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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.

In 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.

DAN T'RUNG (a Bahnar Instrument) - The Bahnar are a group of mountain people who originally inhabited the coastal area of Central Vietnam. The T'rung is one of their most typical instruments. It is also called Tokro or Khinh Khung. Its principle is very simple, consisting of hollow bamboo sticks of various lengths knocking into each other. (This should be differentiated from the so-called "wind-pipes," called Klompul or Cockur, which consist of water-powered strings of pebbles that would knock into bamboo pipes, causing musical sounds meant to keep the birds away from the crops.)

Originally the T'rung was extrmely rudimentary, consisting of some five bamboo sticks held at one end by one person and held at the other by another who would at the same time strike on the pipes. The T'rung as you see today is an improved version in terms of range (it includes four octaves plus one bass instead of the original two), but it still keeps the gamut of the Highlanders (E,G#, A, B, D# and E). The striking stick has also been changed, and can be used at both ends. Other improvements include the chromatic scales, the improvement in space resonance, etc., But the most original aspect of the T'rung is that each pipe, i.e. each note, has its own sound box, which is absolutely unlike any other instrument on earth.

SAO TRUC VIET NAM (Vietnam bamboo flute) is a horizontal flute with six holes that are evenly distanced so as to give the pentatonic scale. The pitches obtained, therefore, are different from those of the tempered scale; for instance, the Vietnamese F note is higher than the natural F and lower than the F#. The Western flutes use metal keyes whereas the Vietnamese flute uses fingers to stop the holes and open them in various ways, thus creating different effects. The disadvantage of the Vietnamese bamboo flute, however, resides in the fact that one cannot go too fast on the semitones which would get them blurred with other notes. What has been done to overcome this difficulty is that five secondary holes have been perforated so as to allow the expression of such subtleties. In the process, this allows for the playing of Western classical music as well.

SAO MEO (the Hmong flute) - The peculiarity of the Hmong flute is that it has a copper blade on which one blows; one does not blow directly into the flute. This is an extremely thin blade, cut in the form of an arrowhead, the cutting of which is a whole art, as one needs not only thinness but also a curving up at the end to give the right tones.