A foreign voice singing local songs

American Kyo York came to Vietnam for the first time as a tourist in 2007. When he returned in 2009, he worked in the Mekong Delta province of Hau Giang as a volunteer, teaching English to underprivileged children.


He had a life-changing experience during that time, as he met and fell in love with a Vietnamese woman. It encouraged him to study the Vietnamese language and culture, and he also learned how to sing many Vietnamese songs. The novelty of hearing a foreign singer crooning local tunes has brought him fame. Though his love story ended, his love for the country and Vietnamese music will never die. 

A foreign voice singing local songs
PERFORMER: Singer Kyo York is loved for his sweet voice and renditions of Vietnamese folk songs. Photo courtesy of the artist

How did COVID-19 affect your life?

Not just me but also many artists struggled during the pandemic. The entertainment industry was the first to close and the last to reopen. It was sad, but couldn’t be helped.

Beyond losing our earnings, we were also affected psychologically. We had to cancel plans and projects that had been carefully prepared.

I personally was fortunate to release two songs. The first is a cover of the Vietnamese folk song Trống Cơm (Cylindrical Drum), which I sing in both English and Vietnamese in an attempt to raise awareness about preventive measures to fight COVID-19.

I mixed the familiar tune with some humour and information on how the disease spreads through droplets in the air produced by coughs and sneezes, and called on people to maintain a high level of hygiene and follow social distancing measures.

It was a catchy song that included useful information and cheered people up, relieved stress, and helped people in quarantine cope with the boredom.

The other song was an English version of Ghen Covy, a viral song that appeared on HBO’s Last Week Tonight.

I am happy to have helped introduce Vietnamese music and culture to the world. Both these songs are topical and have a melody that everyone loves.

And what about during social distancing?

In the first period of social distancing I gained a lot of weight, but then in the second one I made an effort to stay in shape. Though I wasn’t able to perform, I still worked hard on my voice and recorded some songs.

I feel fortunate to be living in Vietnam, as the pandemic was controlled very well here. Of course, everyone has to remain vigilant and follow the guidance from the Ministry of Health.

Were you sad not being able to visit your family in America last Christmas?

I used to visit my family often whenever I had a chance to sing for the Vietnamese community in America. I had to cancel a lot of shows overseas last year. It’s now been a long time since I went home.

Sadly, my father caught COVID-19 last year. Though he has recovered, he is much weaker. He also suffers from dementia.

Meanwhile, my brother’s wife gave birth to a baby boy. I’ve still only met my new nephew on Facetime. I’m concerned about my loved ones and can’t wait to go home. I’ll be one of the first to buy a ticket to the US when international flights reopen.

You will perform at the international concert “The World Sings About Mother” on May 9. What does it mean to you?

It is a meaningful programme that connects artists from 14 countries. People often hear me sing in Vietnamese, but at this concert I will sing in English, my native language. My song is Mama Tried, which is already familiar to Vietnamese audiences.

Have you told your mother about this song?

Yes. Mum and I are very close. She is an artist, and perhaps I inherited her love of art. We agree on many things. I love my mother very much.

I call her every day, and we talk about everything. If either of us encounters a problem, we work together to find a solution.

When I’m sad, I always talk to my mum and she gives me advice and helps me be positive. She taught me to always look on the bright side of life. So, when I stand on stage, I convey a positive energy to the audience.

A foreign voice singing local songs
AT HOME: Kyo York fell in love with Vietnam the first time he ever came here. Photo courtesy of the artist

She must be nervous with you living so far away?

My mum is my biggest fan. When I have new work or a new project, she is always the first I sing to, even though she doesn’t understand Vietnamese. She has supported me a great deal mentally. She is proud that I created a career in another country and found a degree of success, becoming a bridge between American and Vietnamese culture.

When I came to Vietnam to work as a volunteer at the age of 24, I was young and didn’t know too much about the outside world. There are times when I’m lonely and homesick, and my mother encourages me by reminding me that “you’re doing meaningful work; try hard and the good times will return”.

Artists are often sensitive and introspective, sometimes sublimated, sometimes down. Between the ups and downs, I need someone to give me balance, and that person is my mother, the most important woman in my life.

What about your father? How does he influence your personality?

My parents broke up when I was 13 years old. I lived with my father, and only saw my mum on weekends. They are civilised to each other and love their kids. They still talk and do what’s best for us.

I’m fortunate to have such a family, where everyone loves and cares for each other so much.

Do you want to love someone with the same character as your mother?

My love now is this job, singing.

As an artist, you can’t live without love, and it’s true of me. I don’t want to let people know about my girlfriend. I like to separate my work from my life. I don’t normally bring my private affairs on to the stage.

I don’t seek any role models when it comes to love. I just need someone who loves me and understands me.

As someone who knows about both Asian and Western cultures, do you think there are any differences in motherhood?

I think mothers are wonderful everywhere, because they love their children and families and make a lot of sacrifices. The only difference is how it is expressed.

In America, parents allow their children to be independent early in their lives. They may not live with their children, but their affection never diminishes.

In Vietnam, I have seen many mothers love their children so much that the care and pampering makes the kids overly-reliant on them.

Have you ever brought your mother to Vietnam?

She wanted to come but is afraid of flying and her health is also not very good. We’ve planned it many times but it’s never happened. In the future, when flights reopen, I hope she can come and see how wonderful Vietnam is.

Can you tell us about your upcoming new project?

I am working on a project to honour and commemorate the death anniversary of composer Trinh Cong Son. I love his music and Vietnamese audiences love me as a foreign singer performing his love songs. So the project is quite important for my career.