Culture Culture

11/01/2019 - 07:22

Artist Camille Huyen: Creating a window into Hue’s soul

I met Ms. Camille Huyen in Ben Xuan (Huong Ho, TX. Huong Tra) after the tourists had left. Her gentle Hue accent, her relaxed demeanor of an artist and her story of preserving cultural values as well as her seemingly unremitted musical passion made the year-end afternoon more tranquil than ever.

Each brick, each ornament in Ben Xuan is carefully designed in Hue style. Photo: M. Le

Many people wonder why after decades of living abroad, the Hue style in you is still so apparent, in both the way you dress and the way you think?

Camille Huyen: I think there are 3 elements to create a complete person. They are family, school and society. Among them, I think family is very important. Coming from a royal family background, my parents raised us carefully. My father taught me to be independent, to be able to do anything on my own, and that the more things I knew the better. My mother taught me cooking, embroidery, conical hat making...

She always said, "If you couldn’t become a person with a status in society, at least you must know how to communicate politely to help your husband receive guests. Therefore, my mother taught me how to properly walk, stand, eat and dress. I still wear long hair. I wash it with herbal shampoo. I still wore ao dai and spoke with Hue accent when I attended events in Switzerland. The Camille Huyen you see today is largely influenced by family upbringing. 

Switzerland cannot “assimilate” you, can it?

The Swiss life is also very "Hue" (laugh). This is extremely important and meaningful to me. Hue means to always keep the house clean, always have flowers in front of the house, and make sure the entrance path is green and beautiful... These are close and familiar things that make me think of the old streets of Hue: neat with green hedges, with flowers and vegetables...

In Switzerland, on the harvest day, no matter what people had grown, they would carefully wrap the produce in a leaf or a small basket and place it in front of my house. It’s really adorable. When I open these small packages and receive the gifts, I remember the warm feelings of the countryside in my homeland.

Not only have I retained my temperament, molded in my birthplace, but also my soul, my character have been fostered by learning from the beautiful things of everyday life abroad. I keep having the feeling that the “old Hue” is “preserved” better in the Swiss climate and space, so it has more opportunities to nourish and develop, perhaps?

After decades of living abroad, which image of Hue has deeply been anchored in your heart most? 

Well, it is the image of the gate, because it lies deep in my memories. The gate to our house was on Mac Dinh Chi Street (Hue City). In those days, peaceful green hedges were used as ‘soft’ fences between houses. Flowering Bougainvillea vines shaded the entrance to our house. My father also planted grapevines. There were many fruit trees in the garden. I really miss that peaceful and serene image.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the gate to my own house. What would it be like? Where would it be? So later on, Ben Xuan has 3 gates (Zen Gate, Pen Gate and Lotus Gate). The river side welcomes guests with a dragon boat, so the Lotus Gate was created. To harmonize with the water, I chose a stylized boat image as the design for the roof. Whenever the fog spreads from the river, mystifying the whole space, the boat-like gate seems to float in fantasy, which is extremely romantic.

Artist Camille Huyen next to the stylized boat gate. Image: M. Le

Did you choose a different music genre and a different path from others because you wanted to create a unique style for yourself?

In my three performances in Hue Festival (including Cung Tien songs, Swiss folk songs, 10 songs about Han Mac Tu and 9 lullabies from different nations; and later 15 songs about Han Mac Tu ...), I was very happy to have had the audience listening attentively. There were younger people in the audience recording my performances and singing along, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. This is a point of interest because it is a unique feature of each artist. I compose naturally and do not "try" to force my music to go in any certain direction.

With my music, one does not need to sing, however, the melody, could make them feel what the composer wants to convey. In the 15 songs about Han Mac Tu, each silence, each stop was carefully worried about and studied by Mr. Walther Giger, my teacher,  and I.  There are words in Han Mac Tu poetry that are extremely hard to perceive (like the boundary between life and death) so not many people can understand. If the listeners are only accustomed to restricting themselves in a few familiar music genres, it would be difficult for them to discover and feel the novelty. My music is dramatic. For those who are knowledgeable and educated in music theory, they will discover that there has not been any such uncanny music like Han Mac Tu music; however, there is a familiarity in it because of the poetry recitation, ca tru, chau van, and folk music... 

Why did you decide to return and stay in Ben Xuan? The welcoming of tourists in Ben Xuan seems quite special?

Although I had a very comfortable life in Switzerland, there was always an urge to go home. I have always dreamed about a lovely life of Hue locals -Vietnam, as I often bragged about to Swiss people. In the past 10 years, my husband and I have built a house that we had always dreamed about, with the scent of flowers in the garden, the sound of birds chirping every morning, and the fireflies flying into the mosquito net at night...

That peaceful lifestyle is the image I have kept and treasured for the past few decades. In the past, I brought my hometown culture to my friends. Today, I welcome visitors to Ben Xuan, to showcase my country’s culture, so that, besides music, tourists can truly feel the living space of a real Hue family. I am trying to create a "window" for visitors to look into Hue's soul.

Visitors to Ben Xuan always have a translation of the content of the pieces in the performance. When entering the theater space, they could enjoy the way of acting, the feelings of the artist ... Most audiences have a basic background in music so they have the dialogue, the attentiveness and the understanding of the performances.

Ben Xuan built a special music program that includes Hue singings, folk songs, and lullabies… Each country has its own musical distinctness. If we do not “treat” visitors to a real Hue music program, their trip will not be complete.

It has been a long time that you have not appeared in music events and community activities. Could you be preparing a bigger plan for the day you come back? 

Some programs have invited me but I had to decline because every performance must be carefully prepared with the whole band. It must be a harmony, a heart-felt connection, for the arts, for the audience to truly enjoy the peaceful time enjoying the music. Only then would I be satisfied.

Planned since 2012, 15 songs about Han Mac Tu will be choreographed into musicals this time. Mr. Walther Ginger is waiting for the script writer and is ready to write more. Hopefully, we will find the person we are looking for to be able to create together. 

Thank you and I wish you all the best for your future endeavors!