The string instruments of an orchestra in the West differ primarily only in size; the violin, viola, cello and double bass share a basic shape and number of strings: four.
The string instruments of a Vietnamese ensemble such as Lac Hong, which performs tonight at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, not only boast a beguiling variety of shapes, but the number of strings starts with one and goes up from there.
And don’t underestimate the one-string.
“You see other string instruments, such as the zither, all over Southeast Asia, but you see the ‘mono-string’ (dan bau ) only in Vietnam,” said Mai Nguyen, co-director of Lac Hong with Chau Nguyen (no relation). “It sounds like a Hawaiian guitar. But like the violin, it can be our main instrument. It (can) lead the whole orchestra.”
Next comes the two-string fiddle (dan nhi) and moon-shape guitar (dan nguyet ), four-string lute (dan ty ba), 16-string zither (dan tranh) and, finally, the dulcimer, with 36 strings and twice the number of syllables (dan tam thap luc ). The percussion section includes the “wooden fish,” which is beat with a stick, and “moneyclappers” fashioned from French colonial coins. Wind instruments are limited to bamboo flutes.
Together they make chamber music and folk music based on a five-note modal system featuring flexible pitches and complicated rhythms. For their concert at OCC, however, Lac Hong will also perform Western repertory, which traditionally uses seven-note scales, including a mono-string rendition of “Come Back to Sorrento.”
“Our instruments can play any style of music,” Mai said.
Mai Nguyen and Lac Hong conductor Chau Nguyen were once instructors at the National Conservatory of Music in Saigon. Mai left Vietnam in 1977; Chau rejoined his students and family here nine years later. Mai and Chau formed Lac Hong in Garden Grove in 1988. The ensemble now has almost 80 members, including a chorus of 35. Instrumentalists range in age from 8 to 20, singers from 5 to 35.
The OCC concert will focus on music from various regions of Vietnam, which, according to Mai, Vietnamese members of the audience will recognize as easily as they might spoken dialects.
“Our language is just like music,” she explained. “Five accents, five notes. It goes up and down like music.
“The north, center and south have the same language. We read the same word, but we say it differently. The music from the north, center or south also has an accent. The name of the song is the same, but the way we play it is totally different.”
Vietnam (known as Lac Hong 4,000 years ago) is influenced by the Chinese in the north; the French and Americans also put their respective stamps on the culture.
“Countries come to make my people sleep,” Mai said. “They tell us never to play our own music, that it’s for lower-class people, that if you want to be a high-class person, you have to speak their language. . . .
“But we never sleep. We fight, and we cope with the difficulties. That’s why we came here, that’s why our children cope so well. We’ve been here 18 years, but already you see a lot of young doctors, lawyers and dentists. That is because we know to never let difficulties stop us.”
* Lac Hong will play traditional Vietnamese music tonight at 8 in the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. $8 to $16. (714) 432-5880.