Tran Thu Ha is perhaps the most under-appreciated singer in the Vietnamese-American community, even though she is a pop phenomenon with a style of her own. Ha has always been a boundary breaker, and her work on Nhat Thuc (Eclipse) proves it. Unfortunately, most listeners have a hard time assimilating Ngoc Dai’s eccentric vision. When I rocked that CD at my family’s dinner party, everyone looked at me and asked, “What the heck are you listening to?” Not too many people cherished that rare form of art.
About a month ago, I went to a Vietnamese concert at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut, and Ha’s performance was the least applauded one. When the host, Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen, announced the coming of Tran Thu Ha’s first album in the United States, I was excited. This would be the chance for her to re-establish her fame with the Vietnamese-American audience. Regrettably, Sac Mau, which is a remaking of her popular hits from 1998 to 2003, is not a groundbreaking work.
The problem is that Ha tries to please her listeners instead of following her heart. She gives them what they want to hear, and she takes no risks. As a result, even a colorful arrangement could not give Tran Tien’s “Sac Mau” a new image. With Le Minh Son’s “Chay Tron,” she barely pushes her voice over the fusion of jazz and bossa nova tune, and she hardly transports her passion into the lyrics. Could it be that Ha is deeply in love, and music is no longer her priority? Unlike Thu Phuong, Ha has no drama in her life, and her naked (without instrument) version of Trinh Cong Son’s “Tien Thoai Luong Nan” shows it. She doesn’t bring the thirst into the work the way that Phuong does.
Even though the album doesn’t offer much elevation to Ha’s position, Sac Mau is still a solid work. The lead-off track “Mua Xuan Goi” and “Dong Song Mua Thu,” both composed by Tran Tien, have reviving and refreshing productions. Assisted by Thanh Thuy’s sixteen-stringed zither, Ha gives Viet Hung’s “Mua Thang Gieng” a contemporary folk flavor. Although the rest of the recordings provide casual satisfaction, Ha has wasted an opportunity to epitomize her distinctive talent by playing safe.