Ask 11-year-old Hong Ngoc why she is learning the traditional music of Vietnam and a hint of indignation comes into her voice. "I'm a Vietnamese person," she answers simply, "and I need to keep my culture."
Hong An, 15, plays the dan bau , a Vietnamese monostring. Many of her Vietnamese American schoolmates have little interest in the traditional music of their ancestral homeland, she says: "Some, they don't know anything about the traditional culture." Although she began playing at her parents' insistence, she says she has come to look forward to her lessons and to performing.
Both girls play in the Lac Hong Music Group, probably Orange County's largest and busiest Vietnamese traditional music ensemble, along with the Ngan Khoi Chorus. The Lac Hong plays 30 to 40 times a year; its engagements include an annual concert at the Robert B. Moore Theatre at Orange Coast College, which draws audiences of more than 1,000.
The next one, scheduled for Aug. 26, will be part of festivities commemorating the 20th anniversary of the first Vietnam War refugees' arrival in the United States. It also is a celebration of their first two decades here, 20 years in which Little Saigon has become the largest Vietnamese community in the U.S.--one with a vibrant, if largely undiscovered, artistic culture.
In Little Saigon, the strains of traditional music long have been overwhelmed by the sounds of the Western-influenced pop produced in local recording studios and sung in local nightclubs. But a small core of believers has worked to keep the traditional music alive in the children; it is, these people say, an essential element of their identity.
"We want our music to transfer to the next generation," says Chau Nguyen, artistic director of the Lac Hong. "Lots of Vietnamese parents want to maintain the culture, and they send their children to us."
When Nguyen made his way to Little Saigon from Vietnam in 1987, he found he already had many friends here--former students, most of them, from his days as the dean of traditional music at the National Academy of Music and Drama in Saigon.
Nguyen quickly brought them together to form the first version of the Lac Hong. Since then, he and Mai Nguyen--no relation, but a former teaching colleague from Saigon--have worked to bring young performers into the fold.
There are signs that their crusade is catching on. Thach Le, the Lac Hong's 31-year-old business manager, says he finds more and more people of his generation becoming aware of the traditional music. For example, UC Irvine, which has a large population of Vietnamese American students, fields its own traditional ensemble.
Le himself was mostly a fan of Western classical, pop, jazz and Latin music when he first started studying traditional Vietnamese music about three years ago. "Before, I heard the traditional music here and there, but I didn't have a very good sense of what it was," he says. "I left my country when I was very young so this kind of music is a very good resource for me."
Although Vietnamese music has been influenced by two of the country's large neighbors, India and China, it has a long, distinguished and distinctive tradition of its own. The term "traditional" takes in music of several different styles and functions: chamber music, ritual or ceremonial music, folk songs of the rural villages, and theatrical music of the cai luong , a sort of opera style. In addition, there are regional variations between north, central and south.
Instruments include a variety of zithers, most commonly the 16-string dan tranh ; the dan nhi , a two-stringed bowed fiddle; the dan nguyet , a two-stringed, moon-shaped lute; the dan tam , a fretless, three-stringed lute; the ty ba , a four-stringed, pear-shaped lute, and two main types of bamboo flute, the sao and the tieu .
Much of the music incorporates lyrics closely tied to the nation's long poetic tradition. The epic "Tale of Kieu," the story of two daughters with "snow-pure souls" born to "a man of modest wealth," composed in the late 18th Century by Nguyen Du, is a favorite subject for song. The love story, consisting of 3,254 verses, may be sung in sections over several nights.
Most of the music is based on the pentatonic scale (which one can hear by playing just the black keys on a piano). Western listeners may find that many of the pitches sound out of tune compared to the scales with which they are familiar. Likewise, the complex melodic and rhythmic structures can be disorienting to a first-time listener, but with time the subtlety and richness of the music is revealed, aficionados say.
Almost a generation of Vietnamese musicians was lost to the war, which also deprived many younger Vietnamese of access to a musical education. Many of the performers and composers who managed to escape came to settle in Orange County, "more than (in) any other place," says Phong Nguyen, an expert on traditional Vietnamese music and professor of ethnomusicology at Kent State University in Ohio (and a musician himself).
But in Vietnam, these musicians had been well known. Now, beyond the confines of Little Saigon, there is little recognition of their talents and achievements. Elliott Goldenthal, a New York-based composer who has been commissioned by the Pacific Symphony to create a piece reflecting on the human experience of the Vietnam War, has come to Orange County several times to meet and confer with Vietnamese composers. The discussions were part of his research and helped to shape the work musically and thematically, Goldenthal says.
"I was very moved by (the meetings)," he recalls, "because many of the composers felt a little insular; they felt their works weren't even being viewed or noticed by outside society."
Indeed, Pacific Symphony executive director Louis G. Spisto says that at the time of the commission, the orchestra was unaware that any Vietnamese composers in the area had the breadth of experience to handle the job. It is largely through Goldenthal's research, Spisto adds, that the PSO has learned of local Vietnamese composers and the extent of their accomplishments.
Spisto says Goldenthal (who was recommended for the project by composer John Corigliano) got the nod because of his experience composing for orchestra and chorus, in combining music of different cultures, and in composing for film ("Interview With the Vampire," "Drugstore Cowboy," "Alien3"), which Spisto believes will help Goldenthal tell a complex tale musically. "We wanted someone who could tell large, sweeping stories. . . . Musically, Elliott had the voice we were looking for."
