Overseas: an espresso with Nguyên Lê

January 14, 2020

Viêt Kieu

With the new album Overseas, the French guitarist Nguyên Lê confirms that he has a very personal and recognizable style both as a musician and as an author, managing to mix different musical genres and cultures.

> Iug Mirti - Ivano Rossato

> photo: Mamo Delpero

 


Your latest record is called "Overseas": can you explain the title to us?

“Overseas” has multiple layers of meaning. For Americans it’s a trivial word meaning “abroad”. - i.e. everything which isn’t American. But if you reverse the point of view & think from a non-western perspective, “Overseas” is inevitably related to the idea of Migration, of how identities and cultures travel and how they get transformed during that journey. Indian people have a special passport for “Overseas Citizens”, which is for Indian citizens living abroad. The Vietnamese translation of “Overseas Citizen” would be “Viêt Kieu”, which designates Vietnamese people living & born abroad. I grew up knowing that I was a “Viêt Kiêu” – an overseas Vietnamese, born on soil other than that of my parents’ homeland – and with dreams of a country that was very distant. This album, like several of mine, sets out to reflect upon how cultures migrate, develop and mutate throughout their journey. Today Vietnam has changed, as have I. The question is no longer “Am I Vietnamese?” (Which was the question that drove my work since “Tales from Viêt Nam" in 1996). What I’m concerned about now in the Overseas album is to depart from the point that I’m Vietnamese, as well as a citizen of the world, and express the beauty & the complexity of what Vietnam is becoming today, in the country & in my mind. “Overseas” is not only a word designating foreigners & their faraway land. “Overseas” is a process which has seen a culture migrate and people being transformed by this migration. Some lose the roots of their parents, some re-inventing their own universe with that memory in mind. Of course those who know me can find again the themes that has nourished my inspiration for many years: they are very auto biographic. But at the same time, I believe that many people can recognize themselves in my story. It’s the story of every man and woman who has been shaped by migration.I like the word “evolving”, I think that’s very much something we are interested in as a band and as individual musicians. The specific way that it’s evolving is a little hard to put it into words, but I would say that every album we make has more and more personality. On “Four” we found ourselves drawn to some of the sounds and aesthetics of 80’s new wave/pop music and video games. In general we are becoming more experimental with our sound choices, but I think it’s also getting tighter because we’ve been touring a lot.
 

I feel my music contains many pictures that are waiting to be released on stage and in the artists’ bodies.

The music was written for the “Cirque-Nouveau” of Tuan Le: did you change your way of composing and if so, how?
The process of constructing the show was pretty long & complex. The collaboration with Tuan Le was not easy because of the geographical distance but also because he has a completely different way of working & composing a stage performance. We started with many improvisations on both sides (music/dance/circus), experimenting a lot. When I understood the picture of each artist, I started to write a suite where everybody could develop and have their own space. Then I proposed the score to everybody so they could choose what would fit best with their inspiration and talent. In fact, it’s the music that gave the show direction. I feel my music contains many pictures that are waiting to be released on stage and in the artists’ bodies. This project is the perfect place for this elaboration. Tuan chose the dancers & circus performers; I chose the band. A few times I had to work outside of my job like proposing costumes & scenarios. But everything was finally agreed with Tuan.
 
 
 
The music has a lot of folk instruments and also western instruments: was it difficult to blend the two traditions?
I’ve been integrating folk & western instruments since my first album “Miracles” in 1989. = ) That “World Jazz” concept has become my sonic signature in many of my productions. The key to make it successful is to have respect, knowledge, and I would even say love for the music and the culture of others. A good orchestrator knows all the instruments of his orchestra, their timbre, their range, how fingerings work, which phrasing are uneasy or even impossible. It’s the same thing between a symphonic orchestra or a world ensemble.
 
Your music is very personal and original: what is jazz today from your point of view?
Internet has changed the face of how people learn music. Now you can find fantastic and more than artistically mature musicians who are incredibly young like Jacob Collier or Joey Alexander. With the internet, there are no more borders to study whoever you want and from which country. With the video you can even copy all the gestures of your idol! The level of musicianship has been raised a lot among youngsters which brings even more sharpness to the questions of content & identity of the music delivered. That’s why today we have to question so much about ourselves about what we want to say with our music and who are we to play that music.
 
 
In "Overseas" the jazz tradition embraces the Vietnam folk tradition and there's even hip-hop and electronic: do you think that jazz is cosmopolitan or you being who you are will let your music sound different to anyone else’s?
I believe that Jazz is the best music to establish cross-cultural dialogues because it has always been the most open form of music. Based on collective improvisation, Jazz is about listening to the other and reacting, adapting your musical speech to the other on the spot. This essential dialog & interplay dimension makes the jazz musician the most empowered for cross-cultural dialogues. I've seen so many people fail because even if everybody plays great, few are listening to other. This is because they have not been trained to. I've also seen many situations where the old traditional master stays the same and the only one adapting himself is the jazz musician - dialogue in one direction only (which can still work sometimes). This is changing with the new generation of traditional musicians who have learned to open their ears to the other world, to go beyond what they learned without neglecting it. A new world of inspirations is opening between tradition and modernity, East and West, North and South. Let’s listen to it today!
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Overseas: an espresso with Nguyên Lê copyright Jazzespresso 2020.
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