He soundproofed a portion of his house and built a recording booth with an eight-track system. "When that was done, it looked pretty good so we thought 'why not 16-track?' " Now, with the addition of computer synthesizers and sequencers, the studio can produce an entire album even without the use of live musicians.
The product at Soundtech and other studios is Vietnamese music in U.S.-style pop arrangements. By far, most of the selections are love songs written before 1975 in Vietnam. "We just rearrange them in a modern way," says Vu Anh Tuan. "Whichever they want, pop, rock, whatever."
Of the other songs, most are Vietnamese-language translations of U.S. hits. A few singers are starting to write their own material but that still is rare. "They like to stick to something familiar," notes Vu Tuan Duc.
Since many of the singers are using the same material, the way to stick out in the crowd is through arrangements and the level of recording quality. The finished product must compete for listeners not only with other Vietnamese-language product but with mainstream pop. "The biggest competition," says Vu Tuan Duc, "is what you hear on the radio."
Many local singers are content with their success on the Little Saigon scene. "Right now, they don't feel they need the American market," says Yen Do. "They make good livings."
Not surprisingly, however, some are beginning to reach for broader success. Vu Anh Tuan is among them. He was inspired to pursue a career in music when he first heard jazz, not long after he came to the United States at age 8. At 16, he was playing bass and saxophone behind singers from the burgeoning local scene.
Now, at 29, he is in high demand for recording and touring dates on the Vietnamese pop circuit, and it is there he makes his living. But jazz, which he studied at Cal State Fullerton, still exerts its pull and he harbors dreams of being a professional jazz man.
Like many of his generation, he straddles two worlds. There is enough of a music business in Little Saigon to give him constant work and to send him on tours to Vietnamese-speaking communities all over the world. But he feels the drive to make a mark in the mainstream.
"Since I came over here and heard the music, I loved it," he says, pausing to pull on a cigarette and to run a hand through his long, black hair. "I know American music more than Vietnamese music."
But building a career in jazz is tough for anyone, and Vu worries that he has an extra barrier--one of acceptance. "You don't see many Oriental faces in the American music scene," he notes. "Have you seen many foreign faces on MTV? Have you seen any Japanese or Chinese? . . . How long have we been here? Twenty years now?"
The market for Vietnamese pop now is fairly limited, but the lifting of the trade embargo against Vietnam raises the possibility of local record producers someday tapping that market--of 70 million. For now, though, copyright laws in Vietnam remain weak, piracy is widespread, and one has to contend with the continuing resentment of the Communist government. Such American recordings that are sold there are sold on the black market.
Touring may be another matter. A handful of U.S. pop singers, including John Denver and Bryan Adams, have toured Vietnam already. Some Vietnamese American singers say they hope to sing there some day but not unless the government changes. A few say privately that they hope to tour there regardless, but the first to go doubtless will come under heavy criticism.
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Arts in Little Saigon: A Five-Day Series
Sunday: Over 20 years, a vibrant culture has emerged, piece by piece.
Monday: A small core of believers is working to keep traditional music alive.
Today: 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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Stores specializing in Vietnamese-language music recordings are concentrated along the business districts of Bolsa Avenue. Some of the stores also offer locally produced music videos and laser discs:
1) Bich Thu Van Music and Gifts
9200 Bolsa Ave., No. 137
2) Thuy Anh
9200 Bolsa Ave.
3) Bon Phuong-Trung Tam Bang Nhac
9550 Bolsa Ave., No. 101
4) New Castle Laser Club
9852 Bolsa Ave.