, my favorite LA bookstore was there.  They hosted book signings by graphic artists and you could buy pop culture East Asian stuff.

giant robot logo

The Gagosian Gallery did up a space that looked like a miniature gallery.  They did something high-brow.  “It’s a site-specific performance that involved an artist conversation, transcribed and turned into a screen print,” said the smart young woman who manned the desk.  You could buy this souvenir for 200 dollars.  The furniture everywhere was midcentury:   expensive, sleek, modern.

But a lot of the stuff fell into the regrettable category.  I began to pine for all those Queer Zines I left so quickly.  So much more care was taken in the curation.

I’ve been to my fair share of book type events but never to one like the LA Art Book Fair.  Full disclosure:  most of my friends are addicted to books; they are academics and spend their life among them; they haunt archives, usually in not-so-chic draw string sweats and lumpy sweaters that do not show so well as many of the get-ups I saw at the fair.

For me, the defining book lover event is quasi-professional—the hallway of the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting, which is big as a football stadium.  There, most people come to find their own books or their friend’s books.  Then they take pictures next to them and post on Facebook.  Hardly anybody reads anything.  They are there to bump into people they know and pitch their ideas to editors.

Anybody could possibly put in an order for a few hundred books through their university.   They could possibly put the book on a library list and be single-handedly responsible for its dissemination to thousands of libraries across the United States, so the MLA book hall is almost like a trade show:  lots of freebies, books steeply discounted, extremely knowledgeable and serious booksellers.  You are assured of leaving with too many free tote bags.

At the LA Art Book Fair, you must buy your tote bag.  The tote bag was the defining fashion item at the Fair and it was probably the biggest seller, too.

In fact, though this was a book lover event, there was something not-so-book-loverly about it. There was the feeling in which book loving was put on display as spectacle.  People tried to jockey for position to immerse themselves in actually reading books, despite the jostling crowd.  You could even buy this sign to put in your living room to remind people of your commitment to literacy.


“Look at me.  I’m artistic, reading an artistic book.”  That was the understated message in the dramatic Gothic Steampunk blocky eyeglass squint.  For me, though, the last thing I wanted to do was read a book in such a cluster fuck.

Art books are supposed to be fundamentally different from ordinary books.  They not only have many more pictures but they grapple with the materiality of the book as form.  They self-consciously investigate the book as an artifact.

But so many of the attempts at Art Book-i-ness were caught between being (unsuccessfully) commercial and (unsuccessfully) artistic that they were simply pretentious.  For me, one image summed up the entire show.  It was a book of photographs about Cuba–leather bound, embossed with swirling calligraphy–set in a presentation box made to resemble a cigar box with a tiny stamp: Hecho en Mexico.


Why Do American Mysteries Suck?

My wife is Korean and she knows all the best Korean movies, so it’s fun to get under the sheets of our big, soft bed…and binge-watch Korean movies with her.  I don’t need to think too hard about what flick to choose.  I also get to ask her all sorts of invasive questions I would never ask a stranger.

I’m politically correct but, lurking inside me, is a secret wooly monster.  It wants to ask all sorts of questions that could be offensive. I’m just curious and I have to know.  Yes:  I was the kid who tugged at a stranger’s pant leg and asked very personal questions about their prosthetic limbs in the elevator.


I’ve been binge-watching Korean mysteries.  This is pretty much date night for me and my wife— a cardboard box of steaming pizza and a stream of Netflix.  Gone are the days when we cruised around the city, looking for trouble.

Korean mysteries are interesting because they remain true to the form:  they are fascinated with the exploration of social ills—serious issues that, like termites, gnaw at the soul of society.

American detective fiction has strayed from this key aspect of the genre.  We can now see material that is simply based around the detective as a quirky and interesting character—a central consciousness—that we find adorable and compelling.

Or we see material that depends upon ratiocination—the solving of a mystery, the unraveling of wildly knotted thread.

We see material that is basically realistic, our interest coming from the pleasure of verisimilitude—a realism developed over two centuries of literary history—that is intensely rewarding because we are addicted to it.

But we see less the probing of social ills that, say, a movie like Yellow Sea explores…which is funny because we used to see stuff like that more in American Detective Movies.  Yellow Sea examines the problem of Korea’s immigration policy—one that has created major rifts in a country that modernized through industrialization but, now, relies not on its own citizens but on transnational immigrant populations.


At any airport in Korea, you will witness the magnitude of this spectacle, as “guest workers”—often arriving in uniforms—are rounded up in groups by their minders.  Those Samsung phones, those LG Washing Machines,  those Hyundai cars—they are all made by “guest workers,” not workaday Koreans.


The largest group of guest workers are ethnic Koreans from China.  These people are technically Chinese nationals, who live on the borderlands between North Korea and the Middle Kingdom.  They look like Koreans.  They still speak Korean, but with a distinct accent.   And they maintain enough of the basic customs that they are seen as more desirable than the hordes of Pakastani, Mongolians, Vietnamese.

Like America’s Mexicans, they have become vital to the nation’s infrastructure; they arrive illegally and do all the drudge jobs in the service sector:  everything from busing tables to massage to prostitution.  And there’s a lot of prejudice.  Everybody thinks they are involved in crime.

Yellow Sea—a masterpiece—follows one such worker, named Gunam.  We find Gunam disconsolate, alcoholic, bereft at the beginning of the movie; his wife has left him to find work in South Korea. He has mounted such crazy debts, smuggling his wife to Korea, that he is hounded by the local gangster.

Gunam is presented with a golden opportunity that will allow him to make good on his debts and find his wife:  he is smuggled to Korea where he will kill a mob boss and search for his wayward wife.

Do you see the racism in the premise?  Gunam, just an Average Joe, becomes a deadly contract killer upon immigration.  All the Chinese are gangsters in this movie.  They all carry hatchets and meat cleavers and they know how to use them.


This is not to accuse the movie of racism but to show how the movie is enmeshed in it–troubled, trapped, prey to it–while simultaneously trying to unravel the racial puzzle that is modern Korea.  I won’t spoil the movie by telling you about what happens to the wife:  suffice it to say that she is indeed involved in the sex trade.  I suspect this is taken for granted by the Korean audience, as several characters tell Gunam to forget his wife who has undoubtedly run off with another man.

Yellow Sea is a stunning movie, beautifully shot in a way that even makes housing projects a thing of romantic beauty.   It boasts riveting action sequences.  It’s gritty, grimy.  The man who plays Gunam—Ha Jung Woo—is famous for his acting chops.  And he is well-cast as a sensitive, tormented thug.  Definitely a date night movie for a certain kind of sicko.  I left the movie wanting more…and more is what I got…in the form of a binge-marathon of Korean movies.

But I also left these Korean movies with this question:  why has American Detective Fiction moved so far away from this?  Is it political correctness?  Are we now afraid to offend people?  Are we wary of protest marches and law suits?  Is this good?  Is it bad?