Van-Anh Vanessa Vo Demonstrates Vietnamese Culture and Music


Van-Anh Vanessa Vo plays the Vietnamese dan t’rung (left) and other instruments in Brehmer Theater.

Alex Weimer, Class of 2020

Emmy Award-winning composer Van-Anh Vanessa Vo performed in the Dana Arts Center’s Brehmer Theater on Friday, September 22. Vo comes from a family of musicians, and at the age of four she began learning how to play the dan tranh zither, a traditional Vietnamese instrument. During her visit to Colgate, Vo played this instrument as well as two others: the dan bau and the dan t’rung. In addition to her performances, Vo took the time to address the audience and educate them on Vietnamese culture and music. 

Vo discussed the idea of the master-apprentice relationship in Vietnam, where there are 54 ethnic groups, each with a different take on culture and music. As a result of this, there are different masters for different regional music. In Vietnam, masters do not usually teach someone who is not a part of their family, so to earn lessons from her first master, Vo spent three years helping out around his house. Once he took her in as an apprentice, the master not only treated Vo as a student, but as part of the family. Masters are very influential in Vietnam because they carry with them the cultural roots of each region and pass them down from one generation to the next. 

“It is important to have new experiences, but to always remember your past and where you came from,” Vo said. 

A perfect reflection of this idea, Vo’s music is the intersection of modernity and tradition. She often plays tracks of hip hop-beats on her laptop and plays over them with the dan tranh zither. Other times, Vo adapts current songs and plays them on her traditional instruments. For example, she played rock and roll on her dan t’rung, an instrument that resembles a bamboo xylophone.

Vo also stressed the incorporation of Vietnamese tradition and culture of everyday life in her music. In one song, she performed using her dan bau, a monochord instrument, over a track of the voices and sounds of everyday life in central Vietnam. 

Vo also invited the audience to assist her with one song in order to demonstrate an aspect of Vietnamese culture. Because Vietnam is a coastal region, fishing plays a large role in the country, Vo explained. She asked the audience to stand up and “cast a net” to one side and pull it back while exclaiming “hei” to a specific beat, and then played over this sound with her instruments. 

This wasn’t the end of the audience participation. Vo began bringing ordinary objects out onto the stage and asked the audience what they were. The first object that was brought out was a small pair of tea cups. She explained that after dinner, Vietnamese people would want to make music. Vo proceeded to stack the cups together and demonstrated how they worked as instruments – the rattling of the cups together produced a percussion-like sound. Vo invited members of the audience on stage and gave each one various objects to so that they could perform with her. 

“Do not worry about right or wrong when you play music. Play from your heart.  Music is a conversation without words, however you feel you need to respond will be right,” Vo said.

Contact Alex Weimer at [email protected].