HUONG THANH AND NGUYEN LE: Fragile Beauty reviewed (2008)

 |   |  2 min read

Huong Than and Nguyen Le: Rowing the Sampan
HUONG THANH AND NGUYEN LE: Fragile Beauty reviewed (2008)

These days world music compilations are pretty thick on the ground -- largely because they have been thrown there by disillusioned buyers who thought they might be getting a decent collection but discovered some lazily cobbled-together Thailand-lite or Indo-groove tracks which commit that most grave of sins: they are boring.

The high profile Putumayo label has been churning out such collections for about 15 years now under the motto “guaranteed to make you feel good”. That the cover art is done in a faux-folkloric style by a commercial artist and graduate of London’s St Martin’s College of Art and Design might give you a hint at just how reliable some of these collections can be. (Euro Groove and African Dreamland at a cafe near you I’m afraid.)

That isn’t to say the Putumayo label is write-off -- just that you take your chances -- but they seem proud to boast their label as a lifestyle accessory.

Label names like Global Groove, Lotus Leaf and the like should set off alarm bells.

Given the proliferation of world music labels it seems almost disappointing to observe that the old reliables -- Realworld, Hemisphere, Arc, Sterns, World Circuit and so on -- still maintain a high degree of quality control. But they have been given a run lately by the Rough Guide label, the aural offshoot of the travel books.

Collections on this imprint come through World Music Network which brought Etran Finatawa and Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya to world attention, and have the equally good Riverboat and Introducing . . . subsidiary labels under their wing.

Rough Guide travel books are useful -- I’m more Lonely Planet myself -- but the compilations often get you into the music of places like Algeria, Tunisia, Malaysia and Cambodia. And not just traditional music, their knowledgeable compilers frequently spotlight excellent -- but very different, obviously -- contemporary pop.

The Rough Guide to the Music of Vietnam was gem and my life would be the poorer for not having heard Cam Ly, Tranh Sao Bao and Blue Asia (which is actually a Japanese producer working with Malaysians and Vietnam’s Thuy Hanh to create Mekong Delta blues).viet

That terrific collection kicked off with a mesmerising track by the singer Huong Thanh. She is joined on that traditional but contemporary-sounding song by its arranger Nguyen Le, a hot-shot producer and guitarist who has played with Gil Evans, Ornette Coleman, Quincy Jones and others.

France-based, they have been associated for 10 years across three albums under her name, a couple under his, and now getting co-credit for the remarkable album Fragile Beauty.

And Fragile Beauty is indeed that: Thanh’s beguiling voice coils around the keening bird-like sound of Le’s fretless guitar, they ride evocative soundbeds from keyboards, and there are discreet touches of traditional instruments from all parts of the planet (African balafon, Vietnamese zither, Japanese koto all carefully employed in service of the song). With arco bass and bamboo flutes this also has an earthy grounding which balances Thanh’s ethereal vocals. There is also, improbably, an enchanting pop-jazz quality.

Yes, it is scrupulously produced (Should world music not be? Is it supposed to always sound like field recordings?) but that only adds to the allure.

Le's solo albums have been consistently getting favourable reviews in European magazines and latterly in more mainstream British and American music magazines. If the trickle down of that is to also bring Huong Thanh to attention then we should all be very grateful.

Fragile Beauty is quite something.

Share It

Your Comments

post a comment

More from this section   World Music articles index

SUSAN AGLUKARK INTERVIEWED (1995): Inuit into the mainstream

SUSAN AGLUKARK INTERVIEWED (1995): Inuit into the mainstream

It is 1995 and Susan Aglukark is speculating on how she’d like to see herself in five years; married certainly (she and her boyfriend have talked about it), a lot of children, learn to... > Read more

WOMAD TARANAKI 2014: Under starter's orders

WOMAD TARANAKI 2014: Under starter's orders

Given what “world music” is – music from all over the world, duh! – you'd think it had been with us always. Not so. “World music” as we know it... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT . . . MARNI NIXON: The voice of the famous faces

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT . . . MARNI NIXON: The voice of the famous faces

When the American singer Marni Nixon died in July 2016, her passing was barely noted in the music press. Major newspapers like the New York Times weighed in with obituaries, but the silence from... > Read more

CHESS BLUES: Taking it from the street

CHESS BLUES: Taking it from the street

Record companies are usually at their best when close to the street, turnlng up talent rather than just distributing it. The Chess label was so close to the street it felt the sweat. Polish... > Read more