In all honesty, I listen to very little music produced outside the western world. Therefore, I was somewhat intimidated by the prospect of Ha Noi Duo, a new collaboration between Nguyen Le and Ngo Hong Quang. In their eyes, the album tries to bring to life Vietnam’s quickening evolution, its diversity and curiosity with everything West. They aspire for the album to be “colourful, plural and moving”; a musical meeting of East and West.
The album’s instrumentation and arrangements are certainly intriguing, utilising a blend of Western instruments such as the electric guitar and trumpet mixed with traditional Vietnamese sounds such as the Koto and the Dan Moi Jew’s Harp – unfortunately, this often feels cluttered and confusing.
The album opens with Cloud Chamber, where this unique take on instrumentation is first introduced. At first, I found the blend a little jarring; the rhythmic vocals did not seem particularly well situated within the arrangement. However, as the arrangement developed and Paolo Fresu’s trumpet introduced, the track settled down and the stitching-together of traditional and modern seemed to find its feet.
“The standout tracks on this album are those where simplicity is key”
The first vocal track comes with Like Mountain Birds, an ambient track with ballad undertones. Here, there is an attempt to combine the electric guitar with traditional Vietnamese instruments, which grows into an anthem arrangement not dissimilar to the likes of Queen. I feel that this track is a good place to examine the album as a whole. At this point, we are three tracks in: we have been introduced to the two opposing methods of instrumentation and yet this track chooses to go down a completely unrelated route, begging the question: What does this album want to be?
Whilst it is difficult for a Western listener to attempt to understand the intricacies of Vietnamese traditional music (or perhaps, on a more basic level, the meaning of the lyrics) the album still feels, as a whole, mismatched and lacking direction. Tracks such as The Graceful Seal display a confusing arrangement and sloppy execution, prompting the listener to wonder why the word ‘graceful’ is in the title. Similarly, the Indian-inspired track Chiec Khan Pieu feels tacked-on, adding little to the concept of exploring Vietnam’s musical relationship with the West. The album feels like a swinging pendulum of tonal shifts, swaying the listener one way, only to move on to something completely different.
There are clearly strong musicians at play here, but one cannot begin to understand why they are all necessary. The standout tracks on this album are those where simplicity is key. Heaven’s Gourd is a fantastic exploration of how two guitar sounds, one electric and the other Vietnamese, can converse and come together. What makes this track stand out to me is that this musical conversation embodies the concept better than any other track on the album without any additional or unnecessary musical dialogue. Its deep Southern-blues-inflected tone is enriched by those of traditional Vietnam, creating a track that feels like a genuine connection between East and West. The only other track where a blend is developed is A Night Without You, Gone, where the Vietnamese vocals achieve a more traditional jazz sound until yet another electric guitar solo shakes you from your false sense of security. The final track worth a mention on Ha Noi Dou is Monkey Queen, yet another conversation between two string instruments. Monkey Queen is another restrained and simple track, incorporating a musical conversation between two Dan Bau instruments following an improvised bent harmonic electric guitar opening, later bringing in vocals to develop the melody. This track has good blend and exemplifies that less is certainly more on this album; however, it still can’t help feeling a little bland. This blandness is spread across the album, even in the better tracks – and they certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste.
I cannot claim to be the most qualified listener to tackle this album, but, from simply a musical standpoint, Ha Noi Duo is difficult at best. The concept that Nguyen Le and Ngo Hong Quang have laid out could be the basis for a unique and exciting piece of work, but it falls incredibly short of the mark. The better songs on the album, apart from Heaven’s Gourd, are solid and fairly easy to listen to, but left me with a level of apathy I haven’t felt in a while. The rest is marred with troubling tonal shifts, heavy layering of instrumentation and confusing choices which leads to an overall overwhelming experience as a listener. I tried hard to enjoy this album but alas, I could not.
Image: ACT Records