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Shuffle: Renowned Vietnamese Musician Brings Peace Songs to Kent Ahead of May 4 Anniversary

Courtesy of PHONG NGUYEN
Phong Nguyen, who now lives in Stow, has spent his life performing and studing Vietnamese music and chants.

World-renowned Vietnamese musician Phong Nguyen has dedicated his life to studying Buddhist music. He can play more than 20 instruments and has done extensive research on chants that he's performed in concert all over the world. Back home in Stow after studying abroad for the past few years, Nguyen is putting on a rare concert at Standing Rock Cultural Arts in Kent on March 14, and is reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the May 4 shootings at Kent State University.

Phong Nguyen, 74, grew up in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam and started playing instruments around 3 years old. His parents, recognizing his talent, had him study music at a Buddhist temple for most of his childhood, learning the chants and hymns of his culture.

He decided quickly that this was what he was meant to do — expose cultures around the world to the various sounds of Vietnam as a way to bring peace. But some of his experiences growing up also helped to cement that goal.


From South Vietnam to Kent, Ohio
Nguyen was in college at Saigon University during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. He was a part of what he and his classmates called the “peace movement” demonstrations, performing chants and other songs in hopes of reuniting citizens and ending the war. 


"It caught my attention...that the war in Vietnam reached to the other ocean."

"I listened to the protest songs and I composed some songs about peace; telling the truth, about the uselessness of killing. I had two younger brothers who were killed in the war and that's also what I learned in Buddhism. I was trained to be in peace. Tranquility against the noise, by means of meditation and playing music for peace."


This happened around the same time the Ohio National Guard fired at a crowd of student protestors at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine on May 4, 1970. 


And even thousands of miles away, Nguyen heard about the tragedy.


"When I bought a magazine ... showing the picture of a student kneeled down and raised her two hands up...it was so impressive. It caught my attention...that the war in Vietnam reached to the other ocean."

He's referring to the photo of a student kneeling over Jeffrey Miller, one of the four students who died that day. 

"I pray for other countries in the world, too. Thinking of May 4 here (is) making me think of the way people kill each other for nothing."

Nguyen taught at Kent State in the 1980s and says he feels more connected to the area each year as the university reflects upon May 4 with a commemoration. This year marks the 50th anniversary. 

"I feel like I am connected to the peace movement in Vietnam. As a Buddhist, I pray for other countries in the world too. Thinking of May 4 here (is) making me think of the way people kill each other for nothing."

Spreading peace through music
Nguyen received his bachelor’s in Buddhist studies in 1974 and left the country before it fell to communism. He attended Sorbonne University in Paris and wrote a 422-page dissertation on Buddhist music. 

Since then, he has brought his knowledge to the U.S. teaching at multiple universities, including Kent State, University of Michigan and the University of Washington. He was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997 for his role in preserving traditional Vietnamese music and culture.

For the past few years, he’s been researching the Buddhist musical traditions of multiple countries, including the Himalayas and Cambodia, for a project called "Buddhist Music: A Global Perspective." 

The instruments used to accompany Nguyen's chants include chuông (bowl bell), mõ (wooden bell), đẩu (hand gong), linh (hand bell), trống (drum), and đàn tranh (17-string zither). He says bringing his knowledge of Vietnamese traditions and performing for audiences in the U.S. has been well-received.


"I remember one time when I played a concert at Kent State, there was a member of the audience, a student, who came to me on the stage right after I performed. She said if (could) touch my hand to feel like peace (that) comes to her through this kind of music."


Nguyen will perform his chants and songs during the “Around the World” music series in at Standing Rock Cultural Arts in Kent on March 14. 

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.