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The Storytellers

Edgy Vietnamese songwriter takes on the censors

Popular songwriter Ngoc Dai took the bold step of releasing an album in Vietnam without official permission. His stand against censorship has stoked a debate on the future of experimental music in the communist country.

Squeezing past a jumble of furniture and a grand piano, entering Ngoc Dai's home in Hanoi's city center is a bit like being invited into a secret den. Laughing and pouring some green tea, the 66-year-old is discerningly cheery for someone with such a fierce reputation. He has just sent away my assistant because he is sensitive about who he invites into his living room.

Dai is the most outspoken musician in Vietnam, a country where many artists complain that years of government censorship have left little room for real artistic expression. His disregard for authority and reported mood swings have given him the nickname "Dai Dien," which means "Crazy Dai," something he refers to with a laugh during our interview.

His first run-in with the censors took place in 2001 when he used sexually explicit poetry to write songs for a famous pop singer. At the time, the Department of Performing Arts, which operates under the Culture Ministry, described the lyrics as "vulgar" and demanded they were edited. Now, over a decade later, his work continues to court controversy and is shaking up a debate on the future of experimental music in the communist country.

With a bald head and a faded T-shirt patterned with stars, Dai looks younger than his six decades, but he insists he is already too old - and couldn't wait any longer to complete his latest album.

"I'm near death already," he says, chuckling.

Unbowing defiance

In Thang Mo 1, which translates as "Village Herald 1," he criticizes modern Vietnamese society and says to integrate into the world economy the country must abandon thought control. The album also uses sexually explicit lyrics taken from work by contemporary poet Nguyen Dinh Chinh.

"I have to live with censorship, but every time I hear the word I want to vomit," he says. "In every country censorship is about some secret you don't want people to know."

He says he knew the Performing Arts Agency would ask him to change the lyrics, so he didn't bother asking them and started selling copies illegally. So far he has sold hundreds of copies.

"Before I made the CD I told my friends I want to be completely free. I don't want to ask anybody to give me the permit," he says. "I don't want anyone to censor me."

An armed policeman stands guard next to a portrait of late president Ho Chi Minh, founder of today's communist Vietnam, and Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin (Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam)

The authorities' rejection of Dai's album only made it more popular

Articles soon appeared in the state-run media carrying a message from the Performing Arts Agency. It said the album was "inconsistent with traditions, habits and customs of the nation" and demanded that all copies of the CD be destroyed.

Instead of being put off, Dai says the press coverage was good advertising for his album, and many more people had requested a copy after reading the articles. He has written enough material for three additional albums using different instruments and will release them in the coming years.

Testing boundaries

Sitting beside him during our interview is Dai's close friend, producer Nguyen Nhat Ly. In ignoring the rules, Ly says, Dai is unique among modern Vietnamese musicians.

"People don't do new things because they are afraid. By making this album Dai hopes he can share his attitude with some other people and hopefully they will do the same thing, they will overcome their fear too."

"Experimental" in the Vietnamese context is a very general term applied to any music which defies convention and is outside the norm.

In 2007, Dai co-founded the band Dai Lam Linh. Their use of noise and screaming combined with references to traditional genres prompted high hopes for a new era of musicians who wanted to test boundaries.

Hanoi Opera House (Photo: Timo Toivanen)

In their heyday, Dai Lam Linh played at Hanoi's opera house

Edgy and passionate, the band held a debut concert in Hanoi's Opera House with funding from the French cultural center. However, despite being invited to perform on national television, Dai says it was difficult to raise money.

Although it was hailed as the start of a new era for Vietnamese experimental music, Dai Lam Linh gradually petered out.

Musical invitation

Breaking the rules is not just a career choice. Dai says refusing censorship has helped him come to terms with his traumatic experience as a soldier fighting in the Vietnamese-American war. He says most people of his generation are still suffering from their memories of the war, because they are too afraid to break the rules and think for themselves.

"Thang Mo" is a way for listeners to enter a new space and new perspective, he says. He describes the process of listening to the four albums as similar to visiting his home. In the first album, the listener is outside his door.

"In Thang Mo 2, I invite you into my house and you sit down with me. I open to you my stories," he says, referring to the as-yet unreleased albums in the series. "In Thang Mo 3, you have your own energy and your own choice. You can stay or leave you can choose the way. With Thang Mo 3 you start to have a choice."

In the last album, the listener meets other visitors and everyone shares their experiences. The music can do no more than that, he says.

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