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Vietnamese guitar show strikes at '5 Venoms'

Dang Vu
Dang Vu

Dang Vu, a senior studying biology, will present "An Evening of Vietnamese Guitar" on Friday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m. in the MIT Coffeehouse on the third floor of the Student Center.

His band, Living Incense, will perform "The Five Venoms Style," an original piece composed by Vu for electric "Vietnamized" guitar, drums and electronics. There will also be a demonstration of classical guitar by Vo Thanh Binh and friends.

Vu, the 2004 recipient of the List Foundation Fellowship for his project entitled "The Five Venoms Style: A Celebration of Mutant Culture," pays homage to the late Hong Kong film director Chang Cheh, best known for the martial arts film "Five Deadly Venoms" (1977). The film was influential for both its artistry and its unusual mystery plot, which featured five suspects who can only be identified through their kung fu styles: Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard and Toad.

Vu's "The Five Venoms Style" consists of five movements, each characterizing one of these animals and martial arts styles.

Vu's project goals, he says, are twofold. He aspires to celebrate the global exchange of culture and to find his own musical voice, one that Vu calls "identifiably Vietnamese regardless of the many other influences that are present."

"Rarely independent, often invaded and dominated, [the Vietnamese have] faced long periods ��� of concerted efforts by foreign powers to subvert our culture," Vu writes. "However, because we have always found a way to remain defiantly Vietnamese, however covertly, we always eventually regained our sovereignty."

In the United States, there is more benign pressure to assimilate, and less of a connection with his cultural roots. He says "we have to work with what is available and familiar to us" -- electric guitar, rock music and interaction with cultural products from around the world. But, ultimately, he says his aim is to "produce something that is Vietnamese but honest to the community of which we are a contributing part."

Vu, who rediscovered Vietnamese music a few years ago, wanted to learn how to perform it and to compose songs that have recognizable elements of the form. As a guitarist, Vu was excited when he realized there was a Vietnamese tradition of guitar. "I liked how the instrument was actually converted for Vietnamese music," he says.

To "Vietnamize" his guitar, Vu carved out the spaces between the frets to create a deep indentation. "This gives the space to really push on the string and change the pitch of the note after it is plucked to perform the ornamentations necessary for Vietnamese music," he says.

The List Foundation Fellowship Program (LFFP), established by the MIT Office of the Arts in 1992 with support from the Albert A. List Foundation, is granted annually in support of personal artistic expression coupled with racial and cultural exploration. The LFFP awards up to $5,000 to one undergraduate for a yearlong project in the performing, literary, visual or media arts. The program has continued with support from the James L. Knight Foundation in 1999 and the Office of the Provost in 2000.

"An Evening of Vietnamese Guitar" is free and open to the public. For more information, call x3-2341.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 21, 2005 (download PDF).

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