Vietnamese singer Ao Anh, who left her homeland in 1975 and now resides in Arlington, had observed a disheartening development over the last few years: Young Vietnamese in America were no longer listening to their own music; they tended to throw it over in favor of American rock 'n' roll. "I wanted to let everybody hear my songs," she says. On her earlier albums, they were all "songs I wrote about my country, about the people left behind and their suffering under the communist regime.
"But I wanted new arrangements in the American style to let the young people hear and think about Vietnam. They haven't forgotten about the country, but they like the American music and sometimes they don't like the Vietnamese music. But I think music is the same in all the world . . . it just needed to be modernized."
The resulting album, "Que Hu'o'ng Nhac Tuyen" ("Shadow of Love"), is the first in which Anh is backed by Western musicians. In this case it's a local top-40 band called Free Spirit, and the collaboration became a true East/West encounter. Mike Weiland, the group's keyboard player, recalls being subtly auditioned by Lion and Fox Recording Studio owner Hal Lion while playing at the Marriott in Bethesda. "We met and talked about the project, and decided to do a test-type thing on two songs that needed arrangements and musicians. It went pretty well and we ended up doing 12 songs on her album, with overdubs and things."
Anh, who has performed around the world, is part of Washington's large Vietnamese community. Her husband, Tuan Nguyen, markets and promotes her recorded work (mostly in cassette form). The idea of a band rooted in rock 'n' roll teaming up with a singer from a totally different tradition wasn't at all intimidating, Weiland insists. "My initial reaction was, 'Let's go hear what they're talking about.' It seemed a little strange at first, but the guy was talking about hiring musicians and I supposed that since we're in that business, we might as well go see what he was talking about."
Because the band had had no encounters with Vietnamese music, they initially worked with some tapes Anh had recorded in Los Angeles in 1975 backed by Vietnamese musicians. "It was poor quality, so that it was hard to hear what was actually on them," says Weiland. "But we are the first American musicians to work with her. We had to arrange the songs off the tape for what we knew we'd be able to do in the studio -- that was phase one. Phase two was actually going in and recording it: We wrote charts out and went over verbally what each song was about. Usually it took only two or three takes."
Vietnamese music, like the culture in general, was strongly influenced by 100 years of French rule (though there are also strong Chinese flavors); some of the cuts on the finished product sound Piaf-like, or like '50s French rock 'n' roll a la Franc,oise Hardy, or a bit like Connie Francis doing "Summertime" as a pop blues. Weiland, who "didn't analyze too deeply," heard some stylistic differences, particularly "note bending. Anh bends a lot up to the notes. American singers don't do that too often. And we changed the horns and keyboard; in Vietnam, they use organ more heavily, but we added electric piano, acoustic piano, and a lot of Prophet Five synth on overdubs."
The band (Steve Kunk on drums, Leigh Stevens on bass, Dan Hovey on guitar, Tom Monroe on sax, Greg Olenyk on trumpet) has been playing together in the Washington area for close to a decade, and while several of them had worked in studios, this turned out to be the first group effort. "The communication was pretty good," Weiland says. "She left us a lot of freedom and we did what we thought she wanted, which was to commercialize her music a little bit. She wanted a little more modern feel to the music.
"Some of the songs are ballads, and we just had to flow with the kind of music she had. We would ask, 'What is this song, what are you saying here?' to try and get a feel for it. A lot of them were love songs, like 'Shadow of Love' . . . a tear comes to the eye . . ."
Anh's seven previous albums all had strong anticommunist overtones, but she says, "This tape is not about politics or anything -- it just talks about human love."