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The Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Water Puppet Theater in Hà Nội, Việt Nnam.

The music and instruments of Việt Nam are captivating. As rich a tradition as any other country in Asia, Vietnamese is also a prestissimo language perfectly suited to the sounds of their evocative culture.

Our Los Angeles International New Music Festival program on July 9 at REDCAT will focus on old enemies and rivals being transformed through music. Cuba, Việt Nam, México and Japan. As Americans we have had complicated relations with all of them, and it often can seem like some of the problems are ongoing.

As Ricardo Gallardo and I kept discussing ideas for this festival, we agreed that music can often succeed where business and politics stumble, and hit upon this concert to open new friendship between old adversaries.

Hanoi's Vu Nhat Tan at our first festival in 2012.

Hà Nội’s Vũ Nhật Tân at our first festival in 2012.

Back to Việt Nam. My friend Vũ Nhật Tân had sent me a percussion piece that had sat on my shelf. Often good pieces take time to find their way on to a program. But I remembered the piece in the nick of time and brought it with me to México City this April to see if Ricardo would agree to include it in our programs, which he did with great enthusiasm.

Written for the opening concert of the Fireworks Percussion Ensemble, the first percussion ensemble in the history of Việt Nam, Tân’s Young Rice balances past, present and future as he recalls the ways of traditional Vietnamese music.

Ancient Ca Tru music.

Ancient Ca Trù music in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter.

One style of that old Vietnamese music should not be missed if you visit Hà Nội, and it was deemed an Intangible Cultural Resource by UNESCO in 2009. Tân had answered my curiosity about Ca Trù music, a Vietnamese version of Noh Theatre. Why had it been banned?  Seems the French had abused performances for prostitution and opium. Luckily for us all, times have changed and this music is vibrant again.

But there is so much more! The Water Puppets in Hà Nội are a delight, and their stories have perhaps the most  sense of humor in all of Asia. Originating in the wet rice fields of Northern Việt Nam, the puppeteers are behind a scrim deep in water, manipulating their marionettes with considerable aplomb.

A Water Puppet processsion.

A Water Puppet processsion.

But for me, it’s the music that makes me take in a performance every time I’m in Hà Nội!

Cheo music accompanies the famous Water Puppets.

Cheo music accompanies the famous Water Puppets in Hà Nội.

As I mentioned in my last post about Toshio Hosokawa, balancing tradition and progress are paramount throughout Asia. Tan’s father was a gifted musician of these old ways, as you can see by a photo from their Hà Nội apartment.

Old instruments line the wall in Tan's Hanoi apartment.

Old instruments line the wall in Tân’s Hà Nội apartment.


An old đàn tranh in Tân’s house.

And like father, like son. Vũ Nhật Tân is an encyclopedia of Việt Nam’s music as he proved in Hà Nội at an improvising session with our players on Silk Street in the Old Quarter in 2010. The wood flutes he has are over hundred years old!

Vu Nhat Tan's ancient wood flutes.

Vũ Nhật Tân’s ancient wood flutes.

Young Rice follows the world of Tân’s ancestors, and as a recent email explained “the piece is written for undefined percussion instruments, no bars at all, and focuses on composing like a traditional Vietnamese music. My idea was to write a scoring plan (50%) and let the player do the rest of improvising (50%), as would happen in every Vietnamese old music. I am very happy Tambuco will play my music for the first time in the United States!”

Talking over coffee about music is always a good idea! From Cộng Cà Phê in Hà Nội (a favorite reader post of mine) to Veracruz in México, there are delicious ways to percolate concepts and ideas. Ricardo and I hatched quite a few at the legendary La Parroquia in Veracruz, known for its tea with milk, and the instant response of the staff if you want a refill. How? Just tap your spoon against your glass and a server will be at your side! A great place for a percussionist!

Behind the scenes with Ricardo in Veracruz as we discuss Tan's music at La Parroquia.

Behind the scenes with Ricardo Gallardo in Veracruz as we discuss Tân’s music, and thoughts about Asia, at the legendary coffee shop La Parroquia.

I’ll write soon about more of the pieces for the upcoming Los Angeles International New Music Festival. Cuba and Việt Nam on the same program? What’s not to like?!?

Best, best, best,