About two months ago, Hung Hoang, founder of VN Collective, invited me to a Vietnamese concert titled Dem Nho Ve Sai Gon (Memories of Sai Gon) in Mississauga. He also wanted to use two of my slideshows, “Bien Nho” and “Vietnam In Memoriam,” for the event. Although none of my work was shown for technical (and some political) issues, I still drove across the border to attend the show. The reason being that I haven’t seen neither Tuan Ngoc nor Khanh Ha live.
Tuan Ngoc didn’t disappoint. He had proven that age ain’t nothing but a number and he often joked about it during the show. By the way, his dry humors were clever and brought out the not-so-serious side of him. His outstanding performances of the night included the nostalgic rendition of Tram Tu Thien’s “Dem Nho Ve Sai Gon,” soulful take on Trinh Cong Son’s “Phoi Pha” and Ngo Thuy Mien’s “Ao Lua Ha Dong.” Loved the bossa-nova arrangement on “Ao Lua Ha Dong” and the way the piano comping behind Tuan Ngoc. His weaker performances were Trinh Cong Son’s “Ha Trang” (the mid-tempo arrangement ruined the lyrical imaginations) and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Tuan Ngoc can sing English, but not so great. His flow was stilted and his accent was transparent.
During intermission, I had an opportunity to catch up and thank Hung Hoang for the invitation. Knowing that Mr. Hoang is the organizer, a not-so-bad-looking lady in her mid thirties interrupted our conversation to request a song from Tuan Ngoc. She wanted to hear him sing “Rieng Mot Goc Troi.” I wanted to slap her for one of my visitors, but I looked at Mr. Hung and laughed instead. Tuan Ngoc did delivered “Rieng Mot Goc Troi” near the end of the concert and still managed to show off his technical skill for the 999 times he had sung the tune.
Unlike Tuan Ngoc, Khanh Ha was quite a disappointment. She literally fucked up the theme of the show simply because she came way too late to practice with the band. She started out with Van Phung’s “Toi Di Giua Hoang Hon” out of tune. She sang in one key while the band played in another. The saxophone kicked in at the bridge caused her to dropped out instead of finishing up the song. Her version of “Autumn Leaves” was a mess. The band, which consisted of Canadian players, and her didn’t communicate. It was so horrible that she had to request a kid who could play some classical piano to accompanied her instead of the jazz band. She managed to pulled off Anh Bang’s “Khuc Thuy Du,” Truong Sa’s “Xin Con Goi Ten Nhau” and “Unchain Melody” with just a piano behind her. She went as far as singing Hoang Duong’s “Huong Ve Ha Noi” in an acappella style, although the theme was clearly about remembering Sai Gon. I guess she wanted to take a detour.
If this was a Tuan Ngoc & Khanh Ha show, it was decent. They both delivered their signature songs well. However, for a show with a concept of Dem Nho Sai Gon, it was all over the place. The song selection didn’t take the listeners back to Sai Gon. Choices like Thanh Tung’s “Giot Nang Ben Them,” Pham Dinh Chuong’s “Nua Hon Thuong Dau,” Duc Huy’s “Bai Di Canh Chim Bien,” Pham Duy’s “Kiep Nao Con Co Nhau” didn’t evoke the images of Sai Gon.
Musically, the band’s playing was way too restricted. Unlike Say Thu with Thu Phuong, in which the band swung, played the blues and added some Latin flavors, they played mostly pop ballad and only accommodated the vocalists. They hardly brought out their solos and improvisations. They didn’t played with confidence.
Dem Nho Sai Gon was disorganized and it was out of the organizer’s control. I could see how tough it was to put together a show; therefore, I have already abandoned my idea of my ideal concert.