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Make music, not war: an exchange with Vietnam

May 8, 2010 |  1:00 pm

The Vietnamese met us through the quiet American and the ugly American. They have feared our napalm and agent; and we, their communism. 

Now we import their food and send them our businessmen and tourists. Like much of the world, Vietnam is hooked on our popular culture. Ours, that is to say, that of the U.S. and Vietnam, is a relationship complicated by rude history.

But friendship has ensued since we established diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995. This year, recognizing that 15th anniversary, which coincides with the considerably more impressive 1,000th anniversary of the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, the U.S. State Department helped underwrite the largest cultural exchange so far between our two countries. Initiated by Southwest Chamber Music in Pasadena, the Ascending Dragon Festival invited Vietnamese and American composers and musicians to spend time in both countries performing together and getting to know one another. 

The State Department likely won’t find much of value from any surveys it asks of the participants, and I don’t think Americans got very far trying to impress our arts business models on Vietnamese.  But friendships were established.  The real action was under the radar, such as when, on Monday, the last night of Ascending Dragon, a quirky American cellist, Peter Jacobson, hosted a quirky Vietnamese composer, Vu Nhat Tan, for a jam session with refreshments that went until dawn. 

On Sunday, I offer some observations from here and there about the exhange.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: American cellist Peter Jacobson, left, and Vietnamese composer Vu Nhat Tan preparing an improvisation at Thang Long Gallery in Hanoi. Credit: Chau Doan / For the Los Angeles Times