Ngọc Lan was a multilingual musician. In addition to her native language, she could sing French, English, and even Chinese. Her Vietnamese was impeccable. She knew that the diacritics were as essential as the letters in a tonal language; therefore, she made a clear distinction between her hook above and her tilde in her phrasing. Her effortlessness on accenting the tilde, in particular, was unmistakable. She also articulated her “tr” and her “ch” with distinguishable nuances.
For Chinese, she only recorded a few songs; therefore, I won’t get into that. Besides, I don’t know Chinese. As for French, she had been praised for singing with fluency. My French is very limited; therefore, I’ll leave that one out too. Since I know English and love my second language as much as my first, I would like to focus on her English singing, which fascinated me.
I have spent years listening to jazz legends, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day, and Lena Horne, as well as modern jazz vocalists, such as Tierney Sutton, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot, Sophie Milman, and Diana Krall. I love them all, but one particular singer has me hanging onto her every word is Stacey Kent. I adore the way she enunciate each syllable. I could listen to her records all day just to learn English. Similar to Ngọc Lan, Stacey Kent can sing French fluently. If you want some relaxing French jazz ballads, check out Stacey Kent’s Reconte-Moi.
When I wanted to put together a collection of Ngọc Lan’s English recordings, I had trouble finding them. Fortunately, Ngọc Lan still has many devoted fans who know her repertoire inside out. One of them is Nguyễn Quốc Anh who I had reached out through I Love Ngoc Lan Facebook Page and he provided me with a list of sixteen songs recorded in English and Vietnamese. Although incomplete, the list gives me enough materials to pore over.
I was not impressed with her early English works, particularly her new wave covers. From John Christian’s “Ebony Eyes” to Optimal’s “Kimi Ga Suki” to John Farrar’s “Magic,” the uptempo productions drowned out her soft voice. With Brenda K. Starr’s “I Still Believe,” the bass-pounding r&b beat overpowered her vocals. I could barely make out what she was singing in English. With Bertie Higgins’s “Casablanca,” she mispronounced the lyrics quite a bit. When I heard her sing, “Popcorn and Cokes beneath the stars,” I almost fell out of my chair. I had to repeat it several times to make sure I didn’t mishear the word Cokes. The mispronunciation was just hilarious, but it might make sense with, “Making love on a long hot summer’s night.” I am kidding.
Fortunately, Ngọc Lan’s English improved tremendously in her later works, starting when began recording for Mây Productions. Her rendition of Alan Nguyễn’s “Whenever You Come to Me” was damn-near perfect. I love the way she enunciated truth in these bars: “It’s time to tell the truth, please tell me what to do / Someday I’ll find the way to get to you.” Her cover of The Beatles’ “Yesterday” would have been excellent if she adhered to the original pronoun. Changing from “she” to “he,” she lost that sweet s sound: “Why she had to go? I don’t know, she wouldn’t say.”
Her interpretation of The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” worked surprisingly well. She kicked off the tune in Vietnamese and she sounded lovely. Saxophonist Thanh Lâm played a soulful solo at the break. Ngọc Lan picked up the second half in English: “Woah, my love, my darling / I’ve hungered for your touch.” I love how she ended the word touch. She pulled off the high note, “Are you still mine?,” with ease and wisely departed from the famous climax, “I need your love.”
Although her accent had not completely gone, she had proved that she can adapt and adjust to English. As someone who still struggles to learn English after 30 years living in the United States, I admire how quickly she picked up a new language. At first I was not impressed, but I found her accent to be charming and intoxicating. Her take on Paul Anka’s “Diana” puts a smile on me every time I hear her sing:
I’m so young and you’re so old
This, my darling, I’ve been told
I don’t care just what they say
’Cause forever I will pray
You and I will be as free
As the birds up in the trees
Yes, fly freely my love.