The Ben Thanh Audio Video store in central Ho Chi Minh City is teeming with young Vietnamese, many in school uniforms, perusing the shelves for the latest releases. The faded royalty of teen pop -- the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Britney Spears -- grin from a photo shrine on the wall behind the cash register. Compact discs of Western music (most of them pirated copies) are a predictably popular choice among these shoppers. But a new genre is gaining fans and ringing up sales in the Britney demographic: compilation CDs with titles that translate into Battalion 307 and Spring of '68, for example, and feature local pop idols singing updated renditions of patriotic songs about the war with the United States.
For much of the past quarter century, so-called red music, or nhac do, has been performed wearily but dutifully at school assemblies and public concerts on major holidays like February 3, the anniversary of the founding of Vietnam's Communist Party. But in the past year or so, the music has undergone a revival in Hanoi karaoke bars and the concert halls of the former Saigon -- known locally as HCM City.
Unlike Western music fans who turn to genres like punk and thrash metal to rebel against their parents, young Vietnamese are identifying with mom and dad's music through tunes like 'Salutation to the Heroic Ma River' and 'Uncle Ho Still Marches with Us,' which Communist soldiers belted out on the battlefield. 'It inspires me about history,' says Le Minh Thang, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Law. Kelvin Hung To, a 22-year-old fashion editor, says his favorite song is 'The Youth of the Ho Chi Minh Generation.' (Ho Chi Minh, the former president and spiritual leader of the current Communist regime, died 35 years ago.) 'I listen to these songs to respect the time my people devoted their youth and blood,' says Hung To. 'They remind me that living must have ideals.'
Still, the fact that red music is drawing a new generation of fans is a strange cultural development, considering that two-thirds of Vietnam's population of 80 million is now under the age of 30; most of the country is too young to have been directly touched by 'the American war,' which ended in 1975. Young fans aren't turning to these battle tunes out of anti-Americanism -- on the contrary, most Vietnamese bear few ill feelings and yearn for closer ties with the United States -- but because they are bored with a steady diet of foreign pop and Vietnamese love songs.
Some bands and artists play their red music straight, as the sorrowful or inspiring anthems their composers intended them to be. Others remix the tunes by setting them to pulsing dance beats or adding new lyrics. 'The new versions are not as good as the old but they have a new style, and people like that,' says Tran Xuan Mai Tran, a 22-year-old piano teacher and coordinator at the government-run Youth Culture House across the street from the Ben Thanh CD shop.
It was Tran's notion to hold a red-music event featuring only pop acts at an outdoor concert venue. Composer Pham Dang Khuong, the cultural center's deputy director, agreed it would be a nice idea 'to remind the youth about this kind of music' -- but based on similar efforts in the past, he said, 'We thought no one would come.' Instead, the first red-music concert, in March 2003, sold out, and the showcase has now become a much-anticipated event, packing in as many as 4,000 fans on the last Saturday of each month. The show features a rotating lineup of performances from girl groups like May Trang ('White Cloud') and the 'N Sync-esque boy band TiTi-Kids, who each sing one contemporary song and one revolutionary song. At a recent show, screaming, sweaty fans sang along to May Trang's rendition of 'Spring in Ho Chi Minh City' and jumped on stage to place flower leis around the singers' necks. Some fans camped out all day in the scorching sun while scalpers hawked tickets for 10 times the 40-cent entrance fee.
There is some question whether the musicians' motive is heartfelt nationalism or just clever Western-style marketing. 'The pop bands only play red music to please the authorities and to market their brand -- to tell the public that 'Hey, I'm not only good at love songs,' says Hung To. 'I never believe that they play red music with true zeal.'
The pop princesses of May Trang disagree. The foursome stand on an HCM City street corner at nightfall in impossibly tight matching gold pleather outfits with low waistlines and tiny spaghetti-strap tops. Hair and makeup are garishly model-perfect. The four girls' mothers are perched on the nearby mopeds that brought them to tonight's concert performance. Between last-minute applications of blush and lip gloss, the girls acknowledge that they can't possibly know what it was like to live through the times these songs were written for. But that's precisely why they are increasingly relevant. 'These kinds of songs are eternal -- they glorify the love of the country,' says the group's leader, Thu Ngac, 21. 'People can sing them anywhere and anytime.'
Reprinted from the international culture magazine Colors (Summer 2004). Subscriptions: $47/yr. (6 issues) from 601 Fifth Ave., 5th floor, New York, NY 10017; www.colorsmagazine.com