Sunday, February 12, 2012

What's the sound of your holiday?

I ended my first day in Ha Noi with quiet. After a day of scooters, street vendors and Uncle Ho I joined the Ha Noi Community for Mindful Living for meditation practice and a meal.

I was hungry for sitting still and good company as well as good food after walking 5 or 6 kilometers of Ha Noi's streets and sights. In the rainbow light of a Tibetan vegetarian restaurant near the meditation hall in Ho Tay I leaned back and just listened to the expats chat. 

One guy mentioned that Dengue Fever would be playing in Ha Noi in a week or so. 

My ears perked up. 

Long before I gained the escape velocity necessary to venture outside smalltown Burbank, I was a seasoned armchair traveler. I'd been jarred present by koto music in Japan, rocked my hips in lean-to clubs in West Africa and skipped over reindeer patties in Lapland to follow the darting, birdlike folk melody of a gap-toothed herdsman.

I stacked Smithsonian Folkways and Real World releases on my shelf like so many pins on a map.
One of my favorite discs is the Musicians of the National Dance Company of Cambodia. The traditional orchestra is largely percussive, knocking out the structure of the tune on gongs and xylophones. The oboe adds sinuous melody, and the human voice chant-dances over it all. Not a few listeners have found the warbling Khmer vocals shrill and annoying. To me they are sweet and deeply heartfelt.

Dengue Fever is ostensibly a local band, from Echo Park on the hip east side of Los Angeles. But their vocalist was discovered in a karaoke bar in Cambodia. They blend retro Cambodian pop tunes, akin to sixties psychedelic surf rock, with Chhom Nimol's gorgeous soprano. What I heard when I first heard Dengue Fever was traditional court music that I could really groove to. And with lyrics in both English and Khmer I could sing along in my own shrill falsetto.

Earlier that day I'd watched a traditional Vietnamese ensemble perform, and it brought tears to my eyes. The bending tone of the monochord pulled years of my heart's dreams and my listening-imagining-adventuring fully into the life I live in the present. 

Now again, my worlds collapsed. To hear a band from my home town playing in their neck of the woods on the far side of the globe a few weeks before I set foot in the singer's native country - what beautiful synchrony.

As it turned out, I did not make it to the show. Such is the nature of escape velocity: I'd covered hundreds of miles by the time Chhom hit the Ha Noi stage. But their lyrics played with me long into the trip. In one duet the couple bemoans the distance between she in Phnom Penh and he in New York.

The first thing that I'll do
is throw my arms around you
and never let go

For that moment, my first night in Ha Noi, I embraced the whole world, just as I was held in the world's sweet song.

More on Southeast Asian music:
See the woman clapping before the bamboo xylophone? The rush of air generated by her hands plays the instrument.
The work of Sam-Ang, an ethnomusicologist at the Royal University in Phnom Penh.
You can play the instruments of the traditional gong ensemble, called a pinpeat orchestra, here.

1 comment:

  1. It's awesome that you got to see Dengue Fever! I introduced the Chey students to DF during the 2nd video workshop and they LOVE them. And Johnny Cash (analyze THAT one). Great blog post. Love to hear from you on the road!