How the Tango Took Vietnam
If you’re a Boomer like me, and someone asks you your first association to the word Vietnam, your answer will be The War. Right? This past spring, while studying music of Southeast Asia, I wanted to change that automatic association to something that acknowledges the culture of this country of nearly 89 million. I have discovered traditional Vietnamese music that is hauntingly beautiful — I recommend Eternal Voices: Traditional Vietnamese Music in the United States (New Alliance Records, 1993). But I have to admit: what intrigued me most was discovering the affection the Vietnamese have for the tango.
The dance? The music? The impassioned vocals? Yes, all of that. Since the 1920s and right into 2014 in both unified Vietnam (that’s what they call their country) and the Vietnamese diaspora, tango has been hot. Google yielded some fun sites: an annual tango festival in Hanoi, numerous tango clubs and classes in both Hanoi and former Saigon, and my favorite –“our tango Christmas package to “Ho-ho-ho Chi Minh City!”
Or try YouTube. In response to my search for “Vietnamese Tango,” over a dozen performances came up ranging from the sleazy to the chic:
* A Vietnamese couple introduced in English and Vietnamese as Ta.Tango was featured twice. For the first performance, the venue was Saigon Bellydance Club. Where exactly? Not sure. After one instrumental section, a singer added Vietnamese lyrics. While the couple danced on a round dance floor surrounded by electric lights, two female dancers wearing blonde wigs and slinky pastel gowns undulated on a platform above them.
* Lyrics to “Kiep Ngheo,” a Vietnamese tango by prolific popular composer Lam Phuong, appear over an impressionistic drawing of a café scene. In it a woman is seated, holding flowers and seems to be estranged from a young man standing nearby. During the song, they flash pictures of composer Lam Phuong in his younger days and then as an elderly gentleman. This gives the impression of a musical tradition rooted in a previous generation.
* Brittania Vietnamese Line Dancing features about twenty middle-aged Vietnamese women in exercise attire practicing tango moves to instruction yelled in Vietnamese that sounds pretty regimented.
* The UC Davis Vietnamese Student Association does a stylish tango ensemble performance, the girls clad in little black dresses, the boys in black ties/white shirts and vice versa. There are lots of instances of the female falling backward with arching her back over the male’s arm as well as female clinging and sliding along with male. At one point the girls do a line dance interlude. Find it on YouTube under the name of the Association followed by “2010 Culture Show.”
How did the tango travel from Argentina to Vietnam?
Tangled Tango Roots
The tango developed its unique character in the slums of the Rio de la Plata of Buenos Aires. No one knows who “invented” it exactly but it is thought to have Afro-Argentine influence. Its earliest interpreters came from a community of displaced persons. This included unemployed gauchos compelled to abandon their cowboy lifestyles on the pampas due to modernization and immigration in the interior of the country. It also encompassed new immigrants, many of them Italian, attracted by myths of free land or well-paid work, men who mourned their Argentine dream while working at menial jobs and living in urban slums. These single, rootless men outnumbered the local young women, who, lacking protective families, preferred trading on their beauty to losing it in the drudgery of domestic work. The tango contained the grief and bitterness of faraway homes and lost dreams but its choreography struck an attitude of distance from the pain and intimacy with one’s partner. The dancing couple was a pair of melancholy individuals, each steeped in his/her own private hell, but nevertheless propelled to move beautifully together by a combination of pride and carnal desire. The accordion-like sound of the bandoneón, a European import, gave the dance a distinct mood although not all tangos were to retain it as an instrument of accompaniment.
Argentine dance masters thought they had a vibrant new vehicle to promote but the close male-female physical contact and serpentine, swerving footwork of the tango scandalized the elite of Buenos Aires. Even so, young men of means happily went “slumming” to have a chance to watch it and eventually dance it.
Tango Takes Paris
In the second decade of the twentieth century, the racier clubs of Montmartre already featured a dance genre that had raw, sexual power dynamics — the apache. Bored with the waltz, polka, and schottische identified with the nineteenth century, Parisians were open to dances that approached the excitement of the apache. Argentine dance masters began to try their luck in the city of lights. At the same time, some of the dance’s earliest emissaries were the sons of well-to-do Argentine families doing their European Grand Tour and spending much of their time and money in Paris. Not only dance masters and middle-class young men bent on sowing wild oats, but also the less refined entrepreneurs representing the Argentine meat industry brought the dance to the European continent. For a brief period, the upper classes in Paris and other European capitals were as scandalized as their Buenos Aires counterparts. Even the Pope felt compelled to go on record condemning the dance.
But after all, Paris has a tradition of re-making artistic performance originating from afar into its own refined style. Apparently Parisian dance masters smoothed out some of the tango moves to decrease the body contact and add that je ne sais quoi form of elegance to a dance that had arrived with an aura of sleek brutality. This was enough for most of the elite families to welcome the dance into their salons with no further cares. In the US, meanwhile, Vernon and Irene Castle, who had danced a somewhat de-sexualized tango in Paris supper clubs, were still contending with puritanical U.S. reactions from the press, the clergy, and other institutions. By 1921 Rudolf Valentino had established as a world-wide sensation by dancing it in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Before the decade ended, the dashing Carlos Gardel had turned the tango into a vehicle for passionate vocal expression, the toast of Buenos Aires and Paris. It was inevitable that the tango would travel to the France’s prized colony.
