Music of the Vietnamese Diaspora

Welcome to the first entry on my Read page.  This will be a place where I will share in more detail about projects, events, ideas, and hopefully stimulate thoughts and conversation about music and life.  Please feel free to comment and share if you are inspired to do so.


For the past six months, I have been working on a project that is deeply meaningful to me, an event for The Vietnam Heritage Center (VHC) called Giai Điệu Quê Hương: Music of the Vietnamese Diaspora. *This is not a political event, and represents different generations and backgrounds.

The event is part of Carnegie Hall's Migrations: The Making of America, a citywide festival that traces the journeys of people from different origins and backgrounds who helped to shape and influence the evolution of American culture.  Below is an excerpt of the festival description:

“The history of America is indelibly linked to the movement of people. Some were brought here not of their own free will, and their perseverance and resilience transformed the nation. Others came here—or moved within the borders of this country—because they sought a new life, free from poverty, discrimination, and persecution. The many contributions—cultural, social, and political—of these migrations, and the people who helped to build this country and what it means to be American, are honored in Carnegie Hall’s festival Migrations: The Making of America.”

As a Vietnamese-American, the above reminds of the migration story of my own family, their perseverance, and resilience.   I recently attended A Discussion Among Writers hosted by the Vietnamese Diasporic Artist Network (see video here), and Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of The Sympathizer and The Refugees) spoke about the need for more Asian-American/Vietnamese-American stories and reaching a state of “narrative plentitude.” This inspired me to share a bit about my family’s journey in light of a musical project so close to my roots.

My father with his Huey helicopter

My father with his Huey helicopter

My father was born underground in Bình Dương Province in Vietnam at the end of World War Two. He was one of two kids from his village to go to high school at the time. He eventually became a military medic in the 1960s, then a helicopter pilot in the air force of South Vietnam. He was wounded in battle multiple times, including one point when doctors were unsure whether he would ever walk again. In April 1975 during evacuation of South Vietnam, he was among the pilots who landed on the USS Midway, then pushed their helicopters overboard to make room for more evacuees. While he was able to help others, he was unable to bring his family, his wife and son. At that time, he thought he would never see them or his country again.

After stops in the Philippines and Guam, my father would end up at the Vietnamese Refugee Processing Center at Eglin Air Force Base in western Florida. In order to cope with his loss, he turned to helping others, including building tents in these temporary homes, and helping procure simple comforts for his fellow Vietnamese. Ultimately, he was able to contact a sponsor family, who brought him to live with them in Savannah, GA.

Vietnamese Refugee Processing Center at Eglin Air Force Base

Vietnamese Refugee Processing Center at Eglin Air Force Base

After working several labor jobs, with the support of his sponsor family, my father went to school and became a respiratory therapist.  He helped start the local Vietnamese community group that assisted other refugees who settled in Savannah, and carried on cultural traditions such as Tết (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) and Tết Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn Festival).  My father would eventually meet and marry my mother, and they had my sister and me. My mother was a teacher at the local vocational school, who worked with lots of refugees, including Vietnamese and Russians. Over the years, Vietnamese in Savannah would recall how much she helped them in transitioning to their new life in the US.  Her life ended tragically and way too early when I was one year old.

Although my father struggled as a single parent for some time after my mother’s death, we were blessed with help.  My Godmother (who baptized me in a sink) and her family stepped in to help our family carry on. This was not just for weeks or months, but for years. Since she was a church organist and pianist teacher, my sister and I were raised around both, and this is certainly where my interest in music began.  I cannot express the gratitude I feel for all her family has done for us.

My Anh Hai (far left), Mẹ (next to him) and Bà Ngoại (far right) at the refugee camp in Bataan.

My Anh Hai (far left), Mẹ (next to him) and Bà Ngoại (far right) at the refugee camp in Bataan.

