Risking life for pop music in wartime Vietnam

By Nga Pham
BBC News, Hanoi

Image caption, Mr Loc was accused of spreading "anti-revolutionary propaganda"

Nguyen Van Hai's son and daughter-in-law know not to arrange anything for him to do on Saturday nights.

On Tuesday nights and Thursday nights, he is pretty busy, too.

Three evenings a week, at 8pm sharp, the 73-year-old Hanoian puts on his nicest shirt and favourite brown tie before taking a motorbike ride to a small, dark cafe on the city's West Lake.

Mr Hai has a date, as he likes to say, "with my youth".

For a couple of hours, he will bury himself in the mesmerising melodies of "golden songs" - romantic tunes which were much loved in pre-war Vietnam.

"How I await autumn to come, so that you in your blue long dress would arrive once again in my dream," he sings.

'Yellow music'

"I love these songs," he says.

"They remind me of the old Hanoi and my wife when she was young and pretty."

The songs were banned in North Vietnam during the war, and for a long time after.

"During the war, they called it yellow music," explains Nguyen Van Loc, the owner and principal singer at the Loc Vang cafe.

"Yellow, like the colour of dying leaves, means sick, reactionary and worthless," he adds.

Mr Loc's love for the "yellow music" - nhac vang - cost him almost 10 years of his life.

During the 1960s, Vietnam's arts scene was still reeling from a crackdown on the dissident literary movement Nhan Van Giai Pham, under which hundreds of writers, artists and composers were arrested, imprisoned and re-educated.

A political purge against the so-called anti-party revisionists between 1963-1967 only intensified the general nervousness in North Vietnamese society.

Musical crime

And while the Vietnam war was escalating, the communist regime in Hanoi was striving to make sure that poets, writers, and singers did all they could to assist the "fight against American imperialism and the construction of socialism" in the North.

Mr Loc started a band in 1965.

"I met Brother Toan [Phan Thang Toan], who I thought was a best guitarist in Hanoi at that time," he recalls.

Image caption, Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975

"With Brother Thanh [Tran Van Thanh, another guitarist], we formed the band and started playing at weddings and parties.

"Our repertoires included pre-war love songs and foreign romantic songs that we thought were beautiful and human.

"We knew that kind of music was not allowed as they banned everything from the past.

"But we still loved it - we were not doing politics, we were only two guitarists and a singer."

But the government did not think so. To sing about lost loves and romantic memories when the war was ravaging was considered more than inappropriate - it was a crime.

The three were arrested in 1968 and, with others, were brought to court in January 1971.

The three-day trial was the first court case against the "spreading of imperialistic depraved culture and anti-revolutionary propaganda" in Vietnam.

No regrets

The musicians were accused of "poisoning the young generation with pessimistic and reactionary songs, promoting a retrogressive and sex-orientated lifestyle".

"They were sabotaging the government policies, including those for culture, labour and military service... distorting our socialist regime when the whole country was fighting against the American aggressors," said an article in the Hanoi Moi newspaper on 12 January 1971.

Nguyen Van Loc was given 10 years imprisonment, plus four years probation.

Phan Thang Toan, or Toan Xom, the band leader, was given the longest sentence - 15 years - and when he was released in 1980, he had lost everything, including his family home.

"Brother Toan didn't have even a roof to his name, he was living off friends' charity until his death in 2004," Mr Loc recalls, his voice breaking with emotion.

"I was asked to collect his body from the street."

But Nguyen Van Loc is not a quitter.

He retrained as a mason to earn a living and when Vietnam adopted the doi moi - renovation - policy in 1986 and became more open, he tried to regroup and to perform.

Yet it took him more than a decade to open Cafe Loc Vang - Golden Loc - which is now in its second operational year.

"Now we have somewhere people who love nhac vang could come, listen to their favourite songs, or even sing them," he says proudly.

"Looking back, I don't regret that I lost so much for the music. This is what I love."

"The irony is most of the songs they banned then have become once again popular in Vietnam. Good things never die."

But Mr Loc still thinks he is owed an apology by the authorities.

"After 50 years, Nhan Van Giai Pham writers and artists were finally recognised and some were awarded with prizes," he says.

"I only want to hear them [the government] say sorry."

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