The Day the Music Died

Published June 15, 2015 in Episode 8

On a small stage, on a quiet evening, in the city of Sài Gòn, a young man begins playing his guitar, while a young woman starts to croon to a small audience, filling the air with a haunting melody.  

Her name is Khánh Ly, and she is accompanied by the now legendary songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn. Together, they made a name for themselves through the late 60s and early 70s, until the end of the Việt Nam War.

“The South had developed a very rich and interesting culture,” says composer and musicologist Jason Gibbs, who has written extensively about Vietnamese music after visiting the country several times since 1993 to conduct research.  

Trịnh Công Sơn and Khánh Ly’s story is similar to that of many of the musicians during the war.

Gibbs says while censorship was a remnant of French Colonialism that remained throughout the country pre-1975, the laws were more restrictive in North Việt Nam. As such, popular music flourished in Sài Gòn.

The early 60s saw a form of rock music emerge in Việt Nam called “kích động nhạc”, or Action Music. These songs started out as American and French pop and rock songs sung and played by Vietnamese bands, but later evolved into Vietnamese-language songs borrowing the rhythms of more Western music.

The song Gặp Nhau Trên Phố, or Encounter in the City, sung by the vocal duo Hùng Cường & Mai Lệ Huyền is one such action song that also became a staple on television.

Rock music rose in popularity among young people, with many forming bands and performing a Euro-American pop-rock repertoire. These youths rejected the action music label, and instead adopted the term “nhạc trẻ”, or youth music.  

Musician Trường Kỳ, a major player in the youth music movement prior to 1975 explained that they adopted the term “nhạc trẻ” instead, because action music had become associated to only one particular sound and style, failing to reflect the youths diverse taste. In his book Popular Music of Vietnam, Dale Olsen notes that nhạc trẻ revealed French, Japanese, Chinese, and Thai music influences -- with Cantonese pop-style sentimentality and Thai love ballad-influenced melodies.

A hallmark event for nhạc trẻ was the Sài Gòn International Rock Festival which took place at Sài Gòn Stadium May 29, 1971. With an audience of 7000, it cemented rock music as a popular movement in Việt Nam.  

And music movements of all forms continued to grow through the 70s, but the defeat of the South on April 30, 1975 brought a swift end to Sài Gòn’s music scene.  

In an all-out effort to replace pop music with strictly state approved music, the victorious communists banned and destroyed all music created.

Gibbs says, “They would go into music stores and just take away the entire stock of the music store. There were materials that were burned out in the open. I think that they thought, from their point of view I think they were trying to bring Việt Nam into a new era or sort of a pure era that was non-commercial, not affected by Western influences.”  

Influential musicians and leaders were sent away from the cities to the countryside.

This was the case with songwriter Trịnh Công Sơn, says Gibbs.

“Trịnh Công Sơn was in a tricky situation. He was basically against the war and not aligned with any side in particular, but at the same time he had to survive.  And so he made some accommodations with the government in the South and in 1975 he had to make accommodations with the North.

The general stance of the government at that time is they just didn’t want to have anybody from the South who could be sort of a uniting figure or a leader of any time. And so, they put many of the military people in re-education camps, but someone like Trịnh Công Sơn, they sent him just to remote areas where he couldn’t really have contact.”  

In a speech delivered in 1981, Communist party leader Võ Văn Kiệt referred to the popularity of Western-influenced music as “the enemy's cultural pacification process.” And with the state's attempt to expel this “pacification,” many talented musicians found their voices silenced. They had to find ways to work within the repressive system, and for many, self-censorship became the norm.

“It was very restricted in terms of what was allowed,” Gibbs says. “There were many successful and talented songwriters and singers in 1975 whose voices were cut off.  Even someone like Trịnh Công Sơn, when he started writing again, he of course had to think about what he wrote.  Politics entered into everything at that time and it became difficult for people to express normal aspirations.”

To this day, foreign performers must gain approval from government officials and have their work heavily scrutinized before being allowed to play in the country. Meanwhile, artists inside Việt Nam either stifle their creativity or use it to evade state censors, reminding us that our musical landscape is informed by our political realities.