Understanding the power of music

March 28, 2007

Director of Ngan Khoi Chorus strikes cultural chords.

VU: Binh Vu conducts a rehearsal recently before the group’s performance in La Mirada March 18.

Binh Ton Vu

Age: 53

Residence: Upland

Occupation: Part-time musical director at the Laguna Niguel Presbyterian Church and freelance orchestra conductor

Education: Doctorate in music from Claremont Graduate University; bachelor’s and master’s in music from Cal State Northridge

Favorite orchestra: Craiova Philharmonic Master Chorale and Symphony Orchestra in Romania, which he conducted in May 2006

Family: Wife, Anh-Thu, and two children

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

For Binh Ton Vu, music is more than an activity to pass time. The musical director of the Ngan Khoi Chorus believes that music has the power to connect the Vietnamese-American culture to its roots and at the same time, integrate it with mainstream America.

Vu conducted a sold-out concert on March 18 for the Ngan Khoi Chorus in La Mirada. The chorus blended indigenous music with other kinds of global music, blurring cultural and musical boundaries.

Vu explains this novel concept and how it has become popular with the local Vietnamese-American community.

Q:What types of instruments does the Ngan Khoi Chorus use in a typical performance?

A:We use indigenous Vietnamese instruments such as the dan-tranh, a 16-string instrument and the dan-bau, which is a monochord. At the recent concert, we used the western harp in a nontraditional way to sound like the dan-tranhby using the harp pedals and plucking the strings simultaneously to produce sliding notes.

Q:How and why does this music appeal to the Vietnamese-American community?

A:This music is what we call “high art.” It’s different from the popular music that makes money. This is music for the soul that connects us with our roots. When the Vietnamese first came to this country, they had more immediate needs, like finding work and putting food on the table. Now, many in the community are upwardly mobile and doing very well. Now, they have the time for cultural pursuits. Our group is composed of lawyers, doctors and a variety of professionals who dedicate their time to pursuing this kind of pure music although temptations are many to devote their time to the popular music.

Q:How does this music help participants understand their culture better?

A:Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within the framework of a culture. For example, one of the songs we sang at our recent performance was about planting rice crops. This type of song is called di cay. On the surface, it’s about young men and women singing while planting the crop by moonlight. But when you take a deeper look, it’s very romantic. The song is like a question and answer where the man and woman subtly and beautifully proclaim their undying love for one another. There is a cultural lesson in each song.

Q:How has the music helped with the mainstreaming of Vietnamese-Americans?

A:I think of late our community is realizing the importance of mingling with mainstream America. We try to reflect this unity by incorporating different elements of our respective cultures and music.

Binh Ton Vu

Contact the writer: 714-445-6685 or dbharath@ocregister.com

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