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).
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.
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.
“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.”
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?
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.