The first time I heard Ngọc Lan’s voice, I flipped the fuck out. Sure, I had heard countless renditions of Huỳnh Anh’s “Rừng Lá Thay Chưa,” mostly done in an over-sentimental approach, but never with such an elegant, classy taste Ngọc Lan brought to the tune. It was like love in first sound. I fell for her angelic alto immediately and I was in awed with the effortlessness she maneuvered her way around the rumba rhythm.
A couple of days ago, I found a CD labeled “Ngọc Lan’s Special Collection.” I made this disc a while back and upon listening to it I realized that most of the tracks I liked were arranged in rumba. Ngọc Lan was a versatile singer who covered a wide range of styles including ballroom numbers, pre-war songs and American and French ballads, but my personal preference has to be the rumba flavor simply because she had flow.
I can listen to “Chuyện Phim Buồn” and “Dòng Sông Quê Hương” again and again just to hear her soft, sweet and sensual voice floating like crystal clear water over the hypnotic Latin rhythm arranged by Trung Hành. In “Chuyện Phim Buồn,” beautifully Vietnamese words by Phạm Duy, she sang like she was the main character in the film. One could hear the sadness of betrayal from a lover as well as the clever cover up of emotion when her mother asked her why she was sad: “Dối má: ‘Tối nay rằng / Đã lỡ trót xem phim buồn / Và xem đúng ngay một phim thật đỗi buồn / Làm lòng con xót xa.’” As for “Dòng Sông Quê Hương” I didn’t realize that the tune was translated from “La Playa” until recently. The Vietnamese lyrics fit the harmony so well that I thought it was a true Vietnamese ballad.
Another outstanding piece is “Giáng Tiên Nữ,” which based on the theme of “Black Orpheus,” with Vietnamese lyrics written by Phạm Duy. Again the flow was just impeccable as she brought some sensuality to the lyrics: “Vùi trong hơi ấm nồng nàn / Thịt da thơm ngát tình nồng / Cùng chăn gối ấm tình hồng / tình ôi ngất ngây.”
Ngọc Lan’s rendition of Lam Phương’s “Xin Thời Gian Qua Mau” is still one of the best I’ve heard yet. I still can recall that cold winter night my boy and I were driving home around 2am from a party. Something about the heart-rending saxophone, the crisp snare drum and Ngọc Lan’s sensual emotion made the tune so erotically sad. I swear if the car was to breakdown and the CD player was still on, I would have had a Brokeback Moutain moment with my best buddy.