Although Goldenthal's work primarily will be in the Western classical style, he wishes to incorporate elements of Vietnamese traditional music. And the first performance of the symphony, in April, will include singers and musicians from the local Vietnamese American community. Among other things, Spisto hopes the work will expand the orchestra's audience by making inroads to local Vietnamese music lovers.
Late last August, the Pacific Symphony held workshops together with musicians and singers from Little Saigon. One session was concluded with a joint rendition of "Amazing Grace"; Goldenthal dubbed the encounter a "musical handshake."
While not condemning such cross-cultural efforts, Phong Nguyen--who is supported by NEA and other grants--says he is "working very hard on the preservation of traditional music." While tapes and CDs of Vietnamese-language pop are ubiquitous in Vietnamese American communities, recordings of traditional music are rare.
To help rectify that, Nguyen recently brought some of the best traditional musicians from around the United States--including several from Orange County--to Kent State to record. The result is a two-CD set released last year by Lawndale-based New Alliance records, which usually focuses on alternative rock artists.
"Eternal Voices: Traditional Vietnamese Music in the United States" serves as an introduction to a variety of styles and traditions, with extensive liner notes (in English) by Nguyen.
In the notes, he points out the difficulties Vietnamese immigrants have had establishing traditional music in the United States, especially in re-creating the institutions and venues in which the forms "thrived in old Vietnam." But through his efforts and others, the music is surviving, both in its pure form and in new ways that adapt to Western forms.
In fact, Vu Tien Dung and Vu Tuan Duc, brothers who own and operate Soundtech Studios in Fullerton, one of the oldest and busiest for local Vietnamese pop, also perform in a well-known traditional singing quartet along with their sisters, Thuy-Hanh and Minh Ngoc.
The Thuy Duong Quartet is named for a type of tree common along the shores of Vietnam, one that produces a melodic sound when the wind blows. The quartet has performed with Western-style orchestras "for an American audience," says Thuy. "It's a little easier for them to appreciate."
Actress Kieu Chinh, who is organizing a night of Vietnamese music and other entertainment for July 1 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, has drawn liberally from the arts community in Little Saigon. She plans to feature some mainstream musicians as well, hoping to build a bridge to a non-Vietnamese audience.
Mostly, however, she hopes to give young Vietnamese a sense of their tradition by putting pop and traditional elements side-by-side in the program. "To me, it's important to go into the mainstream," Chinh says. "Still, you have to have your roots."
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Arts in Little Saigon: A Five-Day Series
Sunday: Over 20 years, a vibrant culture has emerged, piece by piece.
Today: A small core of believers is working to keep traditional music alive.
Tuesday: The pop music mecca of the Vietnamese-speaking world.
Wednesday: Some artists struggle to confront the past; others try to move beyond it.
Thursday: How the county's arts establishment has--and hasn't--reached out to Vietnamese Americans.
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Classical Offerings Have a Definite French Accent
Along with the traditions transported with Vietnamese immigrants to America was a blend of Vietnamese melodies with Western-style classical music, popularized in Vietnam during the period of French colonialism and influence. This music has been getting new attention in the local Vietnamese American community.
Many Vietnamese were exposed to classical music through the French, and some attended French universities, says Dong Nguyen, a software engineer from Anaheim Hills who organized a concert of Vietnamese classical music last summer at Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton. Vietnamese "have experience with the Western culture in general and music specifically," Nguyen says. "Vietnamese people like Western music."
Project 20, a series of artistic events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the arrival of the first Vietnamese in the U.S. and their accomplishments, will include a performance on June 3 of "1975," a symphony composed by Khoa Le of Orange.
Le believes that the blend of traditional music with Western instrumentation is an ideal way to present Vietnam's musical legacy to U.S. audiences.
In the art and music scene of Little Saigon, says Le, "we have two different trends. One is trying to retain the traditional style; one leans to Western style, to contemporary arts.
"Let's say I'm halfway. I want to keep the tradition, but in a way that we can expand it, and contact the wider world."
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Vietnam's Traditional Instruments
Vietnamese traditional music utilizes many instruments that can vary by region or style of music. Some developed in Vietnam; others are borrowed from China or other neighbors. Prominent ones include:
Dan nguyet: A moon-shaped lute, with two nylon strings and eight to 10 high frets on its neck, that plays a five-tone scale. The player holds the instrument like a banjo or a guitar, in a seated position.
Ty ba: A four-stringed, pear-shaped lute. Like the dan nguyet , it produces a five-tone scale. Has Chinese origins.
Dan tranh: A zither of 16 to 21 strings, with movable bridges. Strings are plucked with the fingers of the right hand and are pushed with the left hand to affect pitch.
Dan bau: A single string is tied to a peg at one end and a flexible vertical stick (attached to a gourd resonator) at the other. The string is plucked with a small stick and subtly stopped at a specific point to produce harmonics. Movement of the vertical stick produces a gliding tone.
Sources: "Eternal Voices: Traditional Vietnamese Music in the United States"; Lac Hong Music Group
Researched by RICK VANDERKNYFF / Los Angeles Times