Vân-Ánh Võ’s ‘Songs of Strength’ Opens a Multilingual, Multi-Genre Musical Conversation

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

As one of the nation’s leading university-based arts presenters, Cal Performances boasts a century-long track record of bringing the world’s greatest performers to UC Berkeley. Perusing a Cal Perfs catalog can feel like planning a journey to Oz, with its tantalizing succession of shows that parachute audiences into scenes teeming with Technicolor creativity.

But after covering Cal Performances for a quarter century, it’s still hard to account for its lack of initiative when it comes to programming local artists. With apologies to the Sunflower State, the Bay Area ain’t Kansas. The international array of world-class choreographers, musicians, composers and multi-disciplinary performers residing here tends to fly under the organization’s radar, which is why Saturday’s world premiere Songs of Strength at Zellerbach Hall feels like Cal Perfs suddenly woke from a fever dream eyes wide with wonder to declare earnestly, “There’s no place like home!”

Created by Hanoi-born composer and Vietnamese traditional music master Vân-Ánh Võ, Songs of Strength is a three-part suite championing women’s resilience and independence with texts in English, Farsi and Vietnamese. More than polyglot, the production is kaleidoscopic, seeking to elucidate universal themes about the struggle for liberation by spinning the artists into unfamiliar terrain. Võ is the overarching conceptualist, but she’s spotlighting several leading Bay Area musicians, including Iranian singer/songwriter Mahsa Vahdat, breakdancer Babatunji “Tunjie” Johnson (who’s also a member of Alonzo King LINES Ballet) and Kev Choice, a rapper and jazz-steeped pianist with a long track record as a creative catalyst.

“Musically, it’s definitely outside the normal scope of what I’d rap over as a hip-hop artist,” says Choice, who contributes to four pieces throughout Songs of Strength. “I wanted to contribute as a lyricist, but not force hip-hop into it. The topics are very socially conscious, focusing on liberation and freedom. One piece is inspired by a Maya Angelou poem, where Vân is singing in Vietnamese and I’m rapping in English. And as an MC there’s some space for me to improvise, using freestyle technique.”

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Võ often performs for Vietnamese communities around California, but she’s also eagerly sought out collaborators who know little of her homeland. Her commitment to incorporating other traditions, languages and musical practices into her music flows from her sense of herself as a work in progress, “a traditional artist still taking classes with my masters,” Võ says during a video call from her home in the El Cerrito hills.

“I never think I can finish learning,” she says. “They provide a time machine to go back to the past, and I have to create music that reflects my thinking and future generations.”

At their best, the encounters are win-win, an exchange that breaks down barriers between people and deepens one’s art. “I can get influences and give influences, which can help us get closer,” she says. “A lot of people are afraid of sharing. They think whatever they have will be stolen away. I’m not afraid of that. I never use any technique or school of thought to replace what I am, only to make my technique and instrument better.”

Saturday’s concert is part of Cal Performances’ Illuminations: “Place and Displacement” series, which features performances, public programs and academic events designed to investigate the ripples of migration and demographic change. No stranger to Cal Performances audiences, Võ has performed at Zellerbach Hall several times in collaboration with Kronos Quartet, most recently in 2018 in the fully staged opera My Lai by composer Jonathan Berger and librettist Harriet Scott Chessman.

A rare exception to Cal Performances’ inattention to Bay Area-based artists, Kronos has been a primary conduit bringing local luminaries into the organization’s orbit (including Mahsa Vahdat, who also performs with the illustrious new music ensemble Thursday at Zellerbach). With Songs of Strength, Võ is holding the door opened by Kronos and ushering in a bevy of artists who’ve never played a Cal Performances engagement.

Songs of Strength features Võ’s Blood Moon Orchestra, which may sound like a grand designation for a quartet. But her wildly disparate cast of East Bay artists can create sumptuously dynamic musical settings, building on the singular rhythm section tandem of Oakland taiko drummer Jimi Nakagawa and Berkeley electric bassist Kai Eckhardt. Eckhardt is a co-founder of the jam band Garaj Mahal, and has toured and recorded with heavyweights like guitarist John McLaughlin, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and drummer Billy Cobham.

Blood Moon’s Joel Davel pivots between the rhythm section and melodic lead, providing orchestral accompaniment on marimba lumina, an electronic instrument with a limitless range of sonic possibilities. Võ spent several years scouting for the right percussionist or marimba player before she caught Davel performing with guitarist and composer Paul Dresher.

“I loved what he did,” she recalls. “He’s another person who wants to make his own instrument new, just like me. We find a lot in common. Let’s work together to create even more new sounds.”

Kev Choice, ever animated, performs at an event in West Oakland.
Kev Choice performs at an event in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

She plays a number of traditional instruments but her primary musical vehicle, besides her voice, is a custom-designed, zither-like dan tranh with four additional strings (for a total of 20).  Võ has honed extensive techniques: she uses a violin bow, a guitar effects box and various implements to strike the strings. Since many of the songs are in different keys, she brings several instruments on stage “so I do not have to torture the audience with retuning,” she says. The different instruments also allow her to assume various roles “to tell different stories and use different voices,” she says.

In many cases Võ collected her castmates along her wending trail of collaborations. She connected with Vahdat via Kronos Quartet and with Tunjie when LINES commissioned her to compose the score for the 2019 spring season. She quickly recognized that he possessed moves that didn’t hail from contemporary ballet. But even with King’s long history of setting dance to music from around the world, Tunjie had to dig deeply to embody the narratives sung in Vietnamese and Farsi.

“At first I was well out of my comfort zone,” Tunjie says. “Vân was asking that I approach it with some contemporary ballet, but more from a breakdancer or a popper’s viewpoint, challenging me to find out how I can express myself and the ideas in a different way. I so think I’m in a better position because of all the different music I’ve danced with LINES.”

A few weeks before showtime, Võ sounded both anxious and elated about the impending performance, which is now sold out. Regularly meeting to rehearse, the artists were still nailing down details and honing the production. She’s hoping that Songs of Strength takes on a life of its own beyond Saturday’s show, and that some of her collaborators get the chance to bring their own projects to Zellerbach.

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“We have such incredible artists here,” Võ says. “Sometimes what we do can easily be overlooked. You think of hip-hop and East Oakland, it’s almost like in a different world. Taiko is so powerful compared to my delicate instrument. I’m proud to have them all on the same stage.”