Song of napalm

(No.3, Vol.3, Apr 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

“The musical notes were clear and pure and deep, and the sky was very blue. I even heard the birds chirping. Then I heard footsteps, running, gunshots, and the sound of thunder roaring, and then a loud scream. I saw the girl running from her village; she was screaming in agony. I saw my father as a young soldier holding a mortar, aiming in her direction. I saw Vanessa plucking out human screams and cries from the đàn bầu string.I even saw Nick Ut preparing to snap a photograph...”

The Los Angeles New International Music Festival was held in May, 2012, musical pieces such as ‘Song of Napalm,’ by composer Vu Nhat Tan were featured. This piece was written for the Southwest Chamber Orchestra, with the lyrics taken from and inspired by Vietnam war veteran and poet Bruce Weigl’s famous poem ‘Song of Napalm,’ which was itself inspired by Nick Ut’s photograph of Kim Phuc, the so-called ‘Napalm Girl,’ taken on 8 June, 1972 at Trang Bang, Tay Ninh, Vietnam. The photo of Kim Phuc, running naked from a napalm attack, is one of the most well-known and iconic photos from the conflict, and had a tremendous effect on American public opinion about the war. From America, Hanh Weigl (Bruce Weigl’s adopted Vietnamese daughter) writes about her special experience:
In memory of those who lost their lives in the line of service, on Veterans’ Day 2012, I was invited by the composer Vu Nhat Tan to participate with the two-time Grammy Award-winning Southwest Chamber Orchestra for his world premiere of his composition, ‘Song of Napalm’. Also participating with us were world-famous musician Vanessa Van Anh Vo and bass-baritone singer Evan Hughes, from the New York Opera. My minor role for the piece was to read the Vietnamese version of my father’s poem, translated by Nguyen Phan Que Mai, while Evan Hughes sang the English version. ‘Song of Napalm’ would be the last song performed on the last night of the festival.
Until then, I had never met composer Vu Nhat Tan, and honestly, I didn’t care about nor did I pay any attention to his work, since his was a genre of music for which I didn’t care. Sometime last year, my father, the Vietnam veteran and poet, Bruce Weigl, came home from one of his many trips to Vietnam waving a CD with great enthusiasm saying ‘you must listen to this right away; it’s amazing, it’s Vietnam’s newest music.’ Of course I didn’t listen to his great new discovery, once I learned that was wasn’t the newest Vietnamese pop songs.
And so one day, while on our way to visit my grandma at the nursing home, my father and I had a slight disagreement. He didn’t want to listen to his daughter’s hip-hop jams and did I want to listen to his classic rock. So my father came up with an idea. As we rolled around the streets of downtown Oberlin (a town so small that its downtown includes only a few blocks), my father rolled down all the windows and cranked up Vu Nhat Tan’s music.
‘Are you kidding me, dad?’ I asked. ‘What kind of music is this? Could you please turn it down? Everyone is staring at us.’
My father didn’t pay attention to what I was saying as he started raising his hands up in the air, eyes closed, dancing in the car to the odd sounds of electronic music mixed with the Vietnamese traditional instrument đàn bầu, hip-hop style. It is not as though I’ve never listened to this kind of music before, but the first time I heard it, like the first time I heard classical music, I imagined it to be music from another world. Compared to what little I’d already heard, Vu Nhat Tan’s music was even more different and difficult for me to understand. When my father saw me make a face, he said in a firm and serious voice: ‘You don’t know how to understand art, and you don’t know how to take pleasure in the creativity of a truly talented person. I am going to collaborate with him.’
Six months later, my father had news for me about his ‘collaboration’ with Vu Nhat Tan; that Vu Nhat Tan would write a piece of music for his poem ‘Song of Napalm’, and that the composition would be performed by the Southwest Chamber Orchestra, accompanied by Vanessa Van Anh Vo on two Vietnamese traditional instruments, đàn tranh and đàn bầu; in addition, my father would read his poem in English and I would read the translated version by Nguyen Phan Que Mai in Vietnamese.
I stood frozen for a while. I didn’t know what to say to my father. For the first time in my life I would have to read a poem in public, in Vietnamese, and in front of an audience in a big city. What if I stumble while reading? What if I get so nervous that I’d read the wrong word in the poem? What if, all of a sudden, I forget my Vietnamese?
I came to America when I was eight and it was difficult to maintain my native language since no one in my family spoke Vietnamese fluently. Even though I worked hard with the help of my parents to maintain and learn Vietnamese, I still wondered if my Vietnamese would be good enough for my participation in such an important event.
After some serious thinking, I said ‘No! I will not participate. I’m really busy; just find a Vietnamese professional reader to fill in for me.’
But in the end, because my father has this special power to persuade me, and because I love him, I agreed to participate. I also knew that it was a special opportunity for me to be part of something bigger than myself. Even so, I still couldn’t imagine what this collaboration would look or sound like on stage.
Only a month before my flight to Los Angeles did I begin to read the poem ‘Song of Napalm’ in Vietnamese. I think I must have read it many years ago when my father had first written it, but because I was so young and it was so complicated and hard to understand, I think I had left it unread. This time, I tried to read it in a different light: from the point of view one of a young woman searching to understand this one corner of life. I read the poem over and over again; in English and in Vietnamese, but I still couldn’t quite imagine or see clearly enough the start and end of the poem. I only knew that the poem alludes to a famous photograph by Nick Ut, a photograph that changed American history, the history of Vietnam, the history of war, and perhaps even the world. The photograph of the ‘Napalm Girl’, Kim Phuc, changed many people because it captured the darkest moments of the American War in Vietnam. But I wondered why my father alluded to that particular photograph, why he dedicated the poem to my mom, and why did the poem includes such intimate moments between my mother and my father?

