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Musical globetrotter Huu Bac Quach demonstrates how much a dedicated cultural navigator can accomplish

Huu Bac Quach
Huu Bac Quach went from being a baby in a refugee camp to a multilingual multi-instrumentalist.

Multi-instrumentalist Huu Bac Quach is trying to put the world back into world music. Over Zoom, the Montreal-based composer acknowledges that this term took a beating in recent years.

That’s because this phrase came to be associated with non-western music, making no distinctions between different countries or regions.

“The industry now tends to use…‘global music’,” Quach says. “But for me, I’d like to use the word ‘world music’. I think it applies well because I never liked the division between western music and the rest of the world. For me, a Bach fugue or jazz music is world music, too.”

What’s indisputable is that Quach draws on music from around the planet. In addition to western influences, he integrates the sounds of South America, West Africa, China, Vietnam, and India. He’s visited all of these places to expand his musical horizons.

“I’m in Mumbai right now,” Quach says. “I got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to study Hindustani music with probably the most well-known violinist in that style.”

The matriarch of this musical family is N. Rajam. She’s trained her daughter, Sangeeta Shankar, and two granddaughters, Ragini and Nandini Shankar, among others.

Huu Bac Quintet by Jeff Malo
The Huu Bac Quintet came together in 2013. Photo by Jeff Malo.

Quach mastered quena in Peru

On Friday (May 5), the Huu Bac Quintet will perform at Beaumont Studios in Vancouver. That will be followed by a Saturday (May 6) show at the Anvil Centre Theatre in New Westminster. At both gigs, he’ll play a dan bau (single-string Vietnamese instrument), erhu (two-string Chinese violin), quena (Andean flute), and western instruments.

On October 23, his band will be at Small World Centre in Toronto.

“I’ve been travelling a lot the last five years,” Quach says. “So I think you will be able to hear a little bit of all my travels.”

Next January, he expects to be in Cameroon for a one-month residency. In the past, he has spent time in Ivory Coast learning African rhythms.

This fascination with the sounds of West Africa emerged from his years of study and collaboration with Peruvian composer Lucho Quequezana. They met at a world-music festival in Montreal in 2006 and played three concerts together in that city.

“We connected very, very strongly and from 2007, he invited me to play in Peru almost every year for 10 years,” Quach explains. “So, I had a big period of learning.”

It’s how he came to master the quena.

According to Quach, Quequezana integrated three branches of music in Peru. Traditional Indigenous music comes out of the Andes, he says, whereas along the coast more European-oriented creole songs are popular. In addition, Afro-Peruvian beats are also commonly heard.

“That’s why he’s very loved and appreciated nowadays,” Quach states. “He brought everybody together.”

All things considered, it’s been an astonishing musical ride for Quach, whose family fled Vietnam when he was a baby.

Listen to the jazzy yet global “La Danse de Chéli” by the Huu Bac Quintet.

Youth marked by cultural duality

At just one year of age, he was part of the exodus of “boat people”. His family wound up in a refugee camp in Indonesia for 14 months before settling in Canada in 1980.

Growing up in Valleyfield, Quebec, he began playing guitar at  the age of 13. Like many boys of that age, he was drawn to heavy metal, including Guns N’ Roses.

“I started growing my hair when I started playing Metallica and Pantera,” Quach quips.

Because Quach did not spend his childhood and youth in Montreal, he wasn’t exposed to a large Vietnamese community.

“I lived in this duality, culturally,” he recalls. “At home, it was really traditional Asian. And in the city where I grew up in the ’80s, there was just a handful of immigrant families. So all my friends were always Quebecers.”

In Quebec, students obtain a high school diploma after the 11th grade and then move on to a CEGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel). Quach enrolled in a  CEGEP jazz program in Montreal and then carried on with jazz studies at McGill University.

“Up to age 23, I thought I would be a guitar player all my life,” Quach says. “But a bunch of accidents led me to the Vietnamese instrument, the dan bau. Then, I went to China to study the erhu.”

During his studies in India, Quach has learned that his erhu is tuned the same way as Indians tune their violin before playing Hindustani music.

“I apply everything they do on their two upper strings,” he says. “The length of my string is about two inches longer, so almost everything I can do the same.”

The Huu Bac Quintet posted “Mekong Waters” on YouTube three months ago.

Quach one of three Canadian dan bau players

Meanwhile, Quach discovered that he could study the dan bau in 2002. It came while looking through Vietnamese community yellow pages in Montreal.

“In the music section, there was only one guy: Pham Duc Thanh,” Quach relates. “I had no idea who this. But I learned afterwards that when you say the word ‘dan bau’ in Vietnam, there are three names that always come up. And he’s one of the three.”

He studied under Thanh for the last five years of his life in Montreal.

Today, Quach says that he is one of only three people who can play this instrument well in Canada.  According to him, the other two are a Vancouver married couple, Ho Khac Chi and Hoang Ngoc Bic.

“I did a showcase in B.C. in 2016 and they were there with a couple of friends of mine,” Quach says.

He also knows as many languages as instruments.

Naturally, he picked up French and English in Quebec. His parents spoke Vietnamese to each other and to the kids at home. Quach responded in French to his parents but only spoke Vietnamese with his grandparents.

In university, he studied Spanish as an elective. Now, he’s “very, very fluent” because he would sometimes stay up to two or three months in Peru at a time.

“I was really immersed in it,” Quach says. “Peruvians are very social people.”

And because he’s of mixed Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese ancestry, members of his family also speak Teochew. This is commonly heard in his ancestral homeland in Chaozhou in eastern Guangdong. In addition, Quach improved his Mandarin while studying for a year in China.

“In order of mastery, it’s French, English, Spanish, then Mandarin and Vietnamese,” he says. “I can do anything by myself in Vietnam, but I would not be able to have a very deep conversation on politics.”

Photo by Jeff Malo
Huu Bac Quach goes wherever the music takes him. Photo by Jeff Malo.

Making melodies with cultural ornamentation

When he was younger, Quach would switch from one musical genre to another, depending on the project. But in 2013, he decided to form the Huu Bac Quintet so that he could infuse his compositions with different musical influences from around the world.

“I play the melodies with a specific cultural ornamentation and phrasing,” Quach explains. “But that melody is put in a really western soup of harmony and counterpoint and rhythm that is mostly jazz. but a bunch of other things.”

It led to him winning several honours, as well as a nomination for Montreal International Jazz Festival TD Grand Jazz Award in 2017. The same year, he released his first album as a composer and multi-instrumentalist, On the Steps of St-Paul’s.

He plans on releasing his second album in the fall, noting that he will play samples of the new disc in Metro Vancouver.

“People can expect a dialogue of culture that stems from my experience,” Quach says.

At 44, he’s still single and remains passionately committed to his career.

“All my life decisions have been guided by music,” he declares. “I never thought about anything else.”

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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