March 26, 2009

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.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.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.