Thomas Thanh Le
Vietnamese cai loung
Westminster, California, has been home to thousands of enterprising Vietnamese since the late 1970s. They brought many cultural riches to southern California including food, painting, poetry, and a form of music for dramatic theater called cai loung. Thomas Thanh Le, also known by his stage name Tam Tri, is one of the most respected musicians in the tradition. Every week he and other musicians host a daytime show on Little Saigon Radio where cai loung lovers call in and sing their favorite pieces from the repertoire. Tam Tri accompanies them live on the air with unfailing artistic dexterity, regardless of how well or poor are the callers’ renditions.
Tam Tri was born in the southern region of Vietnam to a family of professional cai loung musicians and singers. Like his father, Tam Tri mastered most of the Vietnamese traditional musical instruments one at a time, including the zither, plucked lutes, bowed instruments, flutes, drums, and gongs. He also plays violin and guitar, which have been used in traditional Vietnamese music throughout the century. Over the last decades, cai loung musicians have come to use electric guitars with scallops carved out of the neck between the frets. The space left in the fingerboard allows players to push the string to create microtonal ornaments essential to Vietnamese modes and playing style. There is a surprising number of young Vietnamese who are interested in singing cai loung. It seems that they are attracted by modes and style of traditional cai loung that conveys a distinctly Vietnamese emotional character that cannot be reproduced in western-influenced popular music.
In 2000, Tam Tri was a master artist in the inaugural round of ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program, with apprentice Duc Nguyen. Duc has a music degree from the University of California, Riverside, and is a student of ethnomusicology. He has devoted himself to learning from cai loung musicians in southern California, including Tam Tri. In the process of learning from Tam Tri, Duc also takes on the role of cultural interpreter so that non-Vietnamese can appreciate cai loung.