Decadent Music

Published Bellingham Review, # 67, Fall 2013

Ninh. He grew up in an affluent suburb of Saigon. During the American War his father worked as a translator for the U.S. State Department but in 1975, in the chaos of the sudden helicopter evacuations, his American friends at the embassy left Ninh’s father behind.

When the Vietnam People’s Army captured Saigon, raising the new red, blue and gold flag of the National Liberation front, the boy’s father was put under house arrest. As the Communists began the process of political re-education, men in uniform posted lists of everything that was forbidden, including all of the music now considered decadent. 

Ninh’s father hesitated. He owned the songs of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, the wild saxophone laments of Sidney Bechet, the popular tangos of Carlos Gardel and, most precious, recordings of Ca trù, the old Vietnamese love songs, now said to be merely the music of courtesans. Yet he was closely watched: for the safety of his family, he would have to destroy his treasured music library.

He assigned Ninh, his first-born son, the task of unspooling the big reels of magnetic tape. At age four, the boy felt very important doing this work. Afterwards his father helped him stuff kilometers of loose tape into bags, then set the bags in the narrow lane for the garbage men to collect.

But before the garbage men clattered down the street, neighborhood children discovered the bags. They rescued the long brown ribbons of tape, and fastened them to their kites.

Ninh called to his father and together they stood in front of the house, its blue shutters now closed against the late afternoon sun. In silence they watched all the decadent music swaying and billowing across the Saigon sky.

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