Love at First Sound
By CHRISTINE GILBERT
Show Dat Nguyen a transcription by the master classical guitarist Andres Segovia and he will not be able to read it. However, ask him to play the transcription for you and he will not just amaze you with his technical prowess of the work but by the fact that he can play guitar at all, for he is blind.
Dat Nguyen (not to be confused with the former NFL Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker of the same name) was born in Vietnam in 1970 to a Vietnamese mother and an American GI. His father returned to the United States at the end of his tour of duty. Nguyen lived with his mother who died when he was five. At first neighbors cared for him, then he was sent to an orphanage.
When he was eight, he heard a friend play music by Segovia. Until that point, he said, “I listened to music [by] Carlos Santana, Led Zeppelin, [and] Bread.” This, he continued in a telephone interview, did not inspire him as much as Segovia’s art. “When I listened to it [the classical guitar], it was sort of like I was coming home,” Nguyen says. He felt as if he had known “this stuff” all along and “somebody just needed to remind me,” he explained.
But how could an orphan in Communist-ruled Vietnam afford to buy a classical guitar, which is expensive? Nguyen was already an accomplished drummer. So he gave drumming lessons and played in bands. Two and a half years later he had saved up enough money to purchase a Vietnamese-made classical guitar.
It was Nguyen’s dream to receive an education and pursue a musical career as a musician in the United States. In 1988, Nguyen applied for the Orderly Departure Program negotiated between Vietnam and the United Nations. This program provided transportation to the United States as well as U.S. citizenship for children born of American citizens. Nguyen qualified because his father had been a GI.
In America, he continued to live under Segovia’s musical spell. He said he figured that the master’s sound “would [become] second nature to me” if he studied long enough. And so in 1994, Nguyen enrolled at Cal State Fullerton to study under guitarist David Grimes.
In his college years Nguyen received much critical acclaim for his solo performances. He also founded the rock band Bayadera whose multicultural aspects he enjoyed. Its members were of Middle Eastern, African American to Caucasian ancestry.
Nguyen said he hoped that this
particular quality would eventually bring Bayadera international success. It has
already done well in clubs and at outdoor festivals in the United States where
it once even performed with Stevie Wonder in 2007.
As a classical guitar soloist,
Nguyen has played at auditoriums, bars, festivals, colleges and conservatories
at major North American centers, such as Portland, Maine, San Francisco,
Virginia, Texas, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Toronto, Canada.
But how does a blind man learn a score? There actually exists a Braille code for musicians, Nguyen explained. Braille is an alphabet for the visual impaired named after its French inventor, Louis Braille (1809-1852). It consists of combinations of tiny bumps that can be “read” with the fingertips.
“I learned to read Braille music in Vietnam. It’s a very complicated system,” said Nguyen, “[You] use letters and they translate into music.” He also plays by ear. Nguyen uses a two-part process to compose music. He first writes the lyrics in Braille and then records the music on tape. “Writing notes stops the flow of creativity,” Nguyen said.
“What are the makings of a good artist?” I asked Dat Nguyen “It’s a philosophy, a message,” he replied. “A mature artist is playful yet serious at the same time -- serious in practice, in daily convictions, cultivation, spiritual development.” According to Nguyen, the serious and persuasive feature of standing on a stage playing for an audience is this: Somehow a musician must live his art truthfully as a whole person.
What was it that inspired Nguyen most when he first heard Segovia’s melancholy serenades many years ago in Saigon? Perhaps this insight: There exists in the musical universe the kind of gracefulness and beauty his blind eyes could not show him in the visual world. “I totally connected with … what he played,” Nguyen emphatically told me: “It was love at first sound.”