After exploring the pop culture of the 1960s/1970s in Songs of Freedom (ACT Music, 2011) and paying big-band tribute to Pink Floyd's iconic album on Celebrating The Dark Side of the Moon (ACT Music, 2014), French guitarist/producer Nguyên Lê returns to explore his Vietnamese ancestry on Hà Nôi Duo, with vocalist/multi- instrumentalist Ngô Hồng Quang and several of Le's trusted collaborators. It's Lê's sixth album to take Vietnamese music as a launching pad, and whilst the traditional elements are deeply etched, the guitarist's fusion of searing rock-cum jazz improvisation, pan-Asian textures, muted trumpet and post-production sculpting, makes for an essentially contemporary work.
If all else bar Lê's guitar and Quang's vocals/traditional folk instruments were stripped away, this would still be a fascinating encounter. The two entwine on the melodic heads, while Quang's seductive vocalspowerful and lyricalmirror Lê's own dynamic range. Quang's dan nhi (fiddle), dan tinh (lute), dan bau (monocorde) and dan chieng day (harmonic harp) infuse the music with timeless timbres, in contrast to Lê's post-Jimi Hendrix swagger.
This juxtaposition of tradition and modernity is much like Vietnam itself, a staggeringly beautiful country of ninety million inhabitants, where agriculture and high-tech industries are the twin pistons driving one of the world's fastest growing economies. "Cloud Chamber" conjures both faces of Vietnam; temple chimes and Lê's flute-like intro evoke ancient bucolic soundscapes, the reverie soon shattered by pounding rhythms and the flying sparks from Lê's thrilling electric solo. The folksy lyricism of dan nhi and guitar on "Five Senses" is given pan-Asian embellishment by Mieko Miyazaki's harp-like koto and Prabhu Edouard's tabla.
The Japanese and Indian musicians, who combined memorably with Lê on Saiyuki (ACT Music, 2009), make occasional but telling contributions. Miyazaki's deft, lullaby touch accompanies Quang's serene vocal on "A Night with You"a delightful arrangement of a traditional Quan Ho song-form dating from the thirteenth century. Edouard's khanjira and shaker inject buoyancy into "Chiec Khan Pieu," a visceral vocal number enlivened by riffing lute/electric guitar and a stirring konnokol finale.
Elsewhere, Paolo Fresu's flugelhorn and muted trumpet color almost half the tracks, notably on "The Graceful Seal"where trip-hop rhythms, Lê's space-rock riffing and Quang's soaring vocals combine in an intoxicating fusion. Similarly, "Like Mountain Birds" marries traditional vocals with urbane rhythms to powerful effect, with slow-chugging lute underpinning fireworks from both guitarist and vocalist. It's Quang's epic final flourish, however, as rousing as it is lyrical, that steals the day.
The music is equally effective when stripped to the bare bones, as on the acoustic instrumental "Heaven's Gourd." This compelling duet pitches acoustic guitar and lute together in rootsy intimacy, and could have been penned by the banks of the Ganges, the Mississippi or the Mekong. Stephane Edourad's udu and programing effects are the only additions to guitar and vocals on the lilting ballad "Monkey Queen," while Alex Tain on cajon drives "Beggar's Love Song," another ancient Vietnamese song recast in Lê's modern furnace to render an irresistible slice of electro-acoustic folk-funk. The tenderness of Lê's unaccompanied turn on "Silently Grows the Rice" provides an achingly emotive conclusion to an evocative journey.
Beautifully organic in essence, yet with unabashedly modern flourishes, Lê and Quang have fashioned an inspired work, which, much like Vietnam itself, casts a lasting spell.
Cloud Chamber; Five Senses; Like Mountain Birds; A Night With You, Gone; The
Graceful Seal; Heaven’s Gourd; Chiếc Khăn Piêu; Monkey Queen; Beggar’s Love
Song ; Silently Grows The Rice
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