Vietnamese Music in America
Dr. Phong Nguyen
Institute for Vietnamese Music
On April 29, 1975, the last Americans fled Saigon,
marking the end of decades of U.S. military and political involvement in South
Vietnam, and beginning the influx of the first waves of Vietnamese refugees to
the North American continent. At the beginning of the evacuation, the first
planeload of U.S. officials, their Vietnamese wives, and their Vietnamese
collaborators landed at California's Travis Air Force Base on April 20, 1975
(Refugees: A World Report 1979: 14). A tragic exodus from Vietnam by sea began
on April 30 and continued for a decade. In response, the United States and other
major Western countries generously agreed to resettle within their borders the
majority of Vietnamese remaining in Southeast Asian refugee camps. The U.S.,
which accepted the largest numbers of refugees, distributed them throughout all
fifty states, although California and Texas were the two areas of greatest
concentration. Large populations were also settled in New Orleans, Seattle,
Minneapolis-Saint Paul, and the Washington, D.C. area. In these new
environments, the refugees began the process of adjusting to their new lives.
A Vietnamese population had, in fact, been established in the United
States beginning in the late 1950s, although on a smaller scale; diplomatic
relations with the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) led to a number of
Vietnamese students and officials being trained in U.S. institutions. (The first
president of the Republic of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was himself educated in the
United States.) Some Vietnamese had also relocated to the United States from
various European countries.
Currently, Vietnamese immigrants are
integrated into American society, and most of them have become U.S. citizens or
are in process of being naturalized. According to the New York Times, the
Vietnamese-American population is over one million (March 16, 1995). Among them
is a significant number of musicians, singers, actors, actresses, and ritualists
who embody a musical culture quite distinct from those of earlier immigrant
groups. These performers possess knowledge and skills in many forms of
Vietnamese traditional and folk music, which are characterized by specific
repertoires, instruments, singing styles, ideals of sound, and secrets of
A great variety of Vietnamese musical genres is
performed in the United States today; these include dan ca (folk songs), cai
luong (southern Vietnamese "reformed" theater), don ca tai tu (or tai tu, a
genre of southern chamber music), Buddhist chant, chau van ritual music, and tan
nhac (popular music). Because most Vietnamese in the United States came from
southern Vietnam, most of this music has a southern Vietnamese origin. Other
religious music includes music of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, as
well as music for Roman Catholic ceremonies.
Two fundamental traits of
Vietnamese musical culture, which is attempting to survive in America, are 1)
the importance of the tonal nature of the Vietnamese language as it applies to
vocal music, and 2) the modal nature of Vietnamese instrumental music. Together,
these characteristics produce a music that is highly melismatic and ornamented.
Regional dialects result in distinct singing styles and song repertoires from
northern, central, and southern Vietnam. Vietnamese music's unique sonic
qualities, in combination with its cultural context, make it a complex tradition
consisting of numerous genres, which are presented for both rural and urban
Concerts organized by local communities in the early years
after the refugees' arrival in the United States aimed at expressing both their
homesickness and pride in their culture. These performances frequently featured
both traditional and modernized forms of Vietnamese music, and attracted
audiences of all ages; the traditional genres (dan ca, cai luong, tai tu, etc.)
seemed to be the most favored.
Among the most popular of Vietnamese
traditional musical genres in America is dan ca, which was originally a genre of
peasants’ songs, but which moved into urban communal settings, colleges, and
onto the stage in Vietnam several decades ago. Dan ca pieces are short
occupational or entertainment songs which still thrive among the public because
of their vernacular language and sweet tunes, making them accessible to
everybody. The best known sub-styles are ho (non-metrical songs) and ly (songs
of comparison). Dan ca are now sung in many concerts of popular music, and are
comparable to the Japanese popular music form enka.
Today, groups of musicians and singers in California, Minnesota,
Texas, and Virginia continue to perform tai tu (southern Vietnamese chamber
music) in a family context. A weekend get-together often becomes an opportunity
for an amateur performance of tai tu instrumental pieces and songs. The music
performed expresses a deep sense of nostalgia, and the topics of the songs
center around love of country, thinking about one's mother and family, or the
feeling of homesickness.
Tai tu music is an art form that was born in
southern Vietnam during the second decade of the twentieth century. Tai tu's
repertoire includes short songs, long songs with multiple sections, and vong co
songs (which are the best known). The latter rocked the entire country of
Vietnam in the 1950s with their newer style, from which emerged a rich and
famous class of successful traditional singers, actors, and actresses of cai
luong theater. In the United States, vong co songs are not only sung on the
stage, or in people's homes, but are also found on numerous commercially
released cassette and video recordings.
Cai luong theater has also
played an important role in Vietnamese-American artistic life. With a limited
number of professional cai luong performers in the United States, however, it
has not been easy to mount companies that travel from community to community, as
they do in Vietnam. It is of interest that new cai luong plays have been written
and produced in the United States by Vietnamese immigrants, and the training of
actors and actresses continues. Because of the difficulty of importing
instruments for use in cai luong ensembles, some Vietnamese traditional
instruments have been built in the United States from available materials. Most
popular among these is the luc huyen cam (or ghi-ta), a modified guitar with
raised frets and a scalloped fretboard, which allows the player to produce the
bending ornamentation integral to the performance of Vietnamese traditional
music. Some musicians use violin (called vi cam or vio-long in Vietnamese), an
instrument easily found in music stores. This instrument was introduced to tai
tu ensembles in southern Vietnam in the 1920s.
