Every Sunday morning, I wake up to slow, repetitive rhumba music with boring, simple chord progressions and overly cheesy lyrics that my parents absolutely love. Staring at the ceiling, I can hear my mom singing loudly along downstairs, exaggerating every word. Occasionally, she pauses, allowing my dad to add in some obscure facts about the specific version and recording session of the song that’s playing. For me, it’s incredibly annoying, but for them, it’s a chance to start their days with enjoyment, delight, and pride in one of their favorite musical genres.
This is Bolero, a style that refers to a type of music that was popular in Southern Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. That’s the simple explanation, but in actuality, it’s very difficult to define what Bolero actually is. Even the genre’s biggest fans don’t have a definitive answer. “It’s hard. I don’t know enough to tell you how Bolero is viewed, or should be viewed,” says Phú, a 19-year-old Bolero enthusiast. “There seems to be a blurred line between Bolero as a music genre and Bolero as a general category of music written before 1975.” My father, the owner of a large Bolero collection, couldn’t give a straightforward definition either. “The name Bolero comes from a style of music in 19th century Cuba, but Vietnamese Bolero is completely different,” he says. “In Vietnam, the term is a generalization of music from Southern Vietnam that is written in a slow tempo and has simple yet beautiful, memorable lyrics.”