Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Shining Light in the Vietnamese Music Scene

The sounds of the dan bau, a traditional monochord instrument, reverberated through the back alleys of Tay Ho on a quiet Autumn day in the otherwise bustling Hanoi.  Thanh Tung, a talented Vietnamese musician and composer, played us a song he had written as a teenager, just a few years after his life changed forever. We sat silently and sipped tea in his family home as he strummed his dan bau.

Tung performing at the Australian Embassy for ACCV fundraiser
Tung is not only well known for his moving monochord performances and compositions but for his strength and perseverance as an Agent Orange victim who lost his eyesight at the age of twelve.
I first met Tung at a screening of a documentary about the ongoing effects of Agent Orange and again at an official rally at the Hanoi Opera House to mark the 50 years since Agent Orange was first inflicted on Vietnam.  Eager to find out more about his music and his involvement in the campaign for justice for victims of Agent Orange, I invited him to perform at a fund-raiser at the Australian Embassy. His moving performance showed his sophistication as a musician.  He moved seamlessly between Vietnamese, Western and original compositions, often fusing the two.  I hadn’t appreciated the beauty of the monochord instrument until Tung helped me to see it with new eyes.

As we sat in his living room with his piano, guitar and monochord taking up much of the space, Tung told us a little about the history of chemical warfare in his country. His father, Nguyen Thanh Son, a Vietnam War veteran, served in Quang Tri in Southern Vietnam, an area heavily sprayed with the toxic chemical Agent Orange. US forces, between 1961 and 1971, sprayed nearly 80 million litres of herbicides over South Vietnam, of which 61% was Agent Orange.  

The dioxins in Agent Orange have left a deadly legacy half a century later. It is scientifically difficult to prove the links between the spraying of dioxins and the serious illnesses I observed at the National Children’s Hospital on several visits over the last year.  Leaving aside the politics of the issue, what is evident for all to see is that the great grand children of people who came into direct contact with the poison, or who live in contaminated areas, continue to be born with Agent Orange-related birth defects. Dioxin in the soil continues to damage the environment and sicken the people in and around several “hot spots”. The dioxin attacks the endocrine, immune and reproductive systems of its victims with horrific consequences. In fact, the Vietnamese government estimates that 500,000 children have been born with birth defects caused by contamination with Agent Orange and two million suffered cancers and other ill effects - innocent victims of a chemical intended to harm plant life, not humans.

Tung was not born blind but gradually lost his vision. He immersed himself in his art as a way of coping.  “Music was my salvation and a way of feeling the beauty around me,” he says.
Tung’s grandfather cultivated his talent at a young age. Recyling bamboo, milk crates and other household items, he built Tung’s first dan bau, the monochord instrument he has since mastered. As his disease progressed, Tung’s grandfather read him stories, taught him brail and the guitar (after teaching himself) and painted hundreds of pictures of flowers, rivers and mountains, the change of the seasons, children and animals to fill his life with colour and images that would stay with him as he evolved as an artist.  His childhood memories and imagination filled the remaining void. Tung recalls walking along the Red River under the Long Bien Bridge with his grandfather in the moonlight. "I thought my life was like a river, turning peaceful only after the storms." He plays us his original composition "Moon and River", written during a night of sleeplessness when he endured considerable pain from his disease.  The song was written for his mother "for her love and sacrifice for the family".
Overcoming the odds, Tung completed a special two-year music course in the Vietnam National Music Academy where he studied Vietnamese traditional music, majoring in Monochord Performance. When he graduated, Tung continued to study Music composition and piano.
Tung says he wants to use his profile as a musician to raise awareness about the ongoing struggles of Agent Orange victims. “I am one of the lucky ones having been given the gift of music and education.  I am very proud to have been able to fight stereotypes about what visually-impaired people can accomplish in Vietnam,” he says.
He recently appeared in a documentary by a French film maker about the  impacts of Agent Orange in Vietnam. He also showed us another documentary, recently produced in Vietnam, which focuses exclusively on his music. Late last year, he took part in an international conference for Victims of Agent Orange and Dioxin in Hanoi organized by the Vietnamese Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) where he shared his experiences with participants from more than 20 countries and 30 organisations, including Agent Orange victims, victims of other toxic chemicals, scientists, lawyers, veterans exposed to agent orange and social activists.  
Fifty years after the first spraying of toxic chemical Agent Orange by US forces in Vietnam, the victims are still fighting for justice and compensation.  Tung’s family has not received a dime from the US Government or Monsanto, the company responsible for producing the toxin and selling it to the US Government for use in its chemical warfare in the American War in Vietnam.
The United States of America has never admitted liability, even after the National Academy of Sciences in Washington established an extensive list of diseases linked to Agent Orange,  a list that increases every year. To date, recognition has only been extended to US veterans. The Stellman Report (named after the U.S. scientist Jeanne M. Stellman) indicates that up to 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange.  However, Dow, Monsanto and the US government have gone to great lengths and used their immense wealth to crush any legal action that would make them accountable for their crimes. In many cases these companies have blatantly prevented claims from getting to court in the first place.  Activists at a recent film screening decried the risks of Monsanto returning to Vietnam to sell its genetically modified seed. 
“You only need to see the effects of Agent Orange on my own family to understand,” Tung says. 

At this point he leads us to the back of the living room where we had earlier glimpsed what we thought was a child sleeping.  To our surprise, this was not a child but his older sister who was born with severe brain damage and whose growth had been stunted because of the effects of Agent Orange on her immune and endocrine system.  Her disabilities have rendered her a prisoner in her family home for 38 years. As the primary care giver, Tung’s mother, a talented seamstress, has no choice but to work from home to care for her seriously ill daughter.  His father, a professional photographer (as well as Tung’s manager and official photographer!), works long hours to keep the family afloat.
Asked what support families receive in these situations, Tung says his family receives a small monthly stipend. The Vietnamese Government provides $50 million a year in monthly payments to 200,000 Vietnamese whose health has been affected by their or their parent’s exposure to the herbicides.
The Vietnamese Government has also invested millions of dollars for reforestation projects to replant mangroves and the Ma Da Forest, and to plant single species plantations of acacia and eucalyptus in the defoliated highlands to prevent further erosion. Finally, after 40 years of refusing Vietnamese requests for assistance in cleaning up the chemicals, the United States in August 2012 started its first major effort to address the environmental effects of the war. At a ceremony in Hanoi this week, the US Ambassador to Vietnam said "we are cleaning up this mess."  The $43 million over four years to clean up former US airbases "is not enough" in the eyes of those who suffered the consequences.  For Tung, "it is a little too late."
The Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange come together every year for a national day of action and bonding. On 8 August, Tung headlined a benefit concert  in Hanoi.  As he plays one of his moving compositions, the audience - all wearing orange caps - are listening in silence (unusual for a concert in Vietnam).  He plays a song about awakening and the Vietnamese spring.  Tung helps us to see the light and colour of the season.
It is clear that with his talent, tenacity and charisma, Tung will be a shining light in the burgeoning music scene, as well as the international campaign for justice for all Agent Orange victims.

No comments:

Post a Comment