American singer goes native in Vietnam

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  Curtis King (R) and Vietnamese artist and Nguyen Anh Thi, a member of the Mat Troi Moi (New sun) band, perform at Hard Rock Café in Ho Chi Minh City

It is Friday night at the Hard Rock Café in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. At 9 p.m. American singer Curtis King starts to sing rock songs from 60 years ago. He is joined by a group of Vietnamese and international artists.

Off to one side, around 10 other artists waited around a table for their turn to join King's band onstage. It was a big concert, and King was finally joined by nearly 20 artists from various countries.

King, who began playing the guitar when he was just four, said he has recently been focusing on a combination of jazz, blues, rock, classical, fusion, and flamenco, along with a touch of "Eastern" music.

The 44-year-old now plays the guitar, trumpet, and accordion. He left home in Ohio at the age of 18 and has been traveling the world since. He visited Vietnam in 1997, and in 2003 moved bag and baggage to HCMC.

Before he arrived here he was singing and playing music in Spain, China and Singapore. King said he often travels around Vietnam and abroad to perform and organize shows in Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Cambodia and China.

Before he embarked on this chapter of his musical journey, he got an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, the US, in 1991.

King told Vietweek: "For three years I played music in Singapore. I also worked as the general manager of a music company. It was during the time of SARS, and nightlife became quiet there, so I moved to HCMC."

After singing for six years in HCMC in clubs such as Sax' n Art and the Hard Rock Café, King moved to Da Lat after getting married three years ago.

He met his wife, who works at the Dalat Palace Hotel, when she helped him arrange performances at the hotel. After seeing each other for five years they decided to get married.

Now King plays at V Cafe, which they own together. He also plays at Escape Bar at the Blue Moon Hotel in Dalat together with a Filipino musician.

He said sometimes his wife joins and sings cai luong (reformed southern theater) songs.

"I love cai luong and gong, music from the Highlands. I love traditional instruments," he said.

Traditional music inspiration

King, who has shared the stage with many famous Vietnamese performers like singer Siu Black, saxophonist Tran Manh Tuan, and rocker Tran Anh Khoa, believes that the best music in Vietnam is made by the older generation. He reckons those musicians are more talented and creative than younger artists.

He himself draws great inspiration from dan bau (monochord zither), a traditional Vietnamese instrument. He uses it in his blues numbers, and it is ubiquitous in his blues CD, "Steam Train."

For live shows, he invites Vietnamese artists who play traditional instruments to perform along with him.

Nguyen Anh Thi, an artist from the Mat Troi Moi (new sun) band who played the dan bau along with him last Friday at the Hard Rock Café, is "one of my favorite Vietnamese artists. She plays five or six different traditional musical instruments. She has a very good ear for music and can also play modern songs."

King said nowadays most music is created on computers and it all sounds similar.

This spontaneous artist is constantly looking for new sounds to connect with his audiences.

He said two weeks ago he went to Dambri Waterfall in Bao Loc Town (near Da Lat) and recorded the sound of the waterfall for about 30 minutes. He also recorded sounds at Luc Lake in the Central Highlands for his new CD.

King has already recorded 50 songs with other artists.

Talking about connecting artists and organizing performances, he said he can match different music styles and artists even if they have never met each other before.

"We keep music simple so that anybody, any good musician, can listen and play with the band. We never practice before performances. Because we travel around a lot and the band is always different. Some people (artists) come and are never seen again."

In his role as organizer, he has to take care of everything including payment, transportation, hotel, communicating with bar managers, etc.

"It is difficult to make it work well. But I like doing it.

"For me it is easy, I have been doing it for so many years, 15 years."

King speaks Vietnamese at home with his wife and his two children.

"I like speaking Vietnamese with them: it is so much fun.

"I learn Vietnamese from them and I watch them grow up."

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