Emmy-award winning composer blends music, refugee experience

Composer blends music, refugee experience into multimedia show

Vanessa Võ will stage "The Odyssey: from Vietnam to America – stories of the Boat People" Friday at Hendricks Chapel.
Published: November 1, 2018
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Vanessa Võ will share a musical story of the immigrant and refugee experience Friday at Syracuse University's Hendricks Chapel.

As a child in 1982, Vân-­­­Áhn Vanessa Võ rode her bicycle to school every day through streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. Võ’s trek didn’t include white picket fences or a friendly neighborhood mailman. Instead, her trip was accented by abandoned bunkers, worn infrastructure and the ringing of a school bell repurposed from an artillery shell from a B-52 bomber plane.

“We were poor, but we still considered ourselves rich,” Võ said.

Võ’s father had served for the Vietcong army band, wielding a guitar instead of a rifle. After the war, he began teaching his daughter how to read music and play traditional Vietnamese string instruments like the dan bau and dan tranh from the age of 4.

As her skills developed over time, she took a role as an ensemble musician with the Vietnam National Music Theatre. The position gained her renown both within her country, as well as the international music scene.

Võ has since seen many highlights in her career – performing at the 2012 Olympics, the Kennedy Center, and winning an Emmy in 2009 for composing the soundtrack to Bolinao 52 – a documentary about Vietnamese refugees.

Now, she’s bringing her talents to Syracuse.

From Hanoi to the Salt City

This Friday, at 7:30 p.m., Võ and the Society of New Music All-Star Band in Syracuse, will grace the stage of Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University with her latest piece, “The Odyssey: from Vietnam to America – stories of the Boat People.” The performance is a part of Syracuse Symposium’s “Stories” circuit, which elevates the voices of non-traditional storytellers.

Professor Doug Quin helped bring Võ to the university last year for a series of workshops for students in the Television, Radio, and Film program. He says Võ brings a level of expertise and a worldview that holds true value for students and residents of Syracuse.

“It creates an opportunity for us all to reflect (on the immigration and refugee discussions) through a different medium,” Quin said.

Vanessa Vo performing original music for NPR's Tiny Desk

Conversation begets inspiration

“The Odyssey” is a multimedia experience combining Vietnamese and American instrumentation, with video, pictures and interviews of Vietnamese immigrants.

The show commemorates the thousands of Vietnamese refugees who fled their home country by boat, over 40 years ago. They became known as “boat people.”

Võ hatched the idea when she moved to San Francisco in 2001. She befriended other Vietnamese-Americans who shared their experiences of leaving bad situations back home in hopes of finding opportunity in America.

The composer also began seeing similar stories on the news. People originating from Haiti, Syria, and Central America came to the forefront of American politics when they flocked to the Land of Opportunity after their countries were grasped by war, natural disaster and poverty.

Võ recognized that “boat people” existed around the world, as a paragon of strength and resilience. Thus, “The Odyssey” was born.

“I saw all of these refugees and immigrants and thought, ‘Who better to look to than the ‘boat people?’” Võ said. “The best thing about America is that it’s land of diversity and immigrants.”

A Land of Boat People

In 2016, the United States became home to a record 44 million foreign-born residents. Immigrants now make up 13.5 percent of the U.S. population – the largest amount since the 1890s, according to Pew Research Center.

While immigration is trending upwards, the number of refugees within the borders of the U.S. has plummeted during the Trump administration.

According to Pew Research Center, just 33,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in 2017 – down two-thirds from the previous year. In Syracuse, Onondaga County saw a 72 percent drop.

This drastic decrease follows an executive order signed by the President that was mean to stymie the influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Iran and Sudan.

The President has also ramped-up his usage of inflammatory rhetoric regarding the migrant caravan from Central America. He has even threatened to end birthright citizenship, a key component of the 14th Amendment.

This type of rhetoric surrounding immigrants and refugees is something Võ has experienced first-hand.

When Võ applied for a performance grant in 2011, an anonymous panel member recommended that her submission not be accepted on the false pretense that she was associated with the Vietcong and that her music was communist propaganda.

Võ asks Americans to remember where their own roots come from before buying into prejudice.

“If we look back through history, Americans are ‘boat people’ as well,” Võ said.

Strength in Diversity, Healing through Empathy, Understanding through Music

Marshall Henry, a Syracuse resident and member of the Society of New Music All-Star band that will be performing alongside Võ, says music can help bridge the empathy gap that many have for refugees and immigrants.

“Music stems across boundaries,” Henry said. “Americans don’t really understand the circumstances of why these people are refugees. Any event that helps inspire people to think about refugees and immigrants is important.”

When Võ and her supporting cast of diverse musicians take the stage Friday night, she hopes the audience will recognize the beauty of people from different cultures coming together to share a different perspective of the “American” story.

“I don’t think that one ‘pure’ race is what gives this country strength,” Võ said. “The unique strength of America lives within the talents of immigrants. This is a country of immigrants.”

Event information

S.U. faculty, staff, & students are admitted free with valid I.D. Otherwise, tickets are $20 adults; $15 student & senior; $40 family; S Tickets available via PayPal online at www.societyfornewmusic.org. For reservations or more information, please call 315-251-1151 or email snm@societyfornewmusic.org

Vanessa Vo
Vanessa Vo calls for tolerance from Americans, sharing the experience of refugees through her music.
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is a master’s candidate of the Goldring Arts Journalism program at Newhouse, covering local sports and music in Syracuse.