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The Struggle to Save Traditional Music : A group of Vietnamese immigrants is gaining in the battle. They see the old ways as essential to their identity.

ARTS IN LITTLE SAIGON. A culture transplanted. Second in a series

March 13, 1995|RICK VANDERKNYFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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