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The charm of ”don ca tai tu”- vietnamese folk music
Friday, December 6, 2019

The charm of ”don ca tai tu”- vietnamese folk music

There are different myths and theories related to “đờn ca tài tử” – folk  music of South Vietnam. One story states that it started in the delta over 200 years ago when General Le Van Duyet was sent by Kings Gia Long and Minh Mang of the Nguyen Dynasty to lead an army to explore and reclaim the nowadays southern region of Vietnam.


What is “Đờn ca tài tử” folk music?

“It is the unique art of music that subtly combines both folk and scholarly features,” said Professor and master of Vietnamese traditional music, Tran Van Khe. “It also features creativity of players as the genre is not firmly bound to a fixed formula.”

“The art certainly has its rules but the rule is formed in a wide variations to permit players to express their emotions in different tones, melodies and rhythms,” said musician master Vinh Bao during a regular music meeting held two weeks ago at the private house of the professor Khe.

“It represents flexibility and creativity of the Mekong Delta people.”

Professor Tran Quang Hai, son of the connoisseur Khe, added the art is the mother of “cải lương” and “vọng cổ” which are now more popular in the delta, while “đờn ca tài tử” has been fading in the past decades.

There are different myths and theories related to “đờn ca tài tử”. One story states that it started in the delta over 200 years ago when General Le Van Duyet was sent by Kings Gia Long and Minh Mang of the Nguyen Dynasty to lead an army to explore and reclaim the nowadays southern region of Vietnam.

The general and his soldiers carried Hue imperial court music to the southern region and localized it into “đờn ca tài tử” by combining some genres of local folks and spread it among the masses.

Another theory points to an artisan and mandarin Nguyen Quang Dai (alias Ba Doi) of the Nguyen Dynasty. He was sent to the south by King Ham Nghi and publicized the art among the masses after localizing it with local traditional genres of music.

“Đờn ca tài tử” is worthy of representing the southern region of Vietnam, alongside with “ca trù” and “quan họ” of the north, Hue royal court music of the central region, and the gong music of Tay Nguyen — which were already recognized culture heritages by UNESCO, said professor Hai.

The young age of 200 years of “đờn ca tài tử” plays no obstruction to be credited as a possible heritage in need of urgent preservation, he added.

It is an art created not to be played on stages or theaters, but possibly anywhere at home, in garden, on river boat for the sake of community, said Ho Van Hoang, vice director of the Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Mekong Delta province of Long An.

“With “đờn ca tài tử”, you can find not only pastoral and folk features easily accessible to the masses but also a contrapuntal form on par with western symphonies,” Hoang concluded.

The charm of “đờn ca tài tử”

“Đàn ca tài tử” can be played in the scenery of countryside during daily activities as harvesting, drinking and boating on canals

UNESCO has expressed its interest in the reputation and status of “đờn ca tài tử” since 1960s, according to Khe.

In 1963, UNESCO officially invited him and a local female singer Bach Hue to record a “đờn ca tài tử” clip entitled “Vietnam Traditions of the South” comprising 11 tracks, which was published as part of a UNESCO Collection series then.

Another “đờn ca tài tử” clip was produced and publicized in 1972 with professors Khe and Bao playing different musical instruments.

In 1994, Ocora Radio France coordinated with the two masters and Hai Phuong, a female artist playing 16-chord zither, to produce two albums which became best-seller in France during that year.

In Vietnam, “đờn ca tài tử” has long been one of the most-searched genres of music by foreign travelers, especially those visiting the Mekong Delta.

But for aficionados or those who have a basic knowledge of “đờn ca tài tử”, the charm of the music genre comes from its uniqueness in playing a song. As its theory permits a wide range of variations of melody, players can play impromptu in certain sections to match their own feelings.

And the man who is holding “song lang” — a small wooden stick beaten on a small bamboo platform served as percussion — is the one to decide the tone so that singer and others instruments players must follow, said Vinh Bao at a play two weeks ago in the private home of Khe.

“Mr. Ba Tu is holding a “song lang” so he decides the pitch of the song for other players to accompany,” Bao explained.

“It is actually the character and the cultural cachet of the Vietnamese.”

“In nature, “đờn ca tài tử” is a scholarly genre of music adapted for the masses. It’s not amateur at all,” said the 16-chord zither player Hai Phuong.

“A lifetime dedication may not be enough to master this music,” she concluded.

In reality, “đờn ca tài tử” has been distorted, especially in restaurants and sloppy shows for years.

Someone plays one or two pieces of “vọng cổ” or “cải lương” and label it “đờn ca tài tử”.

For locals in the Mekong Delta, playing “đờn ca tài tử” is not for earning money but for expressing their emotions and their harmonious feelings with the nature.

And “đờn ca tài tử” has become an indispensible food for the soul during meetings of friends, Khe explained the philosophical aspects of the art in real life in the delta.

Professor Hai stressed that should we want to preserve the intangible heritage and submit it for UNESCO recognition, we have to understand it is not just a genre of art and music but also a philosophy of the Mekong Delta people in real life.

Some clip of “đờn ca tài tử”

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