Ultimately, my father was able to re-establish contact with his family in Vietnam, and when I was three years old, I would have a new family, my Bà Ngoại (grandmother on mother’s side), Mẹ (mother) and Anh Hai (oldest brother).  Through the Orderly Departure Program, they came to the US through the Bataan (Philippines) refugee camp.  It was from this point that my memories began; so for as long as I remember, my Vietnamese identity has been strong.  I learned to value family, respect for elders and hard work. My brother, who came to the US as a teenager, graduated from high school near the top of his class, then became a successful engineer following grad school.  My Mẹ, who began working in a food court with my brother, became a manicurist, and later a small business owner.  My Bà Ngoại was incredibly stoic, but possessed a warm and caring nature expressed through her amazing cooking and service to her family and community.

Eventually the Savannah Buddhist community bought a house, converted it to a temple, then built this temple some years ago

Eventually the Savannah Buddhist community bought a house, converted it to a temple, then built this temple some years ago

During my time growing up, I was exposed to many songs and sounds of Vietnam.  Since the language is tonal, it possesses a song-like quality as each word rises and falls.  Early on, my parents started having Buddhist services in our home, and we would often have monks stay with us when they were in town.  I have vivid memories of the sounds of the temple block, the singing bowl, and chanting monks and congregants in our home. I also recall my mother casually singing sad Vietnamese songs while ironing, or Vietnamese music tapes and Paris by Night videos playing at home.  At community events like Tết, after all the speeches and festivities, the local Viet band would play what to me sounded like cheesy Vietnamese songs. All the adults, except my parents, would crowd the dance floor dancing to the cha cha, tango, bolero, and paso doble. Finally, my grandfather, Ông Ngoại, who would eventually settle in Savannah, was an amateur Vọng cổ guitarist and singer.  Below is a recording my Anh Hai made of him playing and singing.

When I was younger, none of the above really interested me, but as I have gotten a little older and become an artist searching for meaning, something has been calling me to my roots.  As a jazz musician, I have tended to gravitate towards ballads and the blues, and as a church musician, I preferred African American spirituals and its sorrow songs. And now, I have started to hear something similar in older Vietnamese music. There is a deep longing in the music of the downtrodden, something people might call “soul.” In the Mississippi Delta, you might hear it in how a singer bends notes, riffs on a pentatonic scale, or their use of call and response. In the Mekong Delta, you can hear some of these same qualities, just with a different flavor. It is so interesting to hear the universal language and spirit that comes out in different cultures. For me, studying the music of other cultures, helped me identify more with my own.

Looking back at my Vietnamese upbringing, I now can appreciate how a people living away from their physical homeland, carry with them traditions, songs and stories that maintain their identity, and idea of home. That perseverance and resilience is what I want to honor by sharing the Vietnamese immigrant experience through music in this program.

Giai Điệu Quê Hương: Music of the Vietnamese Diaspora will examine the migration of the Vietnamese people through music and dance. The performers, from different generations and backgrounds, will help tell a musical story from traditional genres such as dân ca (folk music) and cải lương (reformed opera), to new interpretations of Vietnamese music.

Saturday, April 6, 2019 at 7:30pm
The Sheen Center
18 Bleecker St, NY, NY
Tickets $25



Masters of Ceremonies:
Jaden Lâm Phan
Vy Vy Huỳnh

Thanh Hằng
Thái Hoàng
Phương Trịnh
Trần Thuý Hằng
Hoài Anh Nguyễn
Nikki Nguyễn

Jason R. Nguyễn/SoulGook - Đàn bầu
Phan Hằng Nga & Trần Thuý Hằng - Đàn tranh
Chương Trịnh - Đàn ghi-ta (guitar)
Quỳnh Nguyễn - Piano
Alex Nguyễn - Trumpet
Miki Yamanaka - Piano
Clovis Nicolas - Bass
Jay Sawyer - Drums

Migrations Dance Ensemble
Karolyn Lê
Rebecca Nguyễn
Bình-Minh Lại
Thư (Lily) Lê
Uyên (Sophie) Nguyễn
Marisan Yu
Bình Tiên Lại
Tyler Chen
Erwin Go
Kevin Manrique
Aminoor Rashid
Jack Wang

Miss Saigon Dance Team
Cầm Huỳnh
Ariel Yu
Yến-Vy Nguyễn
Jackie Liu
Amanda Yee
Jet Trần
Danny Nguyễn

Alex NguyenComment