Now some of these Vietnamese-born musicians are famous in Vietnam and in expatriate communities around the globe. Most of them, though, are like musicians everywhere. They play music part time, performing for weddings, parties, what have you.
Take Chinh Do, the leader of a Richmond-area Vietnamese pop band that goes by the name of Fantom Star. The name? Do chuckles. “We kind of made up that name, I guess,” he says. “It means we want to be a star but we don’t have enough time.”
The world of Vietnamese pop is a fractured one, reflecting the way millions of Vietnamese have spread around the world since the fall of Saigon in 1975. But music always finds a way out. There is no MTV-style network for Vietnamese pop, so entrepreneurs in California and Europe began making video compilations of musicians, then selling them to Vietnamese around the world, creating international stars — and a model for other Vietnamese musicians to follow, wherever they are.
Fantom Star started in 1997 in Richmond when Do gathered a handful of young Vietnamese musicians to play Vietnamese pop. “That’s the kind of music we grew up with and playing,” Do says. “We are all Vietnamese. Some of us have been here for a while; some of us came later. And we wanted to play and we wanted to perform.”
Fantom Star has nine members — four musicians and five singers. Each singer specializes, for example one sings dance and upbeat Top 40 songs, another focuses on traditional Vietnamese songs, a third has made a study of English-language ballads of the Celine Dion variety.
The music varies widely. As Do points out, the only thing many of the songs Fantom Star performs have in common is that they are in Vietnamese. They range from techno to upbeat disco to ballads so sweet your teeth hurt.
That being said, much of the popular music coming out of the Vietnamese community would be familiar to any fan of 1980s Top 40 radio — the big guitars, the cascading synthesizers, the big drums, the sweet and simple melodies.
Or, as Do suggests, “Vietnamese music has a lot in common with new country.” Sure enough, you could close your eyes on some Fantom Star songs and envision Shania Twain singing in Vietnamese. (With better pitch, however.)
Do left Vietnam in 1985 at age 15. He spent a year in a refugee camp in Indonesia awaiting his ticket to the United States. After a brief stint in Seattle (“That was something,” he says, declining to elaborate), he came to Richmond. He lived with foster parents until age 18. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studied computer science, and now works as a programmer.
But Do always thought of himself as a musician. He taught himself keyboards by listening and copying. He spent some time in a Richmond-area country band, then formed Fantom Star.
Since the Vietnamese community in Richmond is relatively small — Do estimates its numbers around 1,000 — the band gets only occasional chances to play. On the other hand, Fantom Star is the only Vietnamese pop band in Richmond. This monopoly means that whenever a Vietnamese wedding takes place in Richmond — once a month or so — Fantom Star gets a call. Whenever that happens, the bass player drives down from Bethesda, Md. The others get out their gear and prepare. Being a Vietnamese wedding band is hard work — the wedding parties can be four- to six-hour affairs. And the music goes on.
“In this country there actually is a big tradition of Vietnamese music,” Do observes. “But it’s not that visible unless you’re Vietnamese.” S
For more on Fantom Star go to www.vienxu.com/fantomstar.More cover stories...