Vietnamese-Danish jazz pianist and composer Niels Lan Doky is in Viet Nam to perform in a concert entitled Vong Nguyet (Wishing Upon the Moon 2011) alongside local musicians. Doky is one of Denmark's most prestigious cultural icons. His extensive recording career, which began in 1986, includes over 33 albums. He spoke to Culture Vulture about his life, career and co-operation with Vietnamese musicians.
Were you selected to perform at the 40th anniversary of Danish-Vietnamese diplomatic relationship because of your nationality or talent?
I think it makes sense for me to be a part of this because I'm half Vietnamese, half Danish. Besides that, I've had a long history of collaboration with local musicians, working on projects with [singer] Thanh Lam and [composer] Quoc Trung since 1998.
On my 1999 album Asian Session, we explored our Asian roots and toured Denmark together alongside playing TV shows in Paris.
The experience opened up a completely new world to me, having been largely unfamiliar with Vietnamese music up to that point. It proved to be one of the most inspiring projects I've ever been involved in. Since then I've also collaborated with various European, American and Vietnamese groups.
I look forward to introducing Vietnamese music to European audiences, amongst others. People still retain stereotyped images of Asian singers and are usually much surprised when hearing Lam and Trung. What he does is really interesting, the way he merges modern, contemporary singing with traditional Vietnamese instruments while also adapting folk songs and cheo (traditional opera).
It's a wonderful experience to have people from different backgrounds create music together. I think this is one of the truly magical elements of music.
Is there any plan to work with Vietnamese musicians after Vong Nguyet?
Yes, definitely. I'm currently working on an international festival project in Denmark, to start at the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013, at which I would like a Vietnamese segment to promote local music.
In 2006, a group of nine Vietnamese musicians took part in the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, one of the largest and oldest in Europe.
I would like to keep working with Trung, Lam and other local musicians, a process that always affects and influences me deeply.
Your biography states that you are among the most popular jazz artists in Japan. Why?
Over the years, Japan has become known as one of the largest jazz markets.
Many famous American and European jazz artists play most of their concerts and earn most of their money in Japan. American jazz pianist Kenny Drew, who moved to Denmark in 1962 and died in 1993, used to be the No 1 jazz artist in Japan. Upon his death, Kenny's producer came to me and said, "Would you like to take over his contract?" I ended up doing a couple of good records for which I won a number of awards and gained a large following in Japan.
When the economic crisis hit the country, Japan lost some of its prestige as a jazz market. Alongside many of my colleagues, loads of musicians have since moved on to play in South Korea.
Asia is one of the most rapidly changing regions in the world, making it an exciting destination for any musician at the moment.
I was very honoured to play a part in Vong Nguyet and for my father to be in the audience here in Ha Noi, the town in which he was born.
Why did you wait until 2010 to return to Denmark?
I first left for America and France in 1981, having been afraid of growing too comfortable in Denmark due to its exceptional lifestyle. Too many talented Danish musicians' careers have gone nowhere.
In the other two countries you have to fight a little harder to survive, which serves creativity pretty well.
I like to immerse myself in a challenging environment where I'm rarely afforded a chance to take things for granted or lose energy.
However, I eventually realised that a lot depends on my own approach and returned to Denmark just in time for the re-opening of an old legendary jazz club.
It's also nice to be closer to my parents in their old age.
Still driven and ambitious, I'm trying to elevate local music to an international standard, working with two young Danish musicians who form part of my regular trio. We travel all over the world together.
You are working on your third film. What motivated you to become part of this industry?
My first jazz film, Between a Smile and a Tear, was released in 2004, largely influenced by Buena Vista Social Club, a Cuban music documentary directed by Wim Wenders.
Well received, the film opened additional doors for me within the industry. It's nice to have a fresh challenge after all these years of recording and performing. — VNS