‘Song of Napalm’ world premier at the Los Angeles
New International Music Festival in May 2012.
Photo courtesy of Southwest Chamber Orchestra

After speaking and exchanging ideas with my father, I understood what the poem was actually about: the consequences of war; more specifically, the poem is about post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Currently, my father suffers from seizures from unknown causes. It is because of these seizures that he couldn’t go to Los Angeles to read the poem with me as originally planned. Recently, after being hospitalized and monitored for five days, doctors were able to conclude that his seizures are stress-related, and are results of a head injury my father suffered in the war and at the same time by the trauma that he experienced as a soldier. His neurologist told my father that these seizures are a symptom of PTSD. After speaking to my father, I gained a deeper understanding and a renewed relationship to the poem which were more personal and more intimate. I imagined my father living on a pitch-black deserted island after a long war. The island is lifeless; no trees and no grass, with black clouds constantly looming, and no sounds of life, only the thunder and lightning, which roar like the loud screams of the napalm girl whose arm was burned completely off, as captured in Nick Út’s now famous photograph. On that island, my father’s hand reaches for someone, anyone, like the small and fragile hands of the napalm girl, reaching out, praying for someone to come to her, to ease her burns and her overwhelming pain. Not until the very last moment, when hopelessness found its place on the island, did my mother appear. She seems to share my father’s deepest pain caused by war. She painted the sky blue, cut out a bright yellow sun to glue on onto the blue sky, planted trees and grass, and built a warm nest for him. But no matter how bright and colorful the island had become, my mother still could not change the truth about the war and its consequences.
After my plane landed in Los Angeles, I went straight to the Hilton hotel in Pasadena to meet with Vu Nhat Tan. We went to a coffee shop so that I could practice reading the poem. After reading it through only once, the composer praised me for reading so fluently in Vietnamese which gave me more confidence so that I was happy to be a part of the piece. I told myself that the performance was not going to be as intimidating as I had imagined; all I had to do was read the poem exactly the way I just had read it to fulfill my responsibilities.
It wasn’t until the rehearsal that night that I realized Vu Nhat Tan’s ‘Song of Napalm’ was longer than I had thought. The song has a musical portion for the orchestra, a section for Vanessa Van Anh Vo’s traditional Vietnamese instruments, a vocal part for Evan Hughes, and a poetry reading part from me in Vietnamese. This meant that not only did I have to worry about reading and pronouncing the words in Vietnamese correctly, I also have to worry about when to read and when to stop reading so to be in sync with everyone else. I did not read a single word of poetry at the rehearsal that night. Evan sang naturally with the orchestra while I sat there like someone had just taken my soul away. After going through the song only once, conductor Jeff von der Schmidt excused everyone except me, Evan, and Vanessa. There appeared to be more stress on the conductors’ face than before our rehearsal. I knew I contributed a major part to this new level of stress. Maybe he thinks I can’t read Vietnamese?
That same night I was introduced by Vanessa Vo and Vu Nhat Tan to photojournalist Nick Ut. I didn’t initially realize that the man taking us out that night was the world famous photojournalist who had changed history. Seeing Nick Ut in real life, I noticed that he looked much younger than his age, and that he has a very youthful personality. I couldn’t understand how a man who had witnessed so much horror could be so youthful. I saw that his personality was very similar to my father’s and to Vu Nhat Tan’s: youthful, lively, and full of smiles and laughter. I wondered if this is their secret to overcoming the traumatic events in their lives, especially the trauma caused by war and by personal life.
