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Philosophy of New Music

Popular Music of Vietnam: The Politics of Remembering, the Economics of Forgetting

by Dale A.Olsen
Routledge, New York, London, 2008/2010
286 pp. Trade, $106.00; paper, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-415-88397-9; ISBN: 978-0-415-98886-5.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Popular Music of Vietnam
is an important book. To begin with it is the first study in the new series, Routledge Studies in Ethnomusicology. [1] Accordingly, it sets the style, scope and tone of those that will follow. Departing from tradition, it provides an in-depth encyclopedic perspective on the range of popular music in Vietnam in the 1990’s. Incorporating materials from the mass media, interviews, and ethnography, Olsen provides deeply sensitive accounts of the artists and their careers. He describes the contexts in which they perform, the recording industry and the relevant media, the relations with the government and history and much more. In bringing such diverse material together, this book will be of long-lasting value not only to ethnomusicology but also more broadly to the study of popular culture and the appreciation of popular music globally. Moreover, though it is theoretically informed, those discussions are effective and brief and do not detract from the somewhat unmediated nature of the text. [2] Above all, what we learn here is a great deal about the surprisingly lively popular music scene in Vietnam.

The title is deftly chosen with Olsen noting that the subtitle was inspired by Arjun Appadurai’s discussion of the globalization of archaeology and heritage. There Appadurai comments that not enough attention has been paid to the national cultural politics of forgetting. [3] For Olsen, this serves him well to illustrate how both individuals and the state have pursued a cultural agenda to promote minority culture through popular music. They and the youth in particular have also used the music as a means to forget disturbing aspects of the past. In this the book’s originality lies in its discussion of the economics of forgetting and as such it makes an important contribution to the study of national imagination and music.

The book includes accounts of the historical, cultural and political aspects of artists’ musical careers and of their particular gifts. It describes all manner of popular music and performance venues from clubs to concerts, festivals and competitions and much more including discussions of the audio and video recording industry and a chapter on the politics and pleasures of karaoke. The star profiles and the accompanying photographs are especially compelling. We also gain unusually direct insight into this world through accounts of his field experiences and from long quotes taken from newspaper and other mass media accounts. Therein Olsen provides us with a useful case study of how to conduct ethnographic and historical studies that can take into account the full richness of national music scenes and the global and the local therein. In this, a daunting challenge in itself, it has relevance far beyond ethnomusicology itself.

Popular Music of Vietnam is also a wonderful instance of an age-centric study. Take this humorous and revealing account from the author’s field notes for instance:

“I have never in my life experienced anything like this. It was as futuristic as anything you could ever imagine – blue and green spotlights flashing everywhere over continuous black lights; techno music with the bass so loud and so monotonous . . . that my pants legs vibrated and my stomach felt upset . . . .” (Olsen 2008, p. 180)

As a respected emeritus American ethnomusicology professor who first worked on traditional music in Peru, [4] Olsen has passionately engaged the whole gamut of Vietnamese popular music from rap to rock and pop, from head banging and Snoop Doggy Dog to techno and much more. He attended to every imaginable popular and traditional form of music in clubs small and large. He braved the stadium madness and the pulsing nightlife of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the noise and the smoke and the pant leg shaking stomach upsetting base. All together then, this results in a book which is a lasting tribute to his career and to more generally to the longevity of the joys of research, fieldwork and writing.

It is in this important and touching to learn that Olsen’s original interest in Vietnamese music was inspired by a recital by Pham Duy and his family, then newly refugees. That shared experience in a church in Florida is in part then responsible for this study. After that recital in 1975, Olsen always included the study of Vietnamese traditional and contemporary musics in his ethnomusicology survey classes. There he would discuss the similarities between Duy’s and Pete Seeger’s use of musical politics as he briefly considers in this study (see Olsen 2008, pp.131-132). In this one can see how decades of thoughtful engagement eventually can find their final form and how the study of Vietnamese music can have deep relevance to the appreciation of American music and its global influence. [5]

Though Olsen very successfully conveys the essence of what makes contemporary Vietnamese music popular and therefore important it is unfortunate that there is no an accompanying CD or better yet DVD. Nevertheless, in the final analysis this is an enormously rich text that exudes sincerity. In that and in its broad reach, this study will be valuable not only to ethnomusicologists but to anthropologists, historians and all others studying global popular culture. In time, perhaps another author will be inspired to reveal to us the dark side of the earlier period of this history of Americanized music, that is, the all important Vietnam War years. For as Olsen quotes Reebe Garofalo - “Rock . . . was not only the sound track of domestic opposition to the war [within the United States]; it was the soundtrack of the war itself” [within Vietnam] (in Olsen 2008, p. 6).

To conclude, in describing how Vietnamese musicians have incorporated influences from rock and other musics and exploited the explosive power of new technologies such as the CD which has become the iconic symbol of the new Vietnam, Olsen pithily states: “This is where it is at; this is the future; this is the economics of forgetting at work; this is globalization in its mediated glory” (2008, p.187). In bringing all this richness together, and keeping in mind the exceptional case of Phuong Tao - the “Mariah Carey of Vietnam” (such Amerasian children being known as the “dust of life” ibid, p. 41-43) and perhaps unavoidably the recent conviction of Comrade Duch in nearby Cambodia on Tuesday July 27th, 2010, this study begins the process of revisiting such painful histories informing Vietnamese artists’ lives and for other musicians further afield. For now then, here is an encyclopedic resource which speaks to the enduring salience of traditional musics and the strange affective power of American music, no less the soul’s desire for seeking expression and transcendence through music and dance.


[1] For the leading series in the field of ethnomusicology, see Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology at http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Complete/Series/CSE.html. For one particularly relevant example from that series for Olsen’s study as regards technology and music, see Peter Manuel’s Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India (1993).

[2] Olsen’s study will speak to many other studies of popular music notably Craig Lockard’s Dance of Life: Popular Music and Politics in Southeast Asia (1998), Theodore Gracyk’s I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity (2001), Simon Frith’s Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (1996) and Brian Longhurst’s Popular Music & Society (1995). For two more focused and theoretical ethnomusicological case studies and discussions of the anthropological issues of music and identity, modernity and tradition, see Christopher Waterman’s Juju: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music (1990) and Tom Turino’s Nationalists, Cosmopolitans and Popular Music in Zimbabwe (2000). For a detailed consideration of Turino’s study, see Jonathan Zilberg’s review in the Journal of Cultural Studies, Lagos 3(2), 2001, pp. 514-522 available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/32692828/Nationalists-Cosmopolitans-and-Popular-Music-in-Zimbabwe

[3] See “The globalization of archaeology and heritage: A discussion with Arjun Appadurai”, Journal of Social Archaeology 1(1), 2001, pp. 35-49.

[4] Two of Olsen’s previous books are The Music of El Dorado: The Ethnomusicology of Ancient Andean Cultures (2001) and The Chrysanthemum and the Song: Music, Memory, and Identity in the South American Japanese Diaspora (2004). His first book Music of the Warao of Venezuela: Song People of the Rain Forest (1996) won the Society for Ethnomusicology’s (SEM) Merriam prize in 1997 as the year's "most outstanding book in ethnomusicology". Dr. Dale A. Olsen is: Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus in the College of Music at Florida State University
Tallahassee, Florida. His personal web page can be accessed at: http://dolsenmusic.net.

[5] I am grateful for Dale Olsen for sharing this and other insights with me during the course of writing this review.

Last Updated 5 September, 2010

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