For years, when the first day of April arrives, many Vietnamese hope that everything that happened on that day was just a joke, in the spirit of April Fool’s Day. And that it wasn’t the day that one of Vietnam’s most beloved musicians, Trinh Cong Son, died in 2001.
He is the only Vietnamese musician to have a musical genre named after him: ‘Trinh music’. Despite not being professionally trained he created his own style in nearly 600 songs that have deeply touched generations of Vietnamese, and is as influential as Bob Dylan, to whom he is often compared. Together with Van Cao and Pham Duy, Trinh holds a place as one of the three greatest musicians in Vietnam in the 20th century.
From pain came music
If not for a serious injury, Trinh may well have become a martial arts trainer, according to his younger brother Trinh Quang Ha. There was a guitar in their house, but it was rarely played and usually just gathered dust. Until he was 18 Trinh’s greatest passion was martial arts. Both he and Ha studied boxing, Vovinam (traditional Vietnamese martial arts), and judo, and frequently practiced together to reach their dream of being martial arts trainers.
One day in the summer of 1957, while practicing with Ha, Trinh took a severe blow to the chest, which saw him bedridden for two years. When he regained his feet, he looked anew at the ‘forgotten’ guitar. ‘I didn’t approach music like a worker looking for a job,’ he once said. ‘I wrote my first songs to express some urgent feelings I had. Possibly I came to music from a love of life, but it was destiny.’
Love, life and human destiny are all common themes in Trinh’s songs, as they are in many art forms. But his music stands out, because his ‘sound’ can always be recognised from the opening notes.
New wine in old bottles
Self-taught, Trinh seemed to compose songs by feeling more than following the standard musical formulas and structures, according to late musician Van Cao. ‘Usually using blue and slow tones, his simple music is like a boat carrying his poems to people,’ he said.
Trinh is looked upon as a poet for his rhymes and beautiful lyrics, which are easy to listen to and remember. More than a poet, though, he is also regarded as a language sorcerer for his unique word choice that no one can imitate or copy, according to language Professor Kim Phuong from the Hanoi National University of Education. One of his greatest ‘tricks’ was to combine and arrange words that seem irrelevant and make them go together, Ms Phuong showed in her research on Trinh’s lyrics published in 2011. For example, no one ever wrote lyrics like ‘on an ill-fated afternoon’, ‘tall minute and deep hour’, ‘drops of sorrow’, ‘drying a love’, ‘giving me all of an awaiting street’, ‘lulling forever the stream of your grieved hair’, ‘waiting for the trips of rain’, ‘the afternoon goes into the garden of your eyes’, or ‘listening to the melancholy rising in the sunlight’.
With a lot of similes, personification and metaphors, concrete words are combined with abstract ones to make visible objects become more fanciful while invisible terms seem to take some shape, which create a world of both reality and fantasy in Trinh music.
But even this wasn’t enough for Trinh, so he added more adventure to that world by breaking grammatical structures and transforming the meaning of parts of speech. Lyrics like ‘pink lotus a bud’ instead of ‘a pink lotus bud’ are found often, as is ‘a sad blade dry grass’ and not ‘a sad dry blade of grass’. Or a noun changes into an adjective, like ‘your long legendary night hair’ or ‘you go very far and myriad’.
His sensitive, insightful and creative mind makes for new and strange images and meanings for familiar terms that surprise listeners and lure them into his music.
Everyone seems to have a different take on Trinh music. As late musician Pham Duy said, his music is like a big abstract painting where the notes and lyrics are vague and indistinct, allowing people to have a different feeling and a different understanding. But most usually find one commonality: a reflection of themselves.
Mirror of life
Everyone can see themselves in Trinh music, poet Anh Ngoc believes. ‘Trinh helped us discover and understand ourselves as well as talk to and comfort us to find peace in a life of difficulties and challenges,’ he said, adding that there has never been a modern musician more popular than Trinh.
Pop music is now known as a modern form from the city, launched and promoted by media companies. Trinh music was modern but introduced by himself and one of his first and most well-known successful collaborators, singer Khanh Ly, rather than the media. ‘His lyrics are not easy to understand but people of all types can still fall into them,’ Anh Ngoc said.
Trinh used to say that he was very much interested in philosophy so he wanted to bring it into his art. ‘It is a soft philosophy that everyone can acknowledge,’ he said. After two years in bed fighting for his life, he had a lot of time to think about life, death and the human condition.
So people do find themselves looking into his ‘mirror’, such as when going through heart break and hearing ‘love seems to fade away - but (in fact) it’s still full of colour, you seem to go away - but you’re still around here’, or as an old man looking at his life in ‘how many years being a human - suddenly one day the hair’s gone white like lime’ or the sorrow and self-encouragement in ‘love the coming days despite the tired person - as long as you are still alive, be happy, even when somebody’s gone’.
Influenced by Asian Buddhism and Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Jean Paul Sartre from the West, Trinh reflected their thoughts in his songs. Like the misery of people in ‘hey baby, it’s a bad news since we were given birth by our mother to take the hard life’, the infinity of time and space in ‘which dust transform into me? For me to turn into dust one day’ and ‘birds board at the branch of bamboo - fish board in the stream - I’m boarding in the earth - going somewhere infinite after a hundred years’, and existentialism in ‘who am I for this life exists - who am I, am I - to love this life so much - hey me, don’t be disappointed’ and ‘the future is so far away, hey youth, why our blood is cold in us?’
Concerns about people and life also appear in his anti-war songs from the 1960s and 70s; another special type of Trinh music that put him among such names Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Joan Baez.
Different from his extraordinarily poetic and multi-meaning lyrics of before, his anti-war songs were very specific. Perhaps he wanted to portray clearly the pain and loss and the meaninglessness of the war and call for peace, as reflected in passages such as ‘I saw people picking up each other to flee - I saw besides a garden, a mother holding her son’s body - she clapped for his death - she clapped for peace’, ‘bodies lie on rivers, in the fields - on the roofs, in the streets - under the pagodas and churches - besides the old are the innocent’, and ‘a yellow Vietnamese girl - never knew a peaceful fatherland - never saw the previously beautiful Vietnam - never sung a folk song - she only had a hostile heart - one day resounding some shots - she just held her heart - on her skin, blood was spreading - she brought her dream of homeland to say goodbye to life’.
It was said that many soldiers from the old South Vietnam deserted after hearing such songs. No one can say how true that might be, but what can’t be disputed is that is songs were banned all around the country, as authorities in the old North believed his sentimental lyrics would have a negative affect on the fighting will of the people.
Despite his grieving, painful lyrics, however, it came to be understood that he was actually praising love between people and of life, which helped Trinh music break down barriers to win the hearts of millions, including foreigners. His songs were broadcast in Japan during those days and his song Diễm Xưa has been taught as part of culture and music studies at Japan’s Kansai Gakuin University since 2004.
Each of Trinh’s songs is a proposal of love of life, expressing his views on the salvation love can play amid a tough life. He became immortal among all generations, for sentiments such as ‘in the future, even stones will need each other’, ‘how long is life to be indifferent?’, ‘love each other to forget gloomy days - despite waving goodbye the world one day - give each other love, happiness and even pain - cause the heart will give us a shelter - and help forget wretched days’, and ‘each day I choose a joy - selecting flowers and smiles - ways to my family - and my friends - just like that I’m happy every day’.