Overseas Vietnamese musician brings traditional music to the world

June 05, 2024 - 08:15
Vietnam News Agency interviews Nguyễn Minh Trang about her effort to preserve traditional music and introduce Vietnamese culture to the world.
AT HER FINGERTIPS: Traditional musician Nguyễn Minh Trang. Photo courtesy of the artist

Nguyễn Minh Trang is an independent musician who is living in Switzerland. She got her master’s degree in ethnomusicology at the Haute École de Musique de Genève in 2022.

She recently attended the Vietnam Global Leader Forum 2024 (VGLF) held by the Global Association of Vietnamese Scientists and Experts in Paris.

Vietnam News Agency interviews Trang about her effort to preserve traditional music and introduce Vietnamese culture to the world.

Could you tell us about the VGLF 2024? Were you excited to play a Vietnamese instrument at the Seine River?

I was honoured to attend the VGLF held in March. The event brings together more than 100 influential Vietnamese people in different fields from many countries around the world.

At the event, I was inspired by outstanding people who shared their projects and their desire to contribute to the development of Việt Nam even though they are in different fields working in different countries. Everyone has one thing in common -- patriotism.

I was very happy to perform melodies imbued with Vietnamese identity through ethnic instruments such as the zither and the t'rưng.

I chose to perform nhã nhạc, a royal court music genre recognised by UNESCO as an intangible piece of cultural heritage and folk music from the Central Highlands area.

I think in such a special space, when everyone is looking towards the homeland, the traditional musical melodies really touch the hearts of the audience. They are elite Vietnamese people despite where they live, and they always remember their homeland.

There are over five million Vietnamese abroad. What do you think about introducing parts of Vietnamese culture such as cuisine, language and music to the world?

Cultural promotion and cultural diplomacy are no longer a new thing, but have become a strategy for diplomacy and soft power for many countries.

I think culture, including language, cuisine or music shows the identity and characteristics of each country, making impressing people and making them remember that country more, thereby helping to promote the country's image and open up many opportunities for cooperation and development.

Luckily, I have joined diplomatic events since I studied at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music (VNAM) [in Hà Nội]. Traditional music has been selected for performances at the events to honour Vietnamese culture and history.

Traditional music reflects the cultural features, customs and human personalities of each region. When a musician plays music, he or she takes the audience to visit different regions of the country.

I am always proud to introduce traditional instruments to audiences in other countries. I am happy when the performances always receive a lot of love from and make an impression on international audiences.

Do you have any ideas to popularise traditional Vietnamese music in the world?

It is true that Vietnamese music and traditional music as well are still quite strange on the world music map.

While studying for a master's degree and interacting with music academics in Switzerland and Europe, I realised that Vietnamese music is not well known.

The number of books and research on traditional Vietnamese music is very small, making it difficult to access and learn in depth about this type of music.

So with a desire to research more deeply to preserve and develop traditional Vietnamese music, I did a master's degree in ethnomusicology - a major that focuses on ethnic world music.

In my graduation thesis about the Vietnamese zither, I researched the characteristics and identity of the instrument, its transformation through the ages, its history and culture and influences from zithers from China, Korea and Japan.

My research won the Swiss-Asian Music Research Association Award for "An outstanding research project related to cross-cultural communication".

This year, I'm participating in several projects at the Geneva Museum of Ethnology researching ancient Vietnamese musical instruments in Switzerland and France, helping prepare for an exhibition of ancient instruments including a number of Vietnamese musical instruments in Europe and contributing to a music research project in Việt Nam.

You were trained in Việt Nam, China and also in Switzerland. How do you compare arts education in these different environments? What good lessons can we learn?

I feel lucky to have studied at the VNAM, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and the Geneva Conservatory of Music. Each school is associated with a different time in my academic life.

The Shanghai Conservatory of Music is known for 'never turning off the lights' because of its exciting activities, master classes and concerts as well. Plus, students have opportunities to exchange ideas and practice performing.

The strict perfectionism and persistence of the Chinese people are two features that impressed me the most and also created a lot of pressure during my more than five years of studying there.

Even though the professor who taught me is now over 90 years old, he still diligently researches, writes documents and contributes to the development of his national music.

The Swiss emphasise individual opinions and independent thinking. The teacher only plays the role of guide and makes suggestions.

In your opinion, how can we encourage young overseas Vietnamese to learn traditional music?

Teaching traditional music abroad is not easy, and it is even more difficult in a place with few Vietnamese people like Switzerland.

However, in recent years, I have noted positive signs in teaching traditional music in Switzerland, as the number of students interested in traditional instruments is increasing.

Programmes to introduce and perform traditional music or projects that seek to connect with Vietnamese culture also receive more attention nowadays.

For example, there is a student who was born and raised in Switzerland and cannot speak Vietnamese, but when he graduated with a major in game design, he chose to make a game about Việt Nam due to his desire to promote the image of his motherland.

He wants to change the perspective of foreigners who only think of the war when talking about Việt Nam. He contacted me asking me to be a music advisor to help create music with traditional instruments to express the different emotions of the characters and settings in the game.

Since the first day I settled down in Switzerland eight years ago, I have always dreamed of being able to teach and promote traditional music and introduce the quintessence of Vietnamese music to Swiss people.

Gradually, everyone who came into contact with traditional instruments fell in love with them through watching my performances. Currently, I am teaching traditional music directly to students in Switzerland and France and teaching online to students in many countries around the world such as Việt Nam, Australia and the US.

I have a student who travels more than 100km to study the zither every week. I am currently preparing performances for students to participate in the World Music Festival (Festival musique du monde) in Switzerland at the end of June. VNS