When the amateurs took France-with music

(No.6, Vol.4,Jul-Aug 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Nguyen Tong Trieu’s
southern amateur music band in the Colonies Fair in 1906 (Marseille).
Photo from the archive of collector Philippe Chaplain

Reformed Theatre music has enchanted international audiences for two centuries

Over a hundred years ago, Southern Vietnamese amateur music stunned French audiences in Paris and Marseille. Today, it is designated as a UNESCO World non-material cultural heritage.
Late in the 19th century, the amateur band of Mr Nguyen Tong Trieu grew famous. Mr Trieu, born in 1876, was a virtuoso of kìm (a string instrument) that stole many hearts, including that of Mr Viang (a French functionary). Mr Viang arranged for a band from My Tho, in the south of Vietnam, to attend the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. An event that shook the ‘City of Light’ was that a Vietnamese (called Annamese at the time) music band played the ‘Indo-Chinese Dance’ to accompany the ‘Beauty Queen’ Cléo de Mérode’s dance.
Among the materials collected by the Indo-Chinese Project (including Nguyen Le Tuyen, researcher of Australia National University, Professor Yves Defrance, University of Rennes, writer Ngo Thi Hanh, art director Huy Moeller and researcher Nguyen Duc Hiep), was an article from Le Monde Artiste of Oct 14, 1900. It read that The Annamese band at the Indo-Chinese Theatre is the only group that didn’t want to leave before the Fair closed (The Paris fair lasted for five months). It was a matter of course, the article related, because they attracted the largest number of visitors. Indeed, here, under the piercing music of the band, Miss Cléo de Mérode danced with tormenting slow steps, like in a dream.
Writer Maurice Talmeyr gave more details: ‘I attended a show at the Indo-Chinese Theatre. 16 Annamese musicians sit and play, the instruments hold between their knees strange and bitter instruments. Blurred waxed faces of the squatting musicians, soft, but piercing and mildly sour music and echoes whirling with the dance, it was all very nice. But which star was performing in front of me in the Indo-Chinese settings? Miss Cléo de Mérode! Yes, it was Miss Cléo de Mérode with her headband! The music is truly Annamese, one can’t be mistaken, as are the faces of the musicians, especially that of their group leader. He wore a black long dress, his body amazingly slim, as slim as the lively bow in his hand. He looked like old, curved ivory. But he could speak French and tell me about the musicians in his group…’

Performance of southern
amateur music, Dat Do District, Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, 2011. Photo from
Vietnam Heritage Photo Awards 2013.
Photo: Pham Thi Ai Nghia

After the Paris Fair, Mr Trieu’s group was invited once more to France to perform at the Colonies Fair in 1906 (Marseille), and they again had resounding success.
Since 2005, the amateur music movement has boomed. The Association of South Vietnamese Classical music in South California regularly organizes the Phung Hoang prize to select new talents, boosting the spirit of amateur music groups. The Reformed Theatre and Ancient Tunes shows on Vietnamese language TV in southern California also became more frequent and spread to many other American states.
In Paris, the couple Tran Quang Hai and Bach Yen have been making great efforts to promote Vietnamese music to the world during the last 30 years by organizing shows, introductory lectures and seminars in schools and universities, and participating in world ethnic music festivals.
Actress Ngoc Giau shared her impressions, ‘I often perform abroad. Recently I went to Paris to perform at Guimet Museum (National Museum of Asian Art) and to be interviewed on three TV channels in Paris. I was impressed and deeply moved by the way they honoured Vietnam’s amateur music (Reformed Theatre). I was even more so at how the Vietnamese in France cherished national culture. They have amateur music groups that include many young enthusiasts. They whole heartedly support any artist coming from Vietnam. You can have any instrument, or anybody to join your show, just ask.’
Singer Huong Lan also remarked, ‘About 20 years ago, there were no Reformed Theatre shows, no amateur music groups overseas. It’s different now. In the US, young people who spent part of their childhood in Vietnam, as well as middle-aged and old people love amateur music very much. Overseas Vietnamese don’t have their own theatre but a guitar with dimpled frets would suffice for them to perform at any gathering, whether at home, in a garden, or in a restaurant. Recently my husband and I, while having noodles at Phuoc Loc Tho market, California, felt so warm and happy to see a group of middle-aged people with a guitar singing some beautiful songs, not exactly professionally, but full of emotions for the Father land. They made my tears well up, because wherever they go, our Vietnamese folks always hold on to their national cultural identity.’

Among the pioneers who went to break the southern ground, many used to be members of the royal orchestra at Hue court. After hard day’s work, they grouped together, with their musical instruments, to play music as a means to relax. Thus amateur music as a genre was born. As time passed, it became a specialty of the West Southern Vietnam. Artist Nguyen Quang Dai (Ba Doi), a musical mandarin at Hue court, is considered the founding father of the genre. During the late 19th century, he spread court music and amateur music all over Gia Dinh and neighbouring areas.

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