An American admirer of Vietnamese music

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  American professor Alexander M. Cannon plays the dan tranh (long zither), a musical instrument used in don ca tai tu (traditional southern Vietnamese music)

Alexander M. Cannon, a young American music professor, has been researching about don ca tai tu (a traditional southern Vietnamese music genre) in Ho Chi Minh City.

The 29-year-old from Michigan, who speaks Vietnamese fluently, had just returned from a trip to Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta, where he had met with a don ca tai tu troupe.

Don ca tai tu originated in the delta, and, despite the historic upheavals, has not only survived but also thrived.

Vocals are an important part of don ca tai tu, with singers known for their ability to melodically vary pitches and tones. The singing is accompanied by several stringed instruments such as the monochord, lute, fiddle, and guitar.

Cannon started studying East Asian music at Pomona College in California in 2002. In 2005 he started learning Vietnamese. He got a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Michigan, and now teaches music at Western Michigan University in Michigan.

"I teach classical music but I also teach world music; I spend time with my students developing their interests," he tells Vietweek.

Unlike many other music teachers, his classes include lectures on Vietnamese music. "Some world music classes at other universities incorporate short discussions on Vietnamese music. Because I researched the subject at length, I spend one day teaching about Vietnamese music."

Many of his students do not know anything about Vietnam, and typically start with simple questions about what kind of music Vietnamese like.

Cannon speaks to them about traditional folk music, vocal music, and theatrical music. He then holds forth on other kinds of traditional music, such as ca tru (a popular folk music), cheo (traditional Vietnamese opera), and cai luong (modern folk opera).


Cross an ocean

He talks about authentic traditional music and Vietnamese culture and teaches them some don ca tai tu melodies.

But it is very challenging to teach the musical traditions of a country in one day, he points out.

Cannon won a scholarship to do doctoral research on Vietnamese traditional music in southern Vietnam. He spent 15 months in 2008 and 2009 living in HCMC and Can Tho, and spoke with don ca tai tu artists to learn about their music.

He says he was very impressed by the fact that after two musicians play together for the first time, they seem to get to know each other through the music. "They spoke to each other using the subtle nuances of don ca tai tu music," he explains admiringly.

He himself has learned to play the dan tranh (long zither) and the dan sen (two- or three-stringed lute).

"Many don ca tai tu musicians do not make a living from music. They work in offices; some of them work on the street, selling things. But during their free time, in the evening, they get together with friends and play music. In English, one might call them "˜amateurs,' but they are very good performers, some of the best in Vietnam.

"This kind of living creates flexibility. If I went to ask one of these artists to talk about their music, they usually accepted, even if it meant time away from a job such as selling things on the street. This showed me how important their music is to them."

Cannon is intrigued by don ca tai tu's spontaneous style, and by how the music is passed down from one generation to another.

"They study music from childhood but also go to school, but in their spare time they continue to perform music. [But] there are few opportunities to make a good living."

During his time in Vietnam he also had a chance to study under Professor Nguyen Vinh Bao, a music teacher and artist who performs traditional music in HCMC, and Meritorious Teacher Pham Thuy Hoan.

From Le Dinh Bich, a lecturer at Can Tho University, Cannon learned about the influence of Chinese and Khmer music on Vietnamese traditional music.

Talking about the changes he saw when he returned to the delta after a three-year gap, he said: "I see changes in some of the ways musicians draw upon new influences. Don ca tai tu artists hear different kinds of music which inspire and influence them.

"People draw from what they experience, who they talk to. If their daily lives change, the music changes. That makes music alive."

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