West Valley City’s Vietnamese community has grown deep roots in Utah, but many second-generation immigrants have fading cultural ties to the country their parents called home.
Lan Nguyen, an accomplished musician in West Valley who teaches Vietnam’s folk music to the young people in her community, is an essential link to that rising generation’s oldest traditions.
Nguyen moved from Vietnam in 1990 with her husband and two daughters after years of trying to flee her homeland. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the end of the Vietnam War, her husband was detained as a political prisoner for one 10-year stint, and then again for an additional five years.
While she longed to escape her nation’s government, her love for Vietnam’s traditions never wavered. Since she was 7, Nguyen had been driven to play the Vietnamese string instrument known as a dan tranh, even though her mother disapproved of her daughter pursuing what she called a “low-level” profession. So she practiced when no one else was home.
“I put the instrument under my bed,” Nguyen said. “She didn’t know.”
Her passion carried her to the Saigon National Music School, where she studied during her high-school years. After graduating in 1970, she eventually became the Saigon Opera’s lead dan tranh player and was a pioneer in transcribing traditional Vietnamese folk songs on Western sheet music, enabling more people to learn and preserve the country’s musical heritage.
When her husband was finally released, her family was able to secure refugee status from the U.S. government and moved to Utah based on the recommendation of a family friend.
Once a renowned performer in her native country, Nguyen settled into a new role as an anonymous factory worker who taught music in her spare time. Eventually, her profile in West Valley’s Vietnamese community grew as she taught a growing number of immigrants to play the folk instruments of their home.
In 2004, she formed the Lac Viet Band with some of her students, and they began playing to receptive audiences at the Living Traditions Festival, the Asian Festival and the Pioneer Days Youth Parade.
Many of Nguyen’s young students don’t speak Vietnamese as well as their immigrant parents. But they know the music and the instruments that bind them to their home.
“That’s my dream come true,” she said.
But the music Nguyen loves has the ability to transcend cultures, and her new mission is to bring it to a larger community. In 2011, Nguyen brought some of Vietnam’s most renowned musicians to West Valley for a concert at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. Michael Christensen, the center’s folklorist and cultural specialist, said Nguyen reached out to him and asked if the center would be interested. Christensen was glad he said yes.
“The concert was amazing,” he said.
This Saturday, Nguyen is bringing back the Vietnamese artists and teaming up with her next-door neighbor, Clive Romney, a Utah musician who plays Western and pioneer folk songs.
Nguyen said the two became interested in one another’s music when Romney heard her playing the dan tranh while passing by her house and asked if he could come in and listen. Soon, he brought over his guitar, and they began to play together. It was a good match, she said.
Nguyen’s latest performance at UCCC, part of the center’s ongoing “Seeing and Hearing Vietnam” exhibit, will blend the two styles of music, with its centerpiece being a reinterpreted version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.” It’s a fitting song because Nguyen hopes that despite the differences in cultures, the music they share will inspire people to do just that.
“You can hear music, and you can know people,” she said.
If you go
P “Come Together,” a blend of Eastern and Western musical styles featuring Lan Nguyen and Clive Romney, is from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, 3600 S. Constitution Blvd., West Valley City. Admission is free.