Vân-Ánh Võ Transforms a Refugee's Odyssey into a Musical Performance

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Vân-Ánh Võ playing the đàn tranh (Courtesy: Vân-Ánh Võ)

Whenever musician and composer Vân-Ánh Võ gets together with her friends in the Vietnamese American community, she says, "After having food, after having fun, we all end up talking how we came here."

Võ grew up in Hanoi and left in 1995, when the U.S. normalized relations with the Vietnam. But she learned that many of her friends in the South Bay's large Vietnamese-American community were "boat people," meaning they were part of the hundreds of thousands who fled Vietnam on overcrowded boats in the late '70s and survived terrible hardships on the South China Sea.

"And the more I hear about their story," Võ said, "the more I wanted to share this. Especially since the middle of last year, when boat people from Syria came on the news."

So Võ wrote The Odyssey: From Vietnam to America, a multimedia suite for quartet, video, audio samples and electronics. The music is about the terrors the boat people faced, which included "starvation, drowning, pirates."


But Võ says that the piece is also about how some on the boat kept up their spirits by humming lullabies to themselves, including this one from the south of Vietnam (translated by Võ):

"My little dear child, just sleep,
And I am here for you.
I know the road is not easy,
but I will take you in hand, and walk you.
And you know you have to take the exam,
but I have to take the test of life."

We talked last week in Võ's studio, located in the damp garage of her Fremont home, where she lives with her husband and two kids. Playing music is a family tradition -- her father played guitar in the North Vietnamese army during the war -- and her studio is crowded with instruments. She has won awards for her mastery of Vietnamese folk music and her skill with traditional instruments, especially the Vietnamese zither, which is called the đàn tranh. She has more than 20 đàn tranhs, many of her own design.

Van-Anh Vo playing a Dan Tranh of her own design
Vân-Ánh Võ playing a đàn tranh of her own design (Photo Credit: Cy Musiker)

Since her move to the U.S., Võ has won an Emmy for a documentary soundtrack she wrote, and she’s collaborated often with San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet.

Van-Anh Vo Album with Kronos Quartet
Van-Anh Vo Album with Kronos Quartet

For The Odyssey, she’s working with her own band, Vân-Ánh Võ Quartet, the members of which play cello, accordion, traditional Vietnamese instruments and Taiko drums. Her suite incorporates traditional sounds: Võ plays the đàn tranh, the single-stringed đàn bầu and a bamboo xylophone. Plus there are layers of electronics and even a version of the old blues song "House of the Rising Sun," included because Võ remembers when the 1964 version by The Animals became popular in Vietnam.

Vân-Ánh Võ Quartet (The VA’V) with Alex Kelly, cello, Jimi Nakagawa, taiko, and percussions, and Dan Cantrell, accordion
Vân-Ánh Võ Quartet (The VA’V) with Alex Kelly, cello, Jimi Nakagawa, taiko, and percussions, and Dan Cantrell, accordion (Photo Credit: Cy Musiker)

Võ did 60 interviews with boat people for her research, who she connected with through Santa Clara’s Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), founded in 1979 to provide medical and psychiatric services for Vietnamese refugees.

"Many in our community," said AACI's Michele Lew, "we know they would never walk through our mental health counseling door because of the stigma." But may find some therapeutic help by informing the artist and helping her get the story right.

Michelle Lew and Cam Vu of AACI
President Michelle Lew and Development Director Cam Vu of AACI (Photo Credit: Cy Musiker)

Mai Bui, a software engineer, shared her story with Võ. Bui lives in Milipitas, in a house where photos of her three daughters cover her mantle. She and her brother left their family behind in prison in 1979, and spent days on a crowded boat without food or water, until a Thai merchant ship towed them into Bangkok. They ran at night to avoid pirates.

"The ocean sound is really romantic," Bui recalled, "but at that time, it’s scary, up to this point I cannot look at the Ocean or the sea at night. It still bring back my memory."

Mai Bui
Mai Bui (Photo Credit: Cy Musiker)

Võ is having a busy new year. Besides performing her new suite, she’s also writing a đàn tranh concerto for the Oakland Symphony, which is set to premiere Feb. 12 at the Paramount Theater, and she’s performing Feb. 6 at SFJAZZ as part of the Kronos Festival. After that, she takes The Odyssey to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., then to Houston and Orange County, which is home to many Vietnamese Americans.

Võ says there’s a higher message in her music: a plea for nations to take in refugees, and a protest of the wars that divide us.

"To let unheard voices, be voiced," she said.