Arts, Culture & Media

Guitarist turns 'Journey to the West' into music

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For French-Vietnamese guitarist Nguyen Le, there are certain Asian cultural artifacts that he gravitates to. That’s because they are unfamiliar to him. An epic Chinese novel called "Journey to the West" is one of them.

“I was born in France, so in a way I’m more French than Vietnamese. And so for me this book is not something I have lived with,” said Nguyen.

The Japanese language version of "Journey to the West" goes by the title "Saiyuki." Interestingly, if you Google "Saiyuki," you’ll find more references to its manga cartoon derivatives than you will the original text.

Nguyen Le took artistic license and turned the epic adventure from the 16th century into a 21st century pan-Asian musical adventure. The result is his recording “Saiyuki.”

The book "Saiyuki," or "Journey to the West," was anonymously written during the Ming dynasty. It told of the travels of a heroic Buddhist monk to India.

Nguyen Le was fascinated by that 16th century world view. “The west which is described in the book is India, and the center is China. So that means that every country has his own center. And of course there is tons of examples. China considers itself like the center of the world, but that’s OK. It's how life is. The great thing is then how to communicate and share your identities.”

This is how Nguyen Le does it: musically reorienting the geographic center. As you listen, imagine where the sounds place you in the world. Then be prepared to have your assumptions challenged.

On his 1995 album “Tales from Vietnam,” Nguyen Le modernized Vietnamese folk music. Later he reconsidered the guitar work of Jimi Hendrix on the album “Purple.” With “Saiyuki,” Nguyen’s asking a broader question: What is world music?

Nguyen is especially sensitive to the traditional music purists who oppose any alteration to their roots.

“The problem with traditional music is that sometimes you have Ayatollahs of the tradition, some people who say it’s like that, it has to stay like that. When I started 'Tales from Vietnam' in 95, I really became aware of meeting living musicians and working with them; living with them, sharing things; becoming aware of what you can do, what you cannot do -- everything you can learn. I mean it’s a great world which opens.”

And it’s opened wider on Nguyen Le’s “Saiyuki” project. He’s joined by like-minded Asians, Mieko Miyazaki on vocals and the koto, and Prabhu Edouard on tablas and percussion.

So far, the glowing reviews from the unveiling of "Saiyuki" in a live setting last weekend in New York show that Nguyen Le has found, at the very least, his own center.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."