Pulling at your heartstrings, one string at a time
"Dan Bau", made from a dried gourd, a metal string, a wooden rod and a sound board, has been part of Vietnamese culture and society for hundreds of years. The soulful sounds are said to resemble the Vietnamese language, and conjure images of home for those far away.
The magnificent sound of the dan bau, Viet Nam’s indigenous monochord zither, fascinates locals and foreigners and is an important part of the nation’s musical legacy.
The one-string zither has been long associated with Vietnamese culture and identity. The instrument once aided blind buskers to earn a living and escorted artist soldiers to war-torn battlefields. Now it accompanies artists on world stages and charms local and international audiences alike.
"Many international audiences use the phrase “dan bau country” or “dan bau’s homeland” when they talk about Viet Nam," said People’s Artist Nguyen Tien at a workshop about the elegant instrument in Ha Noi in October.
There are more than ten types of monochord zithers worldwide. Single-string zithers are found mostly in Asia, Africa and Southern Europe. Examples include the dan bau (Vietnam), ichigenkin (Japan), ektar (India), tushuenkin (China), orutu (Kenya and Uganda) and the gusle (Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro), according to Meritorious Teacher Nguyen Binh Dinh, head of the National Institute of Music.
“Compared to monochord instruments found in other countries, dan bau is more unique,” said Nguyen Tien. “Not only for its simple structure with just one string, but for the characteristic harmonics it produces and the flexible rod which is used to vary the basic tension of the string.”
The modern Vietnamese one-string zither is 1.05 metres long. It consists of a dried gourd as sound box, a string and a wooden rod. At one end of the instrument, a flexible rod passes through a bottomless dried gourd which is fixed to the sound board. At the other end, there is a peg made of buffalo horn. A metal string is attached to the rod and the peg; in the past, the string was made of fibres.
“Monochords produce a wide range of sounds. As the emitted sound is harmonics, the timbre is beautiful, deep and seductive. It is either sad or cheerful to perform human feelings,” said former head of Viet Nam National Academy of Music’s Traditional Instrument Faculty, Nguyen Thi Thanh Tam.
“Among Viet Nam’s musical instruments, dan bau sounds the most similar to the Vietnamese language,” said Tien. “The instrument represents the Vietnamese people’s soul, characteristics and language.”
With its clear, bright, glissando effects and its sad sound, dan bau evokes a deep nostalgia in those living far from their homeland. Its plaintive music brings bamboo forests, paddy fields, small rivers and old temples to listeners, reminding us of a peaceful childhood in the rural countryside, said Tien.
Legends and the past
There is no historical record of the birth of dan bau. But many legends and stories are still told from generation to generation about how dan bau came to the Vietnamese people.
It is said that in the old days, a couple lived with an elderly mother. When the son, Truong Vien, was asked to join the army, his wife, Thi Phuong, took good care of her mother-in-law in their poor rural hometown. After some years, Truong Vien had not yet come back. Thi Phuong and her in law wandered the region, trying to find the man. Unluckily, the two women encountered a gang of robbers during their travels. They were robbed and the young woman was blinded. The mother and daughter-in-law had to beg to live. Moved by the piety of Thi Phuong, a fairy gifted her a zither and taught her how to play it. The fairy suggested Thi Phuong sing and play the zither to make ends meet. After that, the two unfortunate women wandered the region and started their busking life singing traditional songs while playing the one-string zither. This is how hat xam (blind busker’s singing) was also created.
Dan bau’s existence was also recorded in ancient historic documents.
In Kien Van Tieu Luc, a book on Viet Nam’s literature, geography and history, Le Quy Don (1726-1784) wrote “In parties, there were often ten men and ten women sitting in two lines on the ground. Instruments including ti ba, tranh, and bau were used to perform works with melodies which resembled ancient music.”
Based on Don’s book, many scholars feel that string instruments, like the ti ba, tranh and bau, appeared in Viet Nam from the 13th century, said music lecturer Nguyen Thanh Ha.
Dan bau’s creation remains shrouded in mystery. But scholars agree it is an indigenous instrument of Viet Nam which appeared before the 19th century, said music teacher Dinh.
To this day, locals still celebrate the death anniversary of the progenitor of hat xam with