“Co Tu”, by Ngoc Bao

Finding Vietnamese 78rpm records is not that easy, even though a lot of them were pressed here in France during the colonial period, when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina. This one comes from a lot I bought from another collector in Paris. Thanks to Haji Maji and Excavated Shellac blogs, I was already familiar with some 78rpm recordings of Vietnamese folk music, but it was the first time I heard early popular music from this country.

Most of the songs from that lot are based on western instruments, with male and female vocals. To be honest, they sometimes sound a little too sweet for my ears, but this one is really special! I was immediately stunned by the beauty of this voice, accompanied only by a guitar…

As often, finding information about this old and mysterious record was a bit complicated… Thanks to Dave Murray, from Haji Maji, I was introduced to Jason Gibbs, a composer and musician who’s also a researcher specialised in Vietnamese music. Jason sent me very interesting elements about the historical context of this song and made a fascinating analysis of its lyrics. Here is his contribution:

The earliest involvement of the Vietnamese with the popular song idiom came about through French songs using Vietnamese lyrics interpolated into the dramas of the cải lương musical theatre genre in the 1920s.  The earliest original songs emulating Western styles began to be created in the mid-1930s.  Once this genre began to become popular in the 1940s, Vietnam was plunged into a war against the French.  While many Vietnamese spent the years of the First Indochinese War (1945-1954) in the maquis – mostly mountains, forests, and swamps under the communist Việt Minh forces – a large number lived in cities in relative peace under French control and protection.  It was during this time that a Vietnamese popular industry with published sheet music, shellac records, stage performances and radio shows began to take shape.

The singer of “Cô Tú” is Ngọc Bảo, one of the most famous singing artists from Hanoi before 1954.  I knew him before he died about 10 years ago.  He had recorded some sides in France in the 1950s, but I wonder whether this is one of them.  It lists the accompaniment as being by Trần Văn Lý a bandleader from Huế – but all I hear is a solo guitar.

Ngọc Bảo was a singer for the Hanoi radio station from about 1950-1954 and was very popular. He was given the appelation tài tử which is commonly translated as “talented amateur”. That was a term of respect and implied that he sang for art and not for money. But I can’t imagine that he didn’t get paid. It probably meant that he didn’t sing at clubs or dancehalls, but I know that he did sing at movie theaters (it was common then to have a music group perform before the film). I know that he had many fans among the broadcast audience. He chose to stay in Hanoi after 1954, and while he was not mistreated by the communist regime (one of his old friends was the Premier of the Musicians Association) it became difficult for him to perform because his style of music became outlawed. He made something of a comeback starting in the 1990s until his death.

This is a song composed around 1945 or 1946.  The composer is Long Châu.  I know very little about this songwriter.  I’ve met someone who played in a band with him, but that’s about it.  The song is fairly unknown today, but it was very popular in the 1940s and early 1950s – I’ve met a few octogenarians recall this song.  The subject matter actually relates to adult literacy – there was a movement to bring literacy to the peasantry around that time.  Cô Tú means Miss Tú and it’s about her learning to spell and read.

Here is the translation of the song’s lyrics:

Ai về chợ huyện, huyện Thanh-Vân,

Whoever’s going back to the district market, Thanh Vân District

Hỏi thăm, hỏi thăm Cô Tú đánh vần được chưa

Ask whether, ask whether Miss Tú can spell yet?

Đánh vần năm ngoái, năm xưa

She was spelling last year, years past

Năm nay quên hết nên chưa biết gì.

This year it’s all forgotten, she doesn’t know a thing.

Lưng trời tiếng sáo vu vi,

In the distance, there’s the humming of a flute

Vẳng nghe ai học chữ i, chữ tờ.

The echo of someone studying letter “i”, letter “t.”

Sách i tờ biếu không cho học,

The book with “i” and “t” gifted but not allowed to learn.

Liệu cô mình đã đọc được chưa?

I wonder if our Miss has read them yet?

Đôi bên bác mẹ cùng già,

On both sides her folks are old,

Lấy cô hay chữ để mà cậy trông.

Someone would marry her if she were literate to rely on.

