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He already speaks Vietnamese relatively fluently, but he's only been here a year. It's just one of the many testaments to Alexander Cannon's love for Vietnam and dedication to his studies.

Cannon arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in June 2008 looking to unlock the secrets of some of Vietnam's oldest and rarest music forms.

The 25-year-old Michigan University student and lecturer got here on a Fulbrightâ€"Hays fellowship, which has allowed to him to pursue his Ph.D. thesis on Vietnamese music.

'Amateur' music

Before falling for traditional Vietnamese music, Cannon had explored music from throughout Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, and Thailand as an ethnomusicology student. But it was Vietnamese music, especially the traditions from the south and the royal court music of Hue, that really spoke to him.

He began studying the music but knew something was missing.

"The books and articles I read did not satisfy my desire to really learn the music," Cannon said. "So I decided to do something different."

After meeting Kent State University Professor Dr. Nguyen Thuyet Phong, a master of traditional Vietnamese music, Cannon knew he had found his mentor. He found Dr. Phong's lectures inspiring and the professor encouraged him to travel to Vietnam to see for himself first-hand what the traditions and cultures were like.

Cannon then booked a ticket.

Once he got to HCMC, Cannon began studying with Dr. Tran Van Khe and 92-year-old ethnomusicologist Vinh Bao, probably the country's most well-known traditional music scholar.

It was Bao that first taught Cannon about what is now his favorite Vietnamese music: nhac tai tu.

Nhac tai tu, which translates to Southern Amateur Music, is so-called because it's never sung on a stage and was not meant to employ the pretenses of professional performers. It is simply played and sung any time any place.

'The soul of the melody'

Falling in love with nhac tai tu in HCMC, Cannon knew he had to go deeper into Vietnam, to where the music had originated and where its masters lived.

So he went down to the Mekong Delta and began studying under Le Dinh Bich at the University of Can Tho. And then he fell in love again â€" this time with one of Vietnam's most beautiful instruments, the dan sen (a banjo-like stringed instrument).

When Alex was first introduced to the dan tranh (seventeen-stringed Vietnamese zither) by Professor Bao in HCMC, he thought he had found his dream instrument. But it was not the dan sen that Cannon called his "love at first sight."

"It was really strange," he said. "I thought it was made just for me."

According to teacher Dinh Bich, Cannon can now play the dan sen skillfully after only a short time studying with Can Tho teacher Tran Minh Duc.

"He can bring out the soul of the melody," said Bich.

Sweet memories

Cannon said that after leaving Can Tho, he would travel to Hue to study royal court music before returning to the US to finish his thesis this September. He said he plans to do more studying in Vietnam in the future.

Cannon has said that he hopes in his thesis to describe the role of tradition in an increasingly globalizing country and how musicians "perform complex identity constructions" through invoking traditions and traditional music.

By living in Vietnam, especially during his Can Tho home-stay with instructor Le Thi Huyen from the Can Tho University, Cannon said his time here had so far been a chance "not only to study the music, but also explore the culture and lifestyle here.

"I've been so touched and so lucky to receive so much passion and knowledge from Vietnamese music experts... this time has been full of sweet memories I'll keep my whole life."

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