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CSEAS Lecture Series. Tradition Never Dies: “Lắng nghe,” Active Listening, and Activism in Contemporary Vietnam

Alexander M. Cannon, Lecturer in Music, University of Birmingham
Friday, March 19, 2021
12:00-1:00 PM
This event is free and open to the public; please register at
Friday, March 19, 2021, 12 PM EST

Tradition always seems to be dying, or so say “the experts.” Scholars at academic conferences, diplomats at UNESCO, and government policy makers have belabored tradition’s downfall for decades as evidence of the necessity of intervention. Frequently, however, these interventions hide ulterior motives—for scholars, codifying traditions advance their careers; for diplomats, supporting the documentation of art bolsters tradition for consumption; for policy makers, selectively supporting certain practices over others serves nation-building strategies. These experts also tend to ignore the voices of practitioners themselves. Had these experts listened, they would have understood that tradition remains firmly tied to everyday life and even activism.

In this presentation, I examine how “tradition” lives a vibrant life in contemporary Vietnam and suggest that we retire the trite adage that tradition is dying. Tradition is tested, certainly, and frequently is reframed and revised; indeed, one genre of southern Vietnamese opera, cải lương, includes renovation (cải) in the genre name. Television shows, films, and popular music present many examples of how tradition does not simply inspire but is actively practiced and carried forward. In the television show Tài tử miệt vườn (Countryside Amateur), singers of southern Vietnamese traditional music from all walks of life receive praise from a panel of established singers and teach traditional music to viewers within a flashy gameshow format. In the film Song Lang (2018), director Leon Le tells a love story of two men in the 1980s and uses sounds of cải lương to give voice to LGBT voices on screen. In the music video for “BET ON ME” by the rapper Suboi, sounds of the đàn tranh zither mix with a Beyoncé-like delivery of lyrics to advocate for particular kinds of listening in an increasingly modernized Vietnam. All of these examples advance activism through tradition for forms of living to which we need to listen more closely.

Dr. Alexander M. Cannon is Lecturer in Music at the University of Birmingham (UK), where he teaches classes in ethnomusicology, critical musicology, and the traditional musics of Asia. He further serves as Co-editor of Ethnomusicology Forum, the journal of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology (BFE), and sits on the BFE Committee. He formerly served as Book Reviews Editor for the Yearbook of Traditional Music and as Secretary of the Board for the Society for Asian Music. An alumnus of the University of Michigan, he holds an MA and PhD in ethnomusicology from the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, where he wrote a dissertation on the southern Vietnamese traditional music genre đờn ca tài tử (music of talented amateurs). He recently completed a book manuscript titled “A Music Without a Name”: Creativity from Seed to Ruin in Southern Vietnam, and also has an article forthcoming in the journal Ethnomusicology. He has previously published in Ethnomusicology, Ethnomusicology Forum, Asian Music, and the Journal of Vietnamese Studies.

If there is anything we can do to make this event accessible to you, please contact us. Please be aware that advance notice is necessary as some accommodations may require more time for the university to arrange. Contact:
Building: Off Campus Location
Location: Virtual
Event Link:
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: center for southeast asian studies, Cseas Lecture Series, Discussion, Lecture, Music, Virtual
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Center for Southeast Asian Studies, School of Music, Theatre & Dance, International Institute, Asian Languages and Cultures