Mùa hè cho chí mùa đông,

Summer’s almost turning to winter,

Ruộng vườn thóc lúa tính thông cô chẳng nhầm.

Gardens and fields, calculating the rice you’re never off.

Nụ tầm xuân còn đương phong nhụy,

Her youthful smile is still virginal,

Xin cô mình đừng phí ngày xanh.

Please don’t let her waste the prime of her life

Bình Dân Học Vụ lập thành,

The Popular Education Office has been founded,

Cô nên tới đó học hành cho thông.

She should go there to study until she’s fluent.

The words are evidently a sort of folk poem (ca dao) created through the Bình Dân Học Vụ – Popular Education Office.  This organization was one way for patriotic Vietnamese to be nationalistic and patriotic and to organize without upsetting the French colonial authorities too much.  It mostly follows a folk poetry form called lục bát (or six eight) reflecting the alternation of six and eight syllable lines.  Additionally the sixth and eight syllables set the rhyme scheme that you can see below.  This pattern is very obvious in the singing and would have made the song very easy to remember, especially for the illiterate.

Ai về chợ huyện Thanh-Vân,
Hỏi thăm Cô Tú đánh vần được chưa
Đánh vần năm ngoái, năm xưa
Năm nay quên hết nên chưa biết .

Lưng trời tiếng sáo vu vi,
Vẳng nghe ai học chữ i, chữ tờ.
Sách i tờ biếu không cho học,
Liệu cô mình đã đọc được chưa?

Đôi bên bác mẹ cùng già,
Lấy cô hay chữ để  cậy trông.
Mùa hè cho chí mùa đông,
Ruộng vườn thóc lúa tính thông cô chẳng nhầm.

Nụ tầm xuân còn đương phong nhụy,
Xin cô mình đừng phí ngày xanh.
Bình Dân Học Vụ lập thành,
Cô nên tới đó học hành cho thông.

The reference to letters “i” and “t” seems a little stranger to an outsider to the culture, but evidently these were the first and simplest letters taught – so the fact that they are still being repeated in class reflects a lack of progress.  When this lyric is quoted on the internet the word “biếu” in line seven is almost always replaced by “Pháp” – the word for France.  Ngọc Bảo had to get the record through censorship so it’s logical to make that substitution.  Biếu does work awkwardly here.  With the more popular lyric it translates as follows:

Sách i tờ Pháp không cho học,

The book with “i” and “t” the French won’t allow to be learned.

The song was written in 1945, or perhaps earlier.  This recording dates from some time between 1950 and 1954.  The song had some currency through the 1950s, but has become largely forgotten.  Here was a more recent recording, probably from the early 1970s :

I am very grateful to Jason Gibbs for this great contribution! Thanks also to Dave Murray and Jonathan Ward for their help. In conclusion, here is a link to a similar Vietnamese recording on Sonidos Perdidos blog.


10 thoughts on “Ngọc Bảo – Cô Tú, a Vietnamese 78rpm

  1. Please please please do!

    I remember listening to my grandma singing the song to put my little brother to sleep when I was small. The song, and the precious memory about grandma were almost forgotten until my friend share your blog on her fb today. As I listened to the song, I slowly recognised it, then came the overwhelming memory of the sunny afternoons in Hanoi with grandma having my little bro in her hands swinging slowly singing the song. I’d never known what the song was called and where it came from until today.

    Thank you so much for sharing. I can’t tell you enough how much this has meant to me.

  2. Thank you for your note. However, there is a mistake in translation when “Sách i tờ biếu không cho học” is translated to “The book with ‘i’ and ‘t’ gifted but not allowed to learn”. In Vietnamese language, “biếu không” means “give free” or “offer unconditionally”. Vietnamese people usually use this phrase in verbal language. They never say “biếu không-cho-học” with meaning “not allowed to learn”, because the true pause of beat should “Sách i tờ | biếu không | cho học”. One version of this lyric is “phát không cho học”, “phát” means “give”, also has same meaning as “biếu”. Some singers in the South sang “pháp” that made a new meaning – “Pháp không cho học” / “France did not allow [people] to learn”. It may not true with the text of the original poem.

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