Words by Matt Milton
The intrepid producer and field recordist Ian Brennan has worked with both Tinariwen and Malawi Mouse Boys. He recently recorded several veteran traditional Vietnamese singers in Hanoi. Five of them feature on the resulting album, Hanoi Masters, which feels refreshingly varied and inquisitive, despite being only just over 30 minutes long.
You can hear the age in some of the singers’ voices, which perhaps might not be as pitch-perfect as they once were. But this only adds to the overall sense of commitment and honesty in these crystal-clear recordings. Graininess and honesty of the recording is all part of the album’s charm: the soothing, unadorned singing of Vo Tuân Minh or Nguyen Thi Lân (pictured above) is like a Vietnamese equivalent of Mississippi John Hurt or Shirley Collins.
While it’s the vocals that are at the fore, there is charmingly ramshackle percussive accompaniment on several tracks: simple woodblocks keep the beat and metallic rattles add syncopation, sounding at times like a cutlery drawer is being thumped. Zithers, lutes and a guitar also feature, all employing the blues-like string-bending that’s a characteristic of Vietnamese playing. Two extraordinary tracks showcase the K’ni, a kind of Jew’s harp that sounds like a crazy, robot-voice-emulator toy on the blink. They might well have you wondering whether your CD has somehow had some BBC Radiophonic Workshop sci-fi effects accidentally dubbed onto it.