From French Indochina to the “American War”
French colonial forces had overtaken most of Southeast Asia by the 1870s and by the turn-of-the-century, with the aid of the Church, had instituted a French-focused school system that inculcated Western cultural values. Hanoi and Saigon had their European-style opera houses. The generations of French-speaking Vietnamese reaching adulthood in the 1920s and 1930s embraced Western musical forms including both Latin American and French genres. It was a devastating colonial blow to Vietnamese musical traditions that, increasingly, many Vietnamese musicians felt their own songs to be weak and dull compared to the vigorous and varied melodies that emerged from military bands and the new recordings and films featuring stars such as Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker. To be sure, the new music created an uncomfortable rupture for a population previously used to pentatonic scales, but even theatrical forms that were fundamentally Vietnamese and quite innovative, c’ai luong being the most prominent, gained greater traction with audiences when they incorporated Western music into their shows. Eventually the tango of Rudolf Valentino invaded the dance floors and Carlos Gardel’s sung tangos were popular recordings in Vietnam.
You might have seen the 1992 French film Indochine. One of the earliest scenes shows middle-aged, impeccably elegant Eliane (Catherine Deneuve), a rubber plantation owner, dancing the tango with her adopted Vietnamese daughter Camille (Linh Dan Pham). The scene conveys multiple levels of the colonial relationship in the few moments of their diversion: Eliane is leading, la gloire de la France is in control even when the pair collapses on the couch, laughing, then jumps up to tango again. Camille, the Vietnamese ingénue, the colonized female, is pliable, dominated. For this type of dynamic, the rhumba or the cha-cha-cha would not do. In Buenos Aires, Paris, and Indochina, the tango had emerged as a daring dance about domination and obsession with a love object, about distance within intimacy. Only the tango would do.
With this inundation of Western music, a path for self-expression emerged among Vietnamese in the popular music world: Compose Vietnamese lyrics to Western/French songs. The first attempts to marry French-style music to the tonal Vietnamese language were awkward but eventually satisfactory products pleased the listening public. Better still, when Vietnamese composers began creating original Western-style melodies they could more easily interlock with Vietnamese lyrics, it was then possible to infuse these new compositional forms with Vietnamese meanings and nuances such that an actual appropriation of form by the Vietnamese now was taking place. From this fusion came a plethora of Vietnamese tango songs and instrumentals that are performed in the diaspora today.
But what happened after 1975, after the end of what today’s Vietnamese call “the American war”? Much of the Western-style music found safe haven in the refugee camps of the Philippines, where Vietnamese migrants facing an uncertain future nurtured nostalgia for music of the French-influenced culture, especially the slow, sad songs. They favored the cultural legacy of the French and the West in over the nationalistic fare of the communist regime that termed South Vietnamese musical preferences “capitalist poison.”
However, since the lifting of the trade embargo by the U.S., Western musical influences have flooded unified Vietnam. Tango is happy in Hanoi once again.
Tango in the Diaspora
Decades later, immigrant communities of the Vietnamese diaspora in New Jersey and California still animate their cultural celebrations such as Tet, the spring New Year festival, with bands playing Latin American ballroom dances, tango included. Today in Little Saigon you can perform karaoke to tango songs such as “Bai Tango Cho Em” (A Tango for You) which recounts the return of a sweetheart to his/her true love. While the message is overall life-affirming, the lyrics are tinged with sadness. Lines such as “I saw you move in sadness” and “with sadness quickly clouding your eyes” suggest a melancholy that must be overcome in order to “build a wall of everlasting love.” My own sense is that the sadness at the root of tango music, a sadness denied with an air of bravado in its danced form, resonates for the Vietnamese deprived of their native land.
At least two different video backdrops exist for the karaoke version of “Bai Tango Cho Em” (A Tango for You). One presents scenes from traditional Vietnamese village life, a world to which the immigrant can never return; hence, it is designed to evoke bittersweet nostalgia. A second video backdrop is set in contemporary Southern California and presents the joys of a young teenage couple coming together to stroll along the beach and contemplate a happy future together. Both videos are idealizations: one of the lost past, another of a present and future in which there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome. The tango is able to contain either experience. By taking the microphone to sing this tango, the member of the Vietnamese diaspora is taking the cultural reins. The lyrics are in his/her language; the music was probably written by a Vietnamese composer. The genre belongs to the world.
Information for this article was drawn from scholarly works by Jo Baim, Jason Gibbs, Dale Olsen, Adelaida Reyes, Marouf Hasian Jr. and Helene Shugart, and Deborah Wong. For a reprint with specific citations or a bibliography for the article, contact Audrey at firstname.lastname@example.org
Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and ethnomusicologist who explores traditional and world music developments in Southern California and beyond.