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Gia Dinh «Ba Pho» - Quê Huong (Homeland)

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Artist: Gia Dinh «Ba Pho»

Album: Quê Huong (Homeland)

Label: Dunya

Review date: May. 24, 2007

The Italian Felmay/Dunya family of labels has developed a reputation for releasing beautifully recorded, repertoire-spanning CDs of Indian music and Javanese Gamelan. (See Josie Clowney's recent survey of the latter here.) With that in mind, this reviewer was excited to check out the label’s first release devoted to Vietnamese music.

Ba Pho, it turns out, leads an ensemble of musicians who might be best described as traditional in a somewhat academic sense: Gia Dinh present a syncretic view of folk roots, presenting music of different regions and styles, from countryside farming songs to romantic love ballads. There are even some post-’60s folk-pop tunes written by the late Trinh Cong Son, who has often been compared to Bob Dylan for his poetic protest songs.

The ensemble Gia Dinh is obviously made up of instrumental and vocal virtuosi, and in that they seem to occupy a position within Vietnamese music that is somewhat analogous to that of the Chieftains within Irish tradition. Like the Chieftains, they present a range of music that spans eras, regions, and various local traditions.

Instrumentals make up the bulk of the performances here. Flutes, plucked strings, and melodic percussion instruments explore a kaleidoscopically engaging range of timbral possibilities. The sprightly, melodic opening ensemble track evinces quite nicely some of the ancient influence of Chinese music upon Vietnamese. Other pieces give hi-res recorded tastes of uniquely Vietnamese sonic textures: The ancient Dan Da lithophone, made up of tuned stones arranged and played with mallets; The single-stringed Dan Bau , its palm-harmonic pitches bent expressively with a buffalo horn, giving it a voice with a slide-guitar-like bent-note urgency.

While there is some compelling and engaging music here, a non-expert – and this reviewer will admit to belonging in that category – might have some trouble figuring out the context of these performances. The liner notes are of little help in the matter. While they do give a decent overview, they are occasionally confusing: They make reference to instruments not addressed in the glossary; the explanatory song notes don’t seem to always align with the track numbers referenced. All this makes for a somewhat frustrating presentation.

That said, it does bear repeating that this music is superbly performed and recorded, and is very, very nice to listen to. And while the presentation and documentation may confuse, this release might also whet an appetite to explore further the riches of Vietnam’s music.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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