In the late 1970s,
organizers of cai luong performances finally closed the deal, successfully
mounting cai luong companies (featuring both professional and amateur
performers) in the United States. Theatrical pieces were gradually completed
with more professional performers coming from Vietnam through the Orderly
Departure Program. (The Orderly Departure Program was based on a humanitarian
agreement between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments (through the United
Nations), and allowed those who had worked for the U.S. government (and their
immediate family members) to leave Vietnam to resettle in the U.S.) In the early
1980s, many performers of popular music and celebrated movie actors and
actresses from Vietnam also joined these touring cai luong performances, where
they encountered their largest audiences outside Vietnam. Some concerts have
even involved performers from France or Germany. The staging was completed by
the addition of an electric sound system, scenery and lighting effects similar
to those commonly found in Western opera. To achieve greater financial benefits,
these performances have also included popular music and ballroom dance. These
developments have motivated greater audience attendance. However, due to its
complex setups and costs, cai luong performances only take place in major cities
with the largest Vietnamese communities.
Over time, the social
significance of cai luong to Vietnamese-Americans has changed. In the early
years following 1975, cai luong was the ultimate expression of the anxiety,
despair, suffering, loneliness, and homesickness of those who had departed from
home. As pointed out by Viet Hung, a senior cai luong actor, in an interview
with the author, "it is the deepest voice of the Vietnamese. Cai luong uses a
rich metaphor of mountains and rivers to express the love of the country." Now
that Vietnamese immigrants are quite settled, however, these tragical sentiments
are no longer a prominent aspect of cai luong theater. As mentioned earlier,
audiences enjoy both stage performances and video and CD recordings of cai luong
that feature fancy popular music and even ballroom dances.
aspect of traditional Vietnamese music is that associated with religious
ceremonies. Mahayana Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion in Vietnam.
Since 1975, there has been a remarkable growth in the number of Buddhist temples
within Vietnamese-American communities Over one hundred Vietnamese temples and
prayer halls have been built around the country, and serve as cultural centers
as well as places of worship. In these temples, Buddhist chant is heard on a
daily basis. In California, some large Buddhist ritual festivals have been held.
These ceremonies, which may last for several days at newly built temples, are
accompanied by a nhac le (ceremonial music) ensemble. The anniversary of
Buddha’s birth, called Le Phat Dan, is the most important time of the year for
Vietnamese Buddhists to visit temples. Fund-raising concerts are often organized
in conjunction with this holiday.
Other religions of Vietnam, which are
less well known but bear traditional and folk backgrounds, have also been
transplanted to the United States. These religions, all related to Buddhism,
include Cao Dai and Hoa Hao (religious sects founded in southern Vietnam in the
early twentieth century), and Chau Van (a ritual practice that originated in
northern Vietnam in the fifteenth century or earlier).
Tet, the Vietnamese New Year (which usually falls in early
February) is the most important occasion for Vietnamese cultural and musical
activities. In the United States, Tet festivities generally include both
traditional and modern music. Performances featuring music, dance, and fashion
shows are often held at local school auditoriums, which are rented as a
cost-effective way to ensure the participation of a maximum number of community
In larger communities, tan nhac (popular music) predominates
the entire production market, and is virtually the only form of Vietnamese music
found in Vietnamese bookstores, music stores, nightclubs, and cafés. This music,
which originated in the late 1930s, was based on European romantic genres, first
sung in French, but later adapted with Vietnamese lyrics. Since the middle of
the 1980s, popular concerts called da vu ("night dance") have become very
popular among both older Vietnamese-American ballroom dancers and young people.
Rock bands are contracted with local promoters to perform late into the night on
weekends, and are also hired for wedding parties. Curiously, traditional music
ensembles do not perform for Vietnamese weddings in the United States.
Similarly, political events often involve popular music; songs of
protest aim at criticizing the current regime in Vietnam, praising the refugees
who fled the communists, promoting new political figures in the community, or
raising funds for refugees in concentration camps in Southeast Asia. Some
political groups even have their own song books and traveling singers.
FINDING A NEW NICHE
The integration of Vietnamese music into the
artistic fabric of the United States has been a sensitive matter. For most
Americans, Vietnamese culture is still invisible; "Vietnam" remains a war, not a
country. Further, bringing musicians to perform at mainstream American festivals
can be a challenge; traditional musicians who are unused to stage technology
often find difficulty in adjusting themselves to the timing, programming, and
However, the situation is changing. The Vietnamese
performing arts are slowly gaining recognition as a new and significant element
of United States immigrant tradition, particularly within the American academic
and performance milieus. While most Vietnamese traditional musicians in the
United States are unknown to the wider American public, neither are they well
known or well supported in their own communities (at least in comparison to
performers of Vietnamese popular music).
Within academia, numerous
books, articles, theses, conference papers, and at least one doctoral
dissertation on the subject of Vietnamese music have been written or published.
In 1989, the International Association for Research in Vietnamese Music was
founded, offering an opportunity for discussions, publications, research, and
scholarly exchange. In conjunction with academic teaching, university ensembles
have also been created by the author of this article to give students an
opportunity to practice traditional Vietnamese music.
increasing interest in Vietnamese culture over the past decade, a few U.S.-based
world music labels (World Music Institute, Music of the World, Lyrichord, Silver
Burdett Ginn’s Music Connections, and others) have begun to show an interest in
Vietnamese music, releasing audio recordings and publishing them for both
academic and general uses.
In a 1997 ceremony at the White House, the
author was honored with a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage
Fellowship, together with nine other American artists and performers. This was
the first time that a Vietnamese musician had received the United States
government's highest honor in the traditional arts (similar to Japan's honor of
"Living Treasure"). Vietnamese music, thus, has officially been acknowledged as
one of the constituents that, according to the National Endowment for the Arts
statement, has "contributed to the shaping of our artistic traditions and to
preserving the cultural diversity of the United States."
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