Phong Nguyen is one of the foremost exponents of Vietnamese music in the West and a recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship, this nation's highest honor for achievement in the traditional arts awarded at the White House (1997). Raised in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, he comes from a family of prominent musicians conversant in musical genres that span the Vietnamese musical spectrum from theatrical to chamber music, folk songs to Buddhist chants. He is a traditionally-trained musician who studied with a village master from the age of five. At the age of 13, he took up Vietnamese theater music and went on to perform both cai luong (reformed theater) and hat boi (classical theater) styles professionally.
He sings a large repertoire of dan ca (folksongs from rural settings) and is also master of the complex modal system of tai tu music, a more formal entertainment musical tradition. He also studied with mountain tribal musicians and learned the goong, broh, hi ho, and t'rung bamboo instruments.
He left his native land in 1974 and went on to receive his doctorate in ethnomusicology from the Sorbonne University. Since moving to this country he has performed extensively throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe and taught at the University of Washington, U.C.L.A., and Kent State University. He can be heard on the Lyrichord, New Alliance Records, and Music of the World/World Music Institute labels.
World Music Institute, 1999
Vietnamese Musician & Scholar
Wedged between the powerful civilizations of China and India, Vietnamese musical culture is complex and dynamic. The ebb and flow of conflict and cultural influence for over a 1,00O years has left strong marks on Vietnamese music notions of scale and mode, instrument types, and ornamented vocal style. while Vietnamese musicians continuously adapted foreign elements, their music maintained its cultural character, an identity defined by repertoite, special modes and stylistic nuances, categories of music, and other traits. Recent wartime destruction, dislocation, and the powerful attraction of Western popular music have once again challenged the distinctiveness of the Vietnamese musical tradition, and few leaders have met that challenge.
In the United States, Phong Nguyen (Nguyen Thuyet Phong, in Vietnamese) - musician, scholar, and cultural advocate - has heen the principal voice of his musical tradition. Phong Nguyen brings a rare and extraordinary combination of talents to his work. He is a traditionally-trained musician who studied with a village master from age five. He was a Buddhist novice for ten years, learning the chant and instrumental accompaniment of nhac le (ritual music) tradition. At age 10, he took up the Vietnamese theater music and went on to perform both cai luong (reformed theatre) and hat boi (court musical theatre) styles professionally.
He sings a large repertoire of dan ca (folksongs from informal, rural life settings) and at the same time is a master of the complex modal system (called dieu) of nhac tai tu music, a more fornal entertainment musical tradition still active in the United States. He also studied with tribal musicians and learned the klongput (bamboo tubes), goong (bamboo tube zither), hiho (bundle flutes) and tírung (bamboo xylophone).
Nguyen pointed out that because the separation of social classes is minimal in Vietnamese culture, folk music and art music share many traits and are more similar than in Western societies. "The folk music is principally vocal," he says, explaining their differences. "Meanwhile, in art music thereís vocal and instrumental music together. Folk songs are sung without accompaniment. Theyíre chanted in the fields while people are working. They donít bring instruments with them."
While he is competent on many Vietnamese instruments, he often focuses on the 17-string dan tranh zither and the two-string dan nguyet (long-necked "moon" lute). A soft-spoken man of gentle demeanor, Phong Nguyen left his native land in 1974, one year before the fall of the Saigon government. He first stayed in France, where he performed frequently and earned a doctoral degree in Ethnomusicology from the Sorbonne University in 1982. He then resettled in the United States and taught at Kent State University, the University of Washington, and UCLA.
He has since performed and taught extensively throughout the U.S. and the world, reaching Vietnamese Americans who have limited access to their musical heritage and American audiences. He has many recordings on several labels to his credit, including Traditional Music of Vietnam on Lyrichord, Vietnamese Music in France & the United States on World Music Enterprises, and Song of the Banyan on Music of the World/World Music Institute.
National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, D.C., 1997