Language is Also Music: Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center

ACTA - Posted on 25 March 2009

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Text and photos by Lily Kharrazi, Living Cultures Grants Program Manager

A family looks on as master musician Vanessa Vo Van Tranh demonstrates the bamboo xylophone known as the dan t’rung.Twenty-two years ago, twelve Vietnamese children were transported to a location outside of their San Francisco Tenderloin neighborhood for Saturday language school.  It was one way in which working parents could be assured that their children were under supervision and away from the tough and transitional neighborhood where many refugees were living.  What had begun with a modest number of participants has evolved into a thriving language and culture school serving over 200 youth, ages 6-18, on a weekly basis.  “We only had a van that could seat six at a time and so we did two trips that first year,” explained Mr. Anh Ngo, a parent-volunteer who shared the history of the school with me on a recent visit to this current Living Cultures Grants Program grantee.

The Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center is a nonprofit organization run entirely by volunteer efforts like those of Mr. Ngo’s.  Although his own children are now away at college, he remains an active volunteer with the Saturday school, as are all of the language teachers, participating artists, and leadership of this organization.  They began as a language school in 1983, first established by the Vietnamese Elderly Mutual Assistant Association of San Francisco, offering one of the first Vietnamese language classes in Northern California.  As the needs of the community began to reflect increased levels of acculturation (an estimated population of over 150,000 makes the Bay Area their home), the need to maintain a connection to language and traditional arts became more critical for the community.  “The children heard Vietnamese at home,” Mr. Ngo said, “but answered us in English.”  While not an unusual circumstance for any non-English speaking immigrant community, the community was very well aware that language loss only takes a generation.  The backdrop to all of these efforts, however, was the not too distant past of Vietnamese traumas suffered because of the Vietnam War of the 1960’s and 70’s.  A legacy of trauma is another compelling motive to want a way of life to thrive and not disappear.

Announcing the special events of the day which include a music presentation by master musicians.Responding to all these factors, the Saturday school emerged as a way to provide cultural continuity to the next generation.  The arts have always played a role in the study of language, highlighting the nuances and subtleties of cultural values that do indeed get lost in translation.  Through a grant from the Living Cultures Grants Program, the Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center is offering a series of hands-on music workshops to introduce Vietnamese folk songs and traditional instruments to its youth.  Two accomplished musicians are the cornerstone of the new program.  Master artist Vanessa Vo Van Anh comes to the program as a graduate with distinction from the National Conservatory of Music in Hanoi.  She also served as a music professor at the esteemed school.  A multi-instrumentalist, she is known for her mastery of the dan tranh, a 16-stringed zither, for which she won a national championship competition in 1995.  In addition to teaching privately in Fremont, Ms. Van Anh also composes soundtracks for cinema.  As Ms. Van Anh played the beautiful dan tranh, the versatility of the instrument filled the large gymnasium easily.  She next demonstrated the dan t’rung, a bamboo xylophone.  There were opportunities for the children to learn to play the tuned bamboo sticks in percussive rhythms.

String instruments of the East and West: Teaching and performing for the youth are Unity Nguyen on guitar and Vanessa Vo Van Anh on dan tranh, a 16-stringed zither.The other teaching artist is Unity Nguyen, a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist.  Ms. Nguyen, who came from Vietnam when she was three years old, describes that although she was raised here, she was surrounded by her large artistic Vietnamese family who were always involved in cultural activities, be it preparing for communal celebrations with decorations, gathering props for folk theater, or music and singing.  With her many interests in music, she also possesses proficiency in the West African 21-stringed harp or kora, which she uses in much the same fashion as the Vietnamese dan tranh.  She sings songs from Vietnam and accompanies herself on the kora.  Ms. Nguyen embodies for the new generation of Vietnamese-American youth a curiosity and fluency with other cultural forms, but she insists that knowing your own cultural legacy is the foundation that lets you explore other cultures with integrity.

Children sing and play a clapping game.  The teachers were able to engage and work extremely well with groups of youth who, divided by age, entered the school gym in 30 minute intervals to hear music, sing, and participate in interactive folk songs and hand clapping games.Program Director for Youth and Adults, Le Hang, explains that one of the organization’s goals is to fully participate in the cultural life of San Francisco.  The children participate in public events such as the autumn Lunar Festival and New Year celebrations sharing their music and dance.  A new component for teenagers will be to develop a theater/dance piece based upon the stories of their families’ arrival to the United States, which for the first time in over 30 years is just starting to be shared with many of the younger generation.

The opportunities afforded the young people through the Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center by learning the gift of their mother tongue is akin to the myth that informs the name of the organization.  Au Co, it was explained to me, refers to a mythical crane, a mother archetype whose sack of 100 eggs created the world as we know it.  Half of the eggs went to the sea but she flourished with her 50 eggs on land which gave birth to the people of Vietnam.  The Au Co myth is a symbol of the motherland and the San Francisco cadre of dedicated volunteers has shown well what it means to nurture and protect your charges for the future.

Ms. Hang Le To, Program Director, wears a traditional Vietnamese dress which has embroidered on it the mythical crane known as Au Co.

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