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Tradition That Moves Forward : Culture: Lac Hong takes its music beyond the Vietnamese community with a concert at Orange Coast College.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The small percussion instrument Mai Nguyen holds in her hand hints of the international influences in Vietnam’s past.

More than 1,000 years of Chinese domination in Indochina are reflected in a dragon design, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The metal discs that produce the ringing sound are revealed on a closer look to be French coins, dated 1925, reminders of the more recent French rule of a troubled nation.

“We absorb all civilizations into our own culture,” says Nguyen, who once taught at the Vietnamese National Conservatory of Music in Saigon. Since fleeing to the United States in 1978, Nguyen has worked to keep Vietnam’s rich musical heritage alive among the huge refugee population here. In the process, she’s also introducing that music into the collective culture of her adopted country.

The fruit of her efforts is the Lac Hong Vietnamese Traditional Music Group, which she believes to be the largest Vietnamese traditional music ensemble in the United States. The group, which has more than 40 members, takes its biggest step yet in seeking an audience outside the Vietnamese community with a concert Saturday night at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa.

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Nguyen’s partner in forming the ensemble is Chau Nguyen (no relation). When they lived in Saigon, both were instructors at the Vietnamese National Conservatory of Music; for a time, Chau Nguyen was dean.

Mai Nguyen immigrated to Houston and began giving lessons in traditional music in her spare time and formed a small performing ensemble there. She came to Garden Grove in 1984 and started lessons here.

Chau Nguyen emigrated in 1987 from Vietnam to Garden Grove, where he was reunited with many of his former students. He joined with Mai Nguyen in forming the nonprofit Vietnamese Traditional Arts Development Organization, and together they gave weekend lessons and started building their music group.

Even in Vietnam, traditional music forms had begun to disappear in this century, under the successive influence of the French and then the Americans (and a long, painful war), although there was a growing revival in the 1970s. Keeping the traditions alive among the Vietnamese community in the United States would be difficult, both Mai Nguyen and Chau Nguyen believed.

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“When we came here, we thought our music would disappear,” Mai Nguyen says, “but people kept asking us to teach.”

Their students range in age from 7 to 25. Part of Orange County’s huge Vietnamese community (officially pegged at about 72,000, although estimated by some to be much larger), this generation has, in many cases, little recollection of Vietnam; some have never set foot there. It is a generation that is assimilating, Mai Nguyen says, but is not cutting off all ties to the homeland: “They still like Western music, but on weekends they return to Vietnam (culture).”

The music group (Lac Hong is the historic name of Vietnam) was drawn from the pool of students and grew slowly, starting with about 10 members and expanding to more than 40 by the time of the 1989 Kaleidoscope Festival in Irvine, the group’s first performance outside the Vietnamese community.

Audience response to that performance was enthusiastic, Mai Nguyen says: “They climbed onto the stage (after the performance) and started asking questions.” The group performed again briefly at this year’s multicultural Kaleidoscope Festival. For the last eight months they have been preparing for Saturday’s concert, their first in which they do not share the stage.

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Vietnamese melody, like Chinese, is based on five notes rather than the seven-note scale common to Western music. The music shows its Chinese roots, as well as an Indian influence, although there are subtle differences.

There are differences as well in the instruments, as Chau Nguyen demonstrates on his a tour of his home. Two battle drums and a gong dominate his living room, and stringed instruments are everywhere: 16-string zithers, a two-stringed moon-shaped lute, a two-stringed fiddle (with the bow played between the strings).

All the instruments come from Vietnam; similar Chinese or Japanese instruments cannot be substituted, he said. One common difference is that on Vietnamese instruments, the strings tend to be higher from the fingerboards, allowing for more bending of the strings and thus more variations in pitch.

One lead instrument that is indigenous to Vietnam is the monostring, a lap instrument that, as the name implies, has just one string. One hand plucks and plays the note, while the other hand controls the pitch with a stick attached to one end of the string. “Only one string but a thousand sounds,” Mai Nguyen says.

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There are a variety of traditional musical styles in Vietnam, all of which will be played by the Lac Hong group. Chau Nguyen describes four: chamber music, which was played for the royal court; ritual music, which accompanies weddings, funerals and temple ceremonies; folk music, and music for theater.

Chau Nguyen arranged and will conduct Saturday’s program, in addition to performing as part of a quintet (monostring, four-string lute, fiddle, moon-shaped lute, 16-string zither). There also will be examples of regional music styles, a poetry recitation with instrumental accompaniment and vocal works.

There will be Western touches as well: a Chopin solo piano piece, played on the 36-string dulcimer, and an Italian tune, “Come Back to Sorrento,” performed on the monostring.

Both Chau Nguyen and Mai Nguyen hope to expand their music teachings into a full-time business (Chau Nguyen works as a bilingual counselor for the Orange County Department of Education, Mai Nguyen is a real-estate agent). They also hope that the Orange Coast College engagement will lead to other performances at universities.

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“We want to introduce our music to the people here in America,” Mai Nguyen says. “We want to put our culture together with the culture here, to make this country richer.”

The Lac Hong Vietnamese Traditional Music Group will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road in Costa Mesa. Tickets: $9.50 in advance, $12 at the door. Information: (714) 432-5880.


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