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Dzũng Phạm, the Progressive Metal Guitarist Enamored With Folk Music

“I want to elevate Vietnamese traditional music to the most glorious and heralded position. There, it's the center of attention, not merely something added just for the sake of embellishment.” Building on this philosophy, guitarist Dzũng Phạm presented his latest album, “Dzanca,” after three years of production.

'Distinctive' and 'fascinating' are among the comments that listeners have shared in reaction to “Dzanca.” Before discussing the technical merits or popularity of the album, one has to admit the mere fact that it’s an amalgam of Vietnamese folk melodies and progressive metal is enough to warrant a listen.

The name “Dzanca” can be defined as dân ca (folk music) with a very Dzũng Phạm take. The record comprises a number of folk songs that are instantly recognizable for the average Vietnamese, like ‘Trống Cơm,’ ‘Xe Chỉ Luồn Kim,’ ‘Bèo Dạt Mây Trôi’ or ‘Lý Ngựa Ô.’ However, in “Dzanca,” he omits the vocals and lyrics to give as much room as possible for the arrangement and structure of the songs to shine. As the album plays, one probably can identify the tunes right from the first few notes, but might not be able to guess what the musician will do next with the material, like discovering new personality traits in a close acquaintance. Besides, Dzũng also hopes that listeners can appreciate the unique beauty of progressive metal, a genre commonly labeled niche and inaccessible.

The cover of “Dzanca” that Dzũng Phạm designed himself, taking inspiration from traditional tetraptychs. Physical versions include CD, cassette and vinyl.

He tells Urbanist in an interview that plans for the album started brewing back in 2018: “The first song I wrote for the album was ‘Lý Cây Bông,’ but it was still a prototype leaning towards a classic metal vibe. The reception was encouraging so I decided to write more with fresher arrangements.” In 2019, Dzũng released an EP titled “Tình Tính Tang” as a way to scope out the market. The extended play consists of four songs, all of which made the album. “At the time, I wanted to make a trilogy with ‘Tình Tính Tang’ as the first installment, but the timing was right and I was inspired so I went ahead with the album,” the guitarist explains.

It might seem smooth-sailing from a glance, but according to Dzũng, there were many things he had to sacrifice to attain this important life milestone. Throughout the 1,000-odd days he spent making the album, he mostly kept to himself, limiting connections with family and friends. Before 2020, Dzũng was working as a creative director for an advertising agency in Saigon. He was spending 8–10 hours at his day job and then entire evenings writing music, practicing and honing skills.

“Last year, I decided to quit my job to completely focus on the last leg of the album production. I had to accept that letting some things go was necessary to fully grasp other things; I can’t do everything. One can try to juggle three apples, but adding a fourth might inevitably lead to the fall of all four. Had I not strengthened my resolve and agreed to drop some commitments, it would have taken me 10 years to finish this album,” he said of the decision to resign.

Looking back now, Dzũng is aware that he has burnt many bridges, though he feels lucky that his family, friends and colleagues are all there, even though the relationships suffered. “Especially my mom. Before, she hardly ever listened to my music, but now she keeps replaying the album and praises the music,” he excitedly shares.

Every track of “Dzanca” has an English name that Dzũng came up with himself. Firstly, it was so that foreign listeners can get the main idea behind the songs and secondly, he wanted to introduce his own interpretation. “Starting with ‘Lý Qua Cầu (The River Afterglow),’ I want to give the song more dimension than just translating it directly as ‘crossing the bridge.’ When the sun sets, the people cross the bridge. The story begins at dusk,” he elucidates on the track order and their English titles.

Dzũng Phạm performing 'Trống Cơm.' Video via YouTube channel Dzũng.

The narrative loosely follows the story of the wife of a general away at war. She stays at home sewing robes for him while waiting for news of his survival. During the time alone, she is overwhelmed with memories, as shown through ‘Trống Cơm (Beats of Memories).’ The wife’s forlorn heart is compared to the image of a lone thread across the sky in ‘Cò Lả (A Line Across the Sky).’ According to Dzũng, traditional folk tales usually depict female characters with many qualms and doubts, so the next track is titled ‘Lý Cây Bông (Questioning Mind).’ One day, she got wind that he was still alive and riding his horse back home — that’s when the earth and heaven unite in ‘Bèo Dạt Mây Trôi (When Earth and Sky Unite).’ The final track is named ‘Lý Qua Cầu (The River After Dark).’ The darkness is a thing of the past, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Đàn tranh artist Hải Phượng in the studio during the making of “Dzanca.”

Determined to lionize traditional instruments, Dzũng Phạm also employed a number of other instruments like sáo trúc (bamboo flute), đàn tranh (zither) and đàn bầu (monochord zither). According to him, the proudest accomplishment of the album was that he managed to invite Merited Artist Hải Phượng — a world-famous zither player — to feature in the track ‘Còn Duyên.’ To Dzũng, the song is the album’s most innovative track, arranged with R&B in mind. More than that, the record features a host of other musical personalities too, such as Thai guitarist Jack Thammarat, guitarist Khương An, brass group Yellow Star Big Band, Nhím (a member of indie band Chillies), and more.

Upon its release, “Dzanca” quickly entered the Top 200 of iTunes Vietnam within a week. Today, the album has amassed over 90,000 streams on Spotify and many compliments from local and international fans.

Dzũng affirms that the album owes this initial success to the appeal of traditional music. “Every Vietnamese knows these folk songs by heart, but folk music doesn’t have a well-respected place yet. I want to elevate Vietnamese traditional music to the most glorious and heralded position. There, it's the center of attention, not merely something added just for the sake of embellishment.”

After folk songs, he plans to experiment with the musicality of folk dance (dân vũ). Nonetheless, the first priority now is to promote “Dzanca” more. “I want to create a music video for ‘Còn Duyên,’ alongside live performances. Maybe in the future, I will do a small tour in Hanoi, Saigon and Da Nang, depending on whether the pandemic situation settles down,” he shares.

Since 2007, Dzũng has been “imprinted” by a quote by composer Quốc Trung: “Folk music is our ancestors’ legacy bestowed to every descendant. Anyone can use a share of that legacy.” For the guitarist, traditional music has since been a constant muse, and even his entire musical world. Today, Dzũng has created a considerable repertoire from that legacy, but the his journey to explore that “mother lode” is just beginning.

Dzũng Phạm and his collaborators in the studio.

[Photos by Phạm Trung Thành courtesy of Dzũng Phạm]

Quãng 8, which means "octave" in Vietnamese, is a series of articles on Vietnam's new generation of unique music personalities. Know an interesting musician and want to introduce them to our readers? Send us an email via with your ideas.

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