Pham Duy 2010

Pham Duy, Vietnam's Music Man

Nguyen Ngoc Bich

(Director, Vietnamese Section, RADIO FREE ASIA)

I have known Pham Duy literally since childhood. Not personally, of course, since I am much younger than he. But I can say that I was raised on his music almost in the same way that it can be said I was raised on my mother's milk. In other words, as soon as I was aware that I was singing -- some half a century ago -- it was most likely that it was a Pham Duy song. I think there must be millions and millions of Vietnamese who could say the same. There are tales of Pham Duy's songs which have since entered the repertory of folksongs of the Vietnamese people, like the song ''Ganh Lua'' (''Carrying Rice'') which many people soing and perceive as a folksong without realizing that its author is still alive.

As a communicty activist and a chronicler of Vietnamese music (I have written dozens of articles on Vietnamese music, including several on Pham Duy himself), I can attest to the popularity and endurance of Pham Duýs music. Vietnamese sing him on moonlit nights, at harvest time, in the countryside and in the city, in spring and in winter, in rain or shine, when they are in love or when they feel patriotic. It's incredible, the range of music offered by Pham Duy and at least two claims have been made about him that I think are beyond contest:

* One is that without Pham Duy, especially in the period 1946-1950, there would be no revolutionary music to speak of. Put differently, he was the soul of Vietnamese revolutionary music during the anti-French War of Resistance (1946-54). Of course, there were other composers during this period, but none as productive or leaving a lasting impact as he.

* The other is that one cannot write the history of modern Vietnamese music in the last half century or so without using Pham Duy as the axis for that history. He was there in the beginning (from the early 1940's on), he was there during the Resistance, he was there in the fifties pioneering in group singing (the Thang Long Quartet, which at times became a quintet) and quthoring major song cycles like Con Duong Cai Quan (''The Mandarin Road'') and Me Viet Nam (''Mother Vietnam''), he was active in the sixties rediscovering the folk traditions of Vietnamese music, and producing a series of immortal love songs and the ''Songs from the Heart,'' Tam Ca in Vietnamese, which tragedy of the Vietnam War, he was active in the seventies with his Dao Ca (''Religious Songs, '' based on Buddhist tenets), Nu Ca and Be ca (''Girls Songs'' and ''Kids Songs''), etc.

Since coming to the United States, he has written ''Songs on the Refugee Road'' (''Hat Tren Duong Ty Nan'') struggle songs, Rong Ca (''Minstrel Songs'', which is a vision of the year 2000 and beyong), the Han Mac Tu Song Cycle (based on the poems of a leper who happens also to be the greatest Catholic poet of Vietnam), Thien Ca (''Zen Songs''), and he is now engaged in the opus major of his life, ''Illustrations of the Tales of Kieu'' (''Minh Hoa Kieu'').

It should be mentioned also that he has authored several books, including The Musics of Vietnam (published by Southern Illinois University), and an extraordinary autobiography, three volumes of which have appeared so far. Dozens of Pham Duy's songs now have English singing versions done by such American hands as Steve Addis, James Durst, and myself.

In conclusion, I have to say that the man is a phenomenon - one that has lasted over half a century. His American phase, from 1975 up to now, is almost half of that time span, and thus I believe that he should be considered and called an American artist as well.

Nguyen Ngoc Bich