Musical Instruments of Vietnam
(notes from the >Nguyen Dinh Nghia & Family Ensemble)
DAN BAU (or DOC-HUYEN, monochord) - a Vietnamese instrument the origin of which goes back to the seventh century, according to new findings. Its most original characteristic is that depending on where one picks the note, one creates harmonic sounds for the whole piece of music one is playing, and not the so-called fundamental sounds. The pitch of the notes is realized by one's left hand moving back and forth the end-stick of the instrument, which creates various tensions on the one string and therefore gives various pitches. The instrument is capable of giving variations as small as one-tenth of a note up to changing it into another note.
Because of such flexibility the dan bau can modulate its tones to reproduce all the tonal configurations of the Vietnamese language (the six tones of the language and their variations), a total impossibility with most other instruments of the world. The Western guitar, for instance, has been adapted to some of these modulations, as used in the Vietnamese cal luong of playing dan bau are extremely variegated; besides raising or lowering the end-stick, moving it back and forth, one can also take it out of the sound box, peck on the string, hit it or caress it, do the vibrato on it or modulate the tones to give some ornamentations, etc.
It is not difficult to play the dan bau, yet it takes years, 10-15 years, before one would get very good at it. Besides, it also may require that the player has a gift for doing it; otherwise, he is a mere plugger.
DAN TAM THAP LUC (36-string zither) is of middle-east origin. This dulcimer-like instrument was imported to Vietnam via China to be a mainstay of the Ho Quang theater orchestra. Variously called da-cam, duong cam and ho diep cam, ("Butterfly-shaped insturment"), it is now universally called tam thap luc because it has 36 strings.
recent years, the tam thap luc has been adapted to play both pantatonic
scales and Western music. This is an achievement, since Western notes
are defined as corresponding to definite pitches, whereas playing, which
sometimes the notes both in pitch and in length. The tam thap luc,
however, is not as flexible as some other Vietnamese instruments. Even
so, the instrument's tone color can be changed, and other effects achieved,
by changing the padded hammers, using fingernails, using either end of
the stick or running it across the board, etc.