December 28, 2008
Chung-Vô-Diệm, the title of this recording which dates from Vietnam (then Indochina) around the 1930s, is the name of a woman in a legendary Vietnamese fable. Her story is something along the lines of “Beauty and the Beast.” Numerous variations must exist, but this is how it was related to me:
Chung-Vô-Diệm made a tragic error while living on Earth, so after she had died, she was dealt a punishment. She was sent back to Earth to live as a horrifically ugly person. She found her home in the mountains, living with a fairy goddess, isolated from the rest of society. While living in the mountains, she trained as a warrior under the goddess, and became blessed with incredible powers that soon became known throughout the country. It was said one arrow from her bow could destroy an entire army of foot soldiers.
Meanwhile, the Emporer had found out about Chung-Vô-Diệm. He summoned her to be his wife and help fight the invading armies. Although she was reluctant to leave because of her shocking appearance, she decided to accept, and wore a covering over her face. The arrival of this famous warrior was was highly anticipated, and she was carried on a throne to the Emperor. Soon, she was defeating throngs of soldiers with her bow.
Eventually, it was time for the Emperor and Chung-Vô-Diệm to consumate their marriage. When the Emperor came to her room that night and Chung-Vô-Diệm removed her covering, he ran screaming in fright. He was so repelled by her appearance that he jailed Chung-Vô-Diệm, keeping her in solitary confinement like an animal. Chung-Vô-Diệm longed for her home in the mountains with her caretaker the fairy goddess, and she escaped.
Time passed. The country was attacked again. This time, the Emperor needed Chung-Vô-Diệm desperately. However, he knew he could not treat her badly as he did before. He knew he had to apologize. He summoned her again and she returned to the city, but she refused to accept his apology. She said, “If you are truly sorry, you must show humility. Bow.” To her surprise, the Emperor bowed in front of her, and stayed bowed outside her bedroom door for days on end.
Finally, Chung-Vô-Diệm opened the door and let the Emperor in. To his surprise, her ugly appearance had disappeared, and she had turned into a beautiful woman. It turned out that the spell placed on Chung-Vô-Diệm could not have been broken unless someone truly loved her.
Unfortunately, there is little information on both the story of Chung-Vô-Diệm, or Vietnamese 78rpm records as a whole, in English. Most likely, this record is part of a multi-volume set, much like how Chinese opera was distributed across the region (though very often they are not found intact today). Clues to this are on the label. Both sides of the label are labeled “thứ I” or “part 1.” On the upper left is “Tân-Thình” which is one of the performers, along with Dien Khi. Underneath the title is written “Ca Tử-dại,” which is a reference to the classical song the singers are singing over (Tử-dại Oan). The singers are accompanied by a fiddle (probably the two-stringed Ðàn Nhi), a flute (the sáo or tiêu), a plucked lute of some kind, and woodblock percussion (probably the song loan).
I’m including both sides of this record for this week’s post, with many thanks to Linh Dang, Lien Nguyen, Kathie Han, and Phillip Phan, for help with translation and meaning.
Issue Number: 157.524
Matrix Number: Tub 265/Tub 266
July 22, 2007
Thanks to reader Linh and Jason Gibbs, we know know that this is a piece featuring the famed Phước Cương troupe. They are performing an example of cải lương, a “classical” type of Vietnamese theater music played on traditional instruments, and it is an excerpt of a piece known in English as “Sentencing the Precious Consort Pang.” The record dates from the mid- to late 20s. According to Linh’s description, cải lương sets lyrics over older, classical Vietnamese songs. The songs that are played in this excerpt are Khoc huang thien, Ngu Diem, and Thien Tuong.
Beka was sold to Columbia in 1926, although the Beka imprint seemed to last well into the 1930s. The company made at least 140 recordings in Vietnam, and had a considerable presence in Asia throughout the early part of the century, having begun to record there since ca. 1906, when they first landed in Hong Kong.
The singers are accompanied by a bamboo flute (either the sao, or the tieu), a bowed instrument (probably a dan gao or dan nhi), and a plucked lute of some kind.
Issue Number: B 20107
Matrix Number: 92380