A close relative of the zither

(No.5, Vol.2 May 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Mr Bao at his home in Ho Chi Minh City
and musical instruments at Mr Bao’s home.

I visited music teacher Mr Bao at his house in Ho Chi Minh City early this year. He looked about 70 although he was actually 93. On the walls were more than 30 traditional musical instruments of Vietnam and two bookcases of books of music. A man of about 40 was playing the đàn tranh (zither), a Vietnamese traditional musical instrument, which Mr Bao contributed to improving.
‘You’re not playing it the right way. Look,’ Mr Bao said. His ten fingers began dancing on the instrument. When he had finished his demonstration, he said to me, ‘This is Dr Thu. He comes to ask me to teach him to play musical instruments when he has some free time.’ Mr Bao said people from other countries, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Japan, also had come to his house to learn to play musical instruments. ‘I can play many Vietnamese instruments, but most of my students prefer to learn to play the đàn tranh.’ He said his English and French were good enough to teach foreigners how to play the instruments. He also teaches through Skype. To help his students exchange information, as well as learn to play the instruments more easily, he has built the website www.vinhbao.theonly1.net and soon he is going to finish a ‘Teach yourself the đàn tranh’ book in English and French. Mr Bao said that he would provide free teaching to people with a passionate interest in the instruments.
Mr Bao was born in 1918 in the town of Cao Lanh, Dong Thap Province, in the Mekong Delta, which is the cradle of the đờn ca tài tử*, a traditional southern Vietnamese musical form. ‘When I was 10, I could play the đàn tranh and two other instruments used in đờn ca tài tử.’ At 17 or 18 years old, he played for local radio stations and on the stage. He said that in 1938 a German company had invited him to play the đàn tranh to record. ‘That was why many people began to know more about me, and I’ve been in the trade since then.’ In 1950, he improved the đàn tranh by adding one more string to its original 16 and making it a bit bigger. Then, he made it 19 strings and then 21.
However, his family began to fall into poverty and he had to move from place to place to play and at the same time teach French to support his family. This lasted 18 years. From 1956 to 1964 he taught music at Saigon National Conservatory of Music, though he had never taken an official course in music. He was a visiting professor at Southern Illinois University, in the United States, from 1970 to 1972. He taught, played, gave lectures and participated in workshops on traditional music in different places, including Singapore, France, Germany, Japan and the US.
Mr Bao can also play several western instruments, including the guitar, mandolin, violin and piano. In 2006, he was recognised for ‘Ethnomusicology of the Individual’ by the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore. And the French Government gave him its Arts and Literature Medal in 2008.
Now, in addition to teaching people to play musical instruments, he studies and writes books of music and composes poems. ‘I usually play a musical instrument when I’m unhappy,’ he said. ‘It helps drive away all my unhappiness and trouble. So I believe music is a miracle. It helps me find life beautiful, it connects my soul to my hometown and it gives me strength to overcome difficulties.’
Mr Bao lives at 282B/21, Bui Huu Nghia St, Ward 2, Binh Thanh Dist., Ho Chi Minh City.
Phone: (08) 3843-0454
Email: vb1908@gmail.com

‘Music of the amateurs’
*According to Mr Bao, đờn ca tài tử [đờn, play a musical instrument; ca, sing; tài tử, amateur] or ‘nhạc tài tử’ [nhạc, music, hence ‘music of the amateurs’] a highly sophisticated, evolved art form, a type of music that has many facets and whose beauty lies in an extremely subtle and melodic style. Comparable to Western chamber music, this type of music is of a strictly private nature, to be heard by a small audience and practised by professional or semi-professional people as a hobby for their own enjoyment with a repertoire which includes mainly songs accompanied by one, two or three instruments. One can enjoy the beauty of the music and the mastery of the performers.

Mr Bao and a student

‘Nhạc tài tử’ is a popular and virile music that offers great pleasure to anyone who listens to it and who also learns what to listen for in it. By understanding some of the aesthetics and formal principles of such music, one can develop a true respect for the Vietnamese musicians who created it.

Text and photos by Dang Khoa
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