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Hanoi-born artist unafraid to take traditional instrument to new spaces

Vo Van Anh playing the dan tranh at a concert in Ho Chi Minh City last week. The San Francisco based artist said her biggest desire was to introduce the traditional zither to world friends and the young Vietnamese.

Every time she takes the stage in Vietnam, dan tranh artist Vo Van Anh springs a surprise.

At the second "Hoi ngo dan tranh" (Dan tranh meeting) in Ho Chi Minh City last weekend, the Vietnamese-American artiste wore a stylized backless ao dai and a big orange necklace, while other dan tranh artists chose to wear the traditional form of the national dress.

And while all of them sat still with typical Vietnamese elegance on a chair as they played the Vietnamese zither, Van Anh, or Vanessa Vo, stood and swayed lightly along with the songs.

The differences did not end there. On the stage were a sound mixer, an amplifier, and two "extraordinary" dan tranh - zithers longer and bigger than the usual ones. This is a more complicated set up compared to a traditional zither performance, and Anh told me she had to bring the whole set of equipment from the US by plane.

The most important difference, though, was when the 2009 Emmy award winner's fingers surfed on the 16-chord zither.

Hitherto unheard sounds emanated from the dan tranh, taking the 400-strong audience to exotic lands both familiar and unknown. With six pieces of music Bui duong vo ngua (Dust under horse step), She's not she, Gio phuong Nam (The southern wind), Vu dieu cua nang (The sunshine's dance), Vinh hoa dao (A peach blossom poem), Phong canh que em (Sights in my country) she told six new stories.

Her dan tranh, a traditional instrument that always plays sweet folk songs that are very Vietnamese, brought to the audience breaths from Africa to modern America, from free-flowing jazz to New Age styles. The songs were the same, the singing was different.

Anh affirmed that she always stayed loyal to the Vietnamese melody even as she added different styles and rhythms.

"I call that the Van Anh style. I blend our traditional music with world music, but the main aim is to show the Vietnamese material. As a chef, you can make a chicken salad with different combinations of vegetables and spices, but you make sure that you always have the chicken. Dan tranh won't be dan tranh without Vietnamese music."

Not everyone was buying the Van Anh style, though.

Pham Quang Huy, a thirty-year old dan tranh lover who said he grew up with dan tranh folksongs, disagreed with the performance.

"I spent my entire childhood listening to Vietnamese folk songs played on the dan tranh, and when I heard her work mixed with foreign music, I felt something break inside me. Her skill is excellent, but the soul of her performance is not Vietnamese any more."

Just as there were several aficionados unhappy or not impressed with her music, there were others who saw the instrument in a new light because of her performance.

"I was extremely persuaded by Vo Van Anh's skill, and the various faces that she showed us through her music. After listening to her, I felt very proud of our dan tranh. It has not stagnated through generations. It moves. It breathes the modern breath. And it proves that dan tranh is not just for our grandparents, it is also for us - the young," said Nguyen Minh, an IT student of the Ho Chi Minh City University of Natural Sciences.

Phuong Uyen, a folk music student of the Conservatory of Ho Chi Minh City, found that the dan tranh, which is designed to play the Vietnamese traditional five-note song (while modern songs have seven notes of the major scale then divide into other ascending and descending notes), has great flexibility.

"I spent years learning how to play the dan tranh, and tonight, I heard it outplay itself. I also realized that my traditional dan tranh could do more than we thought. We thought the dan tranh is just for the old five-note songs, now we know that it can "˜sing' all the seven notes, play difficult chromatic scales"¦ that it can "˜speak' foreign languages."

Reaching out

Anh began studying to play dan tranh when she was four.

She won the National Dan Tranh Competition along with the first prize for best solo performance in modern folk music in 1995. She was considered one of the best dan tranh players in the country then.

In 2000, she moved to the US to live with her Viet kieu husband, Steven Huynh, who she'd met during a performance tour to the US earlier. It marked the beginning of a different relationship with the 16-chord zither. 

No longer a well-known artist with a busy timetable, a new Van Anh chose to participate in charity activities, to play the zither to raise funds for children and the disabled, or small public performances at libraries and schools in the US.

But fate did not intend to keep her away from the limelight for long.

Anh shot back into public consciousness and admiration when she composed and played the dan tranh for "Daughter from Da Nang," which won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival 2002 and an Oscar nomination in 2003.

In 2009, the girl from Hanoi composed her way into the Emmy record books as a co-composer of the soundtrack for the documentary "Bolinao 52."

Since last November, Anh has been working with the Kronos Quartet, the world famous 38 year-old string quartet, to prepare a concert series on Vietnamese music and culture beginning next May. 

"Working with American artists, I realized that our dan tranh is not any weaker than their instruments. It even has the strength of having a unique voice."

The only weak point, Anh found, was its structure.

"To play world music that is faster and stronger then our folksongs, we need a firmer zither than our slim ones. Our dan tranh is just 95 centimeters long, and its movable bridges are unsteady. When we play at a high speed it would go out of tune or get too shrill."

After months of working with the instrument, carefully studying all its features including the length, the curve of its surface, the distance between movable bridges and the materials the string is made of, she sent her calculations to Phung Tan Tuyen, one of the best dan tranh makers in Vietnam, to order a zither of her own.

After several tries, she got what she wanted.

"Now my zither is 1.34 meters long with special features that makes it firm enough to play world music."

Anh said she was motivated to spend a lot of effort and money on making her own zither because she not only wanted a good instrument to play, but also a good product to introduce Vietnamese music to foreign friends.

 "To introduce yourself to foreign friends, at first you must let them understand you. That means you have to speak their language. Therefore, I play international music on dan tranh to introduce our zither to the world. I hope it will make them want to learn more about us, understand and love us more."

One major achievement in this regard, besides the international prizes and two highly praised albums like the "12 months, 4 seasons" and "She's not she," is the willingness of the Kronos Quartet to learn about Vietnam.

"While doing this project, they [the Kronos Quartet] researched Vietnamese culture, history and music very carefully. They watched documentaries about Vietnam, they were even able to access precious Vietnamese music tape recordings from before1930 that I believe we in Vietnam don't have any record of. I am so proud that I was able to work with them and be a bridge connecting them, the world, to our Vietnam, our dan tranh."

Reaching in

Anh said she found that the dan tranh was a new instrument not only to foreigners, but also to young Vietnamese, for whom it was a "strange voice they did not want to listen to." She felt she had the responsibility to "let them know."

"Young people don't listen to old music. They have a faster life, so they enjoy faster music. We can't force them to love the traditional culture.

"But they are the ones who will carry on our culture; they will feed our dan tranh music. So playing a new style of dan tranh music is the way we choose to reach them."

Based in San Francisco, Anh spends most of her time for music. Besides working on her various productions, she spends two days per week to teach dan tranh at a Vietnamese cultural center and at her own studio as well. Most of her students, who are aged from six to 82, are Vietnamese Americans. Others include Americans of Spanish and Indian origins.

Invited to perform at the Hoi ngo dan tranh event last week, the 36-year old artist paid her own travel and accommodation expenses. The 350 or so tickets (VND100,000 to VND500,000/ticket) for the concert were sold out. Organizers said they would use the money to organize another meeting for dan tranh lovers, the third Asian Dan Tranh Festival, which will take place next year.

"My contribution is very small. Like every dan tranh artist, I just want to do something to save our traditional music. Many other artists are playing old folksongs to remind us of another time, I choose to play new songs on my dan tranh to bring it closer to our times."

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