Vân-Ánh Võ recently told The Guardian about her sister, born in November 1972 in the middle of what Vietnamese call the “American War.” “Very often my mom would share with us her memory of carrying my sister in and out of the bunker during the Christmas bombing.” It’s a troubling story that would be a perfect fit in the notes for the Hanoi Masters album, War is a Wound, Peace is a Scar. Võ is the album’s musical director, lead percussionist and zither player, her music backing up the singing and playing of Vietnamese elders performing laments about the war. These individuals have great and harrowing stories to tell, and this carefully recorded album leaves one asking for more music. Unfortunately, it also leaves one asking for more information.
Glitterbeat calls these field recordings, but producer-engineer Ian Brennan’s crisp recordings are immediate and intimate without sacrificing clarity. The result is beautiful, plangent slice of musical tradition and historical tragedy. The set opens with a pair of tracks by Phạm Mộng Hải, “For the Fallen” and “Help Us in This Life.” Accompanied by traditional Vietnamese percussion and string instruments, the elderly man’s voice sounds ageless. These recordings may have ethnographic value, but the music has an emotional power that is completely accessible even if you don’t know the language.

Nguyễn Thị Lân’s “Road to Home” begins with gently bent notes before a female singer’s halting voice comes in. The instrumental arrangement is simple but delicate, Võ picking out sparse notes on the zither and occasionally breaking out into a rippling arpeggio. While the album’s instrumentation is for the most part gentle, it can also be startling. The distorted vocal of Quôć Hùng’s “The Wind Blows it Away” is courtesy of the k’ni, a single-stringed instrument held between the teeth and spoken through to give an otherworldly sound.

Tracks by Xuân Hoạch have a more aggressive vocal approach. Like all the album’s tracks, “Heroine Song,” is simply arranged, in this case for percussion, two-stringed lute and male and female vocals. The spare instrumentation lets the vocalists deliver the song’s power with great clarity. “Doomed Love” is a starker performance, percussion keeping time as a string instrument line plays against the dramatic vocals. “Gratitude” is practically a dance number, a scratchy percussion rhythm supporting an audibly more agitated singer.

Võ, who previously collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, goes on to tell The Guardian that her father became a musician to “avoid holding guns and shooting at people.” He would “rush into battlefields right after two sides stopped shooting, to play the guitar and cheer up the soldiers. Even though there was a high risk of getting killed by snipers, it was still better than shooting at people.” It’s a great story that should have been included in the package. Brenner’s notes offer tantalizing stories that fall short on detail. He mentions that one music master had joined the army at 13 years old, and another AK-47 operator had not sung in 40 years. Inexplicably, he doesn’t match these stories with the performers.

Still, Glitterbeat gets the music right. “Please Wait for Me” reprises the eerie k’ni for a little more than a minute, but it’s a sound you’d be happy to hear drone on for much longer. War is a Wound, Peace is a Scar introduces you to great music that begs for backstory and context. This would be an essential package if it provided just a little more information, but with so many stories untold, it’s an incomplete homage.

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