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'Summertime' In Hanoi

Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ gives a Gershwin classic an expressive, evocative twist with the <em>đàn bâù, </em>a traditional Vietnamese instrument.
Nguyen Nhat Hoang
Courtesy of the artist
Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ gives a Gershwin classic an expressive, evocative twist with the đàn bâù, a traditional Vietnamese instrument.

Summer might be winding down, but you couldn't tell by the steamy temperatures, not only in much of the U.S. but also in Hanoi, where Vietnamese performer and composer Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ grew up — and where it should top out around 92 degrees today.

Võ and pianist Frank Martin give Gershwin's "Summertime" a distinctly Vietnamese feel. The heat and humidity in the song feel even more conspicuous thanks to Võ's expressive đàn bâù. The traditional instrument has only one string, but in the hands of a master it can sing as eloquently as any opera diva. Notes are bent and colored and phrases are shaped via a kind of whammy bar made from buffalo horn, which alters the tension of the string and can facilitate thrilling leaps to stratospheric registers.

Võ can make her instrument croon, but she can also make it buzz. Armed with a violin bow and a whole lot of rosin, she commands a swarm of insects that invade the song a couple of minutes in.

This arrangement, by Võ and jazz pianist Nguyen Le, is destined for a future album. Võ says it will include her own compositions plus a few other transformations of classics, like Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" with Vietnamese lyrics.

That should be something worth waiting for. In the meantime, break out the iced tea — more hot days still lay ahead.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.