Vietnam's Ha Le Talks Journey From Rapper to Singer & Covering an Icon

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Tung Salie
Ha Le

Vietnam's Ha Le is now known as a singer. But, before he became a singer, Ha Le was known by the Vietnamese underground music community as one of the leading hip-hop rappers, dancers and choreographers. So, seeing him in a suit belting out songs from the late composer Trinh Cong Son surprised many.

Son, Vietnam's most famous songwriter since the war, was best known for his love ballads soaked with profound lyrics, one that requires a singer with a lot of life experience to sing it well. Son was deemed "Bob Dylan of Vietnam," and singing his songs comes with an immense amount of pressure to perfect it.

When Ha Le first introduced one of Son's classics, "Diem Xua," in an R&B style, it was met with mixed reviews. Some applauded and embraced his version, complimenting that it gave a breath of fresh air to the famous Vietnamese classic, breaking boundaries that usually surround Son's repertoire. But, it was also met with opposition from purists who criticized it as blasphemy and not doing justice to Son's work: "It does not even sound like music," one critic commented.

Motivated by the positive feedback -- and even more by the negative feedback -- Ha Le took it all in a positive light: "The world has white and black, night and day, good and bad. There will always be two sides to everything, a positive and a negative side. Accepting change is never easy, and requires patience, and most importantly, one needs to believe in it.

"Besides, as Trinh Cong Son's music is a national treasure, should we not look at passing it onto the next generation to appreciate, and in a vibe which they can appreciate it, while not losing the essence and beauty of his music? For me, I hold Son's music very close to my heart, and I feel it's my responsibility to give it a new lease of life. To give it an opportunity to be heard among all the other hits today, that it continues to live on, me and my crew should be able to create something for the audience today to enjoy."

The result of this is "Trinh Contemporary," a project featuring many of Son's most iconic songs -- including "Ha Trang" ("White Summer") and "Mua Hong" ("The Pink Rain") -- all given the Ha Le treatment. He dedicated his heart and soul to this project, which was not only a hard one to accomplish, but also one for him to deliver his vision and passion to the world, while at the same time, determined to change the minds of naysayers.

Having been brought up in a very traditional family -- where most boys are expected to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer -- Ha Le was used to hard work and the constant pressure to study hard and overachieve. His family was opposed to his desire to pursue a career in music, but overcoming challenges has never been a deterrent. However, he also knows that no victory is easy or guaranteed.

For Ha Le to make the transition from a rapper and dancer to a singer, he enrolled in an academy to "re-learn" everything related to music, singing, and to find his distinctive voice. He also had to learn the strengths in his voice, and the right vocal techniques required to perform Son's songs the right way.

"Some people seem to think that to sing well relies more on emotions over technique," he explains. "But, in fact, to achieve that level of emotion requires the proper technique. We need to have the right basic technique to start off with, and continue to work at improving it in order to achieve the right emotion. But without any basic technique, it would be hard to convey good emotions into a song, and to be able to sing it well."

Ha Le was determined to realize his dream. Going against the skeptics, he progressed one step at a time. Ha Le's ultimate goal is to see his recreations of Trinh Cong Son's songs live on an international stage in a musical on either Broadway or the West End.

"The Vietnamese music scene at this moment is so dynamic, where many young artists are constantly absorbing trends and sounds everywhere and adapting them into Vietnamese pop music," he shares. "However, this could be a 'double-edged sword' where we could potentially lose our Vietnamese identity and heritage."

He said he feels a responsibility to inspire and remind young artists in Vietnam to think and consider how they can incorporate their national identity and heritage into their musical work. "My dream is to see Vietnamese artists being recognized and honored at big award ceremonies in the world," he said. "Only then, would the world be exposed and appreciate the beauty of Vietnamese music."

"If we only create music, melodies and lyrics that is similar to what is already available internationally, how could we be unique? I want to give audiences around the world the opportunity to listen, to appreciate and an eagerness to learn more about Vietnamese music. Even to sing along to Vietnamese songs, though Vietnamese is not easy to sing along."

To reach that destination requires walking a long and winding path -- one that Ha Le is willing to take, for he is determined to put Vietnamese music on the map.


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