Ngọc Lan and the Rumba

The first time I heard Ngọc Lan’s voice, I flipped the fuck out. Huỳnh Anh’s “Rừng Lá Thay Chưa” had been covered before, but never with such elegant, effervescent, emotional touch Ngọc Lan brought to it. It was love at first sound. I fell for her angelic alto immediately. I was in awed with the effortlessness she maneuvered her way around the rumba rhythm.

A couple of days ago, I came across a CD of Ngọc Lan’s recordings I made for myself ages ago so I could bring with me on roadtrips. Upon re-listening to the collection, I realized that my personal favorites were arranged in rumba. Ngọc Lan was a versatile vocalist who covered a wide range of styles, including Vietnamese lyrical songs, translated love melodies, ballroom-dance tunes, and French romantic ballads, but my personal preference has to be the rumba flavor simply because she had the flow.

I can listen to “Chuyện Phim Buồn,” “Yêu Đến Muôn Đời,” and “Dòng Sông Quê Tôi” again and again just to hear her soft, sweet, and sensual voice floating like crystal clear water over the hypnotic Latin rhythm arranged by Quang Nhật. With “Chuyện Phim Buồn,” in which Phạm Duy translated into Vietnamese from Sue Thompson’s “Sad Movies (Make Me Cry),” Ngọc Lan sang like she was the main character in the film. One could hear the sadness of betrayal from a lover as well as the clever cover up of emotion when her mother asked her why she was sad: “Dối má tối nay rằng / Đã lỡ trót xem phim buồn / Và xem đúng ngay một phim thật đỗi buồn / Làm lòng con xót xa.” (“And mama saw the tears and said ‘what’s wrong?’ / And so to keep from telling her a lie / I just said ‘sad movies make me cry’”). As for “Dòng Sông Quê Tôi” I didn’t realize the song was translated from “La Playa” until I searched it up. The Vietnamese lyrics, again masterfully translated by Phạm Duy, fit the harmony so well that I thought it was a true Vietnamese ballad. No less impressive was “Yêu Đến Muôn Đời,” which was also a foreign ballad translated by Trung Hành.

Another outstanding rumba recording was “Giáng Tiên Nữ,” which based on the theme of “Black Orpheus,” with Vietnamese lyrics written by Phạm Duy. Again the flow was just impeccable, as she brought some sensuality to the lyrics: “Vùi trong hơi ấm nồng nàn / Thịt da thơm ngát tình nồng / Cùng chăn gối ấm tình hồng / tình ôi ngất ngây.” (I am not even going to attempt to translate.)

Ngọc Lan’s rendition of Lam Phương’s “Xin Thời Gian Qua Mau” is still one of the best interpretations I’ve heard. The heart-rending saxophone, the crisp snare drum, and Ngọc Lan’s swag made the tune so damn intimate. I could almost feel her breath as if she were singing into my ears: “Ta đã quen, quen từng hơi thở / Quen tiếng cười và sóng mát đưa tin / Tám mùa đông cây rừng khô trụi lá / Chưa bao giờ một phút sống xa nhau.”

How did Ngọc Lan sing the rumba so damn good? She embraced the rumba, caressed the rumba, and made lucious love to the rumba.

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