Paul Zetter – Hands of Time

Paul Zetter – Hands of Time

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Paul Zetter

Our jazz reviewer met up with Van-Anh Vo (a.k.a. Vanessa Vo) after her performance in Nguyen Le’s recent Que Nha concerts in Hanoi and asked her about tradition, jazz, her musical philosophy and her 19 string dan Tranh.

A dominant feature of guitarist Nguyen Le’s recent concerts in Hanoi was the partnership between him and Vietnamese traditional musician, Van-Anh. Not only was their on stage chemistry joyful and infectious, their musical collaboration has been extremely fruitful and groundbreaking.  Given that they only met for the first time in January this year, it’s already quite a remarkable partnership. Van-Anh recalled that after seeing Nguyen Le perform for the first time in concert in the States where she now lives, she asked if she could have the music to his piece Kokopanitsa as she was intrigued by its construction and 19/8 time signature.

Nguyen emailed her the music and 10 days later after much practice Van-Anh had mastered the complexities of the piece.

He must have been impressed by her rendition because it began a unique musical collaboration that blends Vietnamese traditional music with jazz, rock and world rhythms into a mix of exciting original music full of intensity, passion and dynamism.

Although she refers to Nguyen Le as ‘the master’ she’s no slouch when it comes to musical prowess. Breaking into the limelight in 1995 when she won the Vietnam National dan Tranh Championship, she is now one of the leading Vietnamese dan Tranh players, a reputable teacher and an award-winning composer.

When I meet her at her family’s house in Mai Dich it’s clear that she comes from a theatre and stage family with a grounding in creativity, discipline and hard work.
To maintain her technique she practices 6 hours a day, which increases when she has concerts to play.

Her expertise on the dan Tranh zither is such that she now designs her own instruments specifically to match her dimensions, especially her hands which instantly impress me with their supple but delicate strength. She explains that with the Dan Tranh the right hand which plucks the strings is the ‘father’ and the left, that bends the string and puts the feeling into the note, is the ‘mother’.

My left hand is my soul,

she explains because in dan Tranh technique this is where all the feeling and expression in the music begins and ends – in the hand of the ‘mother’. I become more and more impressed with her great knowledge and appreciation of times gone by when Vietnamese traditional music provided a template for life and social values, the songs creating a kind of musical map both real and metaphorical of life in the village. Her passion for these stories is inseparable from her music as they are entwined in the songs she plays.

Continuing with her tour of the dan Tranh I learn that the mix of the dark, hard rosewood frame and the soft almost white soundboard of Ngo Dong wood is yet another yin and yang configuration whilst happiness and prosperity are signaled by the sound hole which resembles two Vietnamese coins. Lastly she explains that the dan Tranh, which originates from the north of Vietnam, is originally a sixteen stringed instrument, a number that is the sum of the twelve months and four seasons in a year.

Next I challenge how someone so imbued with tradition and the strict disciplines demanded by her chosen musical form can cross over into other musical forms and manage to have them co-exist without contradiction or conflict. She attributes this ability not to musical technique but to open-mindedness and not a small amount of rebelliousness. Even as a child she was single-minded, refusing the cello recommended by her parents because it looked so ugly and choosing the dan Tranh instead.

It is this union of the old and the new, of respect for time and tradition while embracing modernity, of strict musical codes and free improvisation that make up the connective tissue that supports the beating musical heart of Van-Anh.

Hands that can play music from feudal times to contemporary jazz forms must be flexible but must also be anchored by a musical philosophy that puts equal value on curiosity for the new and the manuscripts of tradition. Her comment; ‘I appreciate time but I also need to get out of the box sometimes’ puts it much more succinctly than I can.

Next I ask her about her composing career which includes composing credits for three award-winning sound tracks: Daughter of Danang, Bolinao 52 and A Village Called Versailles. She says that her musical approach has three strands – performance, composing and teaching – each fuels and inspires the other and the cycle is strong. Like all good teachers she says that she learns as much from her students as they learn from her and perhaps more. She’s committed to making the dan Tranh and the music it is capable of making survive in this post-MTV world by making it contemporary and musically relevant in today’s youth-driven times. Her recent CD, She’s Not She, and her ongoing collaboration with Nguyen Le are ample testament to this vision.

As if to come full circle I conclude by asking if her musical collaboration with Nguyen Le will bear further fruit maybe in the form of a CD.

‘It’s just the beginning’, she replies, ‘it will take time to grow together and get used to each others’ different musical strengths’. On such foundations great partnerships are built.

Then my interview moves from an exchange of words to a performance. Van-Anh starts playing her dan Tranh and her small bedroom cum rehearsal room is transformed into a magical place where beautiful music resounds. I get my camera out and foolishly think that I can capture the great arc of time contained within her hands as she plays. But I can’t of course. A camera can only capture one moment in time and those hands contain a million such moments. As her soul, her left hand, skips gracefully back and forth over the strings I suddenly feel like a child chasing butterflies.


For more information please visit Van-Anh Vo’s website.

We have one signed copy of Van-Anh’s new CD She’s Not She to give away to the person who gives the most compelling reason why they should receive it in the comments box below.

 Words and photographs by Paul Zetter © 2011

Paul Zetter is an accomplished jazz musician, knowledgable fan and enthusiastic writer and reviewer. He also writes his own blog dedicated to reviews of jazz piano trios. Read more of his writing and listen to him perform some of his own original music on the piano.


  1. I should receive Van Anh’s CD because my three-year-old son Gung who has all the feeling and expression of his mother and a rebelliousness unique to himself and has begun to really move to music and loves nothing more than to chase butterflies absolutely must hear it.

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