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Alice Keath, Slava Grigoryan and Leonard Grigoryan, produced by ABC Classic, 2021

ALICE KEATH: Objects and stories from Australian life.



ALICE KEATH: I’m trying to make sense of this object from the collection at the National Museum of Australia. I’m here with Leonard and Slava Grigoryan who’ve written a piece of music about it.

What am I looking at here?

LEONARD GRIGORYAN: Well, it looks like nothing you’ve ever really seen before. It’s an incredible musical instrument. I guess sort of zither-like, harp-like and a little bit guitar-like. The resonator box part of this thing is an olive oil can and the fretboard, although it’s not quite a fretboard, it’s like a round piece of bamboo that’s sticking out from the side of the olive oil container.

ALICE KEATH: This instrument was created by a man called Minh Tam Nguyen when he was in a refugee camp in the Philippines in 1976, and it’s just so inventive.

LEONARD GRIGORYAN: He was a musician back in Vietnam and then he fought in the Vietnam War and he fled by boat to the Philippines. Music was a huge part of his life and he wanted that to continue so he took it upon himself to create this instrument which is a basically a combination of a Western guitar and a zither.

He was able to play Western music on it and also traditional Vietnamese songs as well. When he got to Australia he did put guitar strings on it, but originally I think it was some kind of wire. But you could change the keys and the length of the strings, so it was quite a versatile instrument.

ALICE KEATH: And this is what it sounds like, as played by Minh Tam Nguyen in a recording from 1984.

[Recording of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ played by Minh Tam Nguyen on the đàn tre]

ALICE KEATH: Minh Tam Nguyen toughed it out on his own until his family was able to come and join him in Australia. That’s when he felt he could leave this part of his past behind.

LEONARD GRIGORYAN: After that moment he hung up the strings on the đàn tre and I don’t think he played after that.

This object, for us, was so interesting being a guitar-like musical instrument. But at the same time, this is I think the object has the most correlation to our history and family as well, and the immigrant life. Obviously he had a very different experience and it was a lot harder than what our family had to go through, but none the less those stories are familiar to us.

ALICE KEATH: Slava, this instrument was invented in 1976, the year you were born, and around the time when, as you say Len, that a lot of Vietnamese refugees were coming to Australia. Can you speak a bit, Slava, about how the piece recognises that part of Australian history?

SLAVA GRIGORYAN: We tried to marry traditional Vietnamese sounds and even a folk theme with modern ideas. An Australian variation on this.

LEONARD GRIGORYAN: Part of the idea of that was because I think that’s what he would have done as well. With this instrument he could play Western music and Vietnamese music.

The opening is very much the feeling of leaving, of running away. So this repetitive pattern keeps going, that builds on Vietnamese folk songs. There’s one part in the piece where it opens up and there’s a distinct change in the feel of the piece to Western ears, more of a traditional sound. That was meant to depict the feeling of arriving in Australia and finally finding your home away from home.

ALICE KEATH: Leonard and Slava Grigoryan, and here’s their piece ‘Đàn Tre’.

[‘Đàn Tre’ played by Leonard and Slava Grigoryan]

ALICE KEATH: ‘Đàn Tre’ written and performed by the Grigoryan Brothers. I’m Alice Keath and This is us: A musical reflection of Australia was commissioned by the National Museum of Australia to mark their 20th anniversary. Head to the ABC Classic website to view the objects, find out more and buy the Grigoryan Brothers album featuring all of the music in the project.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–23. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 09 March 2021

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