I was very nervous on the night of the performance because we had only rehearsed three times before the actual performance. I was worried that I would read the poem wrong or start my reading of the poem too early or too late. Everyone’s hard work would all be wasted; the long nights composer Vu Nhat Tan had to stay up to write the song and the time and effort everyone else had put into perfecting their parts of the song would be gone in a second if I didn’t fulfill my small role.
I think I stopped breathing for a long time. I could hear my heart beat faster, as though I was going to pass out. But when Vanessa opened the song with such tender musical notes from her đàn bầu, it was like a lullaby of the napalm girl’s mother or grandmother, and all of my fears disappeared. The musical notes were clear and pure and deep, and the sky was very blue. I even heard the birds chirping. Then I heard footsteps, running, gunshots, and the sound of thunder roaring, and then a loud scream. I saw the girl running from her village; she was screaming in agony. I saw my father as a young soldier holding a mortar, aiming in her direction. I saw Vanessa plucking out human screams and cries from the đàn bầu string. I even saw Nick Ut preparing to snap a photograph, and I saw the orchestra and the conductor in the near distance, and then I saw composer Vu Nhat Tan standing in silence, alone, watching.
Not until I read the last verse of the poem, and until Vanessa plucked the final musical note on the đàn bầu did I exhaled a breath of relief. I couldn’t believe that the song was over. I wanted to jump up in excitement, I wanted to run up to my father and to Vu Nhat Tan to tell them what I saw and felt. That night everyone had extraordinary strength and power when they performed.
Only then did I dare to look down at the audience. They were all standing. Their applause was so loud and long that I thought it would never end. I saw some of them crying. I knew that they saw what I saw, and I wanted to believe that they felt what I felt. Only then did I see the real power of ‘Song of Napalm.’ That night, composer Vu Nhat Tan took us into a world full of emotions, and the power of the song enabled me to see what Nick Út saw, and what my father and Vu Nhat Tan wanted me to witness.
After saying my goodbyes to everyone and to Los Angeles, I found myself alone in the air-conditioned plane. I closed my eyes to find the world of ‘Song of Napalm,’ but couldn’t. I knew only that Vu Nhat Tan’s ‘Song of Napalm’ had the power to somehow take me back to that moment. I reminisced about the time I had spent with Vanessa, Nick Ut and the composer; the times we went to dinner together, the hundreds of conversations we had about life, and I especially remember the night we all went to a jazz concert in Little Tokyo and missed the last train back to the hotel. I opened my eyes and smiled to myself.
I began to understand our relationships and why we came to meet each other; me, my father, Nick Ut, and Vu Nhat Tan. We are all living proof of the consequences of war. Our feelings and art brought us closer. I was suddenly very proud. I was proud that my father overcame the physical and emotional pain inflicted by war to rally for peace. I was proud that my parents helped me maintain my Vietnamese. I was proud because I understood more about history through Nick Ut’s stories. I was proud of Vanessa for her talent and her passion in introducing traditional Vietnamese instruments to the musical world, and I was proud that Vietnam has such an accomplished composer. Vu Nhat Tan was celebrated on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, meaning that his music now had world-wide acknowledgement. America welcomed him with open arms because he is an accomplished and creative composer.
And now in my dreams there is a world in peace, a world without war and without the sounds of bombs or gunshots. In that world, my father overcomes all physical illnesses, joining me, my mother, and my biological mother walking through a green rice field. We walk in sync to the song of the Napalm Girl, singing to Vu Nhat Tan’s music about the beauty of peace.

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