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Sounds Like Traditional Celebration : Music: The Lac Hong group rejoices in its heritage and life in the U.S. with a diverse concert to include Vietnamese instruments and an American classic.

August 26, 1995|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The performance of "God Bless America" that closes a concert tonight at Orange Coast College promises to be every bit as heartfelt as any offered on the Fourth of July, although it will sound a world away from the standard orchestral and marching-band renditions.

It will be played like Kate Smith could never have imagined it--on dan bau, dan nguyet, dan ty ba , dan tranh and dan tam thap luc.

"This time, we use the whole orchestra; we try to make something fancy," said Mai Nguyen, president of Lac Hong Music Group, which gives its annual concert at OCC tonight in the Robert B. Moore Theatre. The orchestra in this case--in the order listed above--includes mono-string, two-string moon-shaped guitar, four-string pear-shaped lute, 16-string zither and 36-string dulcimer.

The concert--called "Vietnam 20 Years Overseas, Here We Are Still Singing"--commemorates the 20th year of Vietnamese resettlement in the United States. The ensemble presents 30 concerts each year, but this one promises to be its big blowout.

"We play 'God Bless America' with our traditional instruments," said Nguyen, "also chorus, dancers, then balloons all over. . . . You [will be] surprised how our instruments can play it--it's wonderful! And with the battle drums, you know . . . "

That's merely the finale. The diverse program also includes "Three Rivers Converging in the Ocean" for chorus and orchestra, the recitation of a poem titled "Hurrying On," skits and a performance by the Children's Instrumental Ensemble of Chau Nguyen's arrangement of "Country Child."

Lac Hong's artistic director, conductor and composer-arranger Chau Nguyen and Mai Nguyen (no relation) both were instructors at the National Conservatory of Music in Saigon; Mai left Vietnam in 1978, Chau in 1986.

"When we formed our group in 1989, we had 20 members," recalled Chau Nguyen. "Now we have 20 in the chorus, 25 in the music group, 25 in the children's group, and this year we formed a dance group. Master Luu Hong, who is very famous in Vietnam, works with us now." There are also now two Lac Hong orchestras: one for adults and one for children.

The Lac Hong Music Group--Lac Hong was the ancient name for Vietnam--is one arm of the Garden Grove-based Vietnamese Traditional Arts Development Organization, which also oversees an education department, explained Mai Nguyen. The organization, dedicated to contributing "to the cultural kaleidoscope of America," receives funding from several councils and foundations, including the California Arts Council.

Mai Nguyen said the Lac Hong ensemble continues to grow, particularly among the younger generation. "The more the kids learn, the more they like it," she said. "And the more it grows, the harder we work.

"The parents want to keep the culture, the traditions, so they just bring [the kids] to us," she explained. "The children are so proud to be on the stage, you know, and perform, and very proud when anyone asks them to play. I can see it. And we are so happy for that."

*

According to Mai, the children love and respect the culture of their ancestral home as well as that of their birthplace.

"They speak English, and they also speak Vietnamese fluently, very correctly," Mai said. "They play traditional instruments, and they sing Western music, rock 'n' roll, very, very well."

Luu Hong, the latest addition to the organization, and his Maxim Dance Group have until recently focused only on modern music and employed Western instruments. But now he also teaches folk dances using traditional instruments to a Lac Hong group. A performance of the Rice Drum Dance by the Maxim Dance Group is on the agenda tonight.

Is there a place on that program for a Vietnamese anthem, a "God Bless Vietnam," if you will?

"God already blessed Vietnam because God helped us be here," Mai Nguyen said. "God is already with us.

"So now we keep our tradition of music; we play our instruments. The way we say we appreciate this country, instead of saying, 'Oh, thank you, America,' we say, 'Ah, God bless America'--that now he blesses all of us."

* Lac Hong Music Group performs traditional music of Vietnam tonight at Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $15. (714) 554-6878 or 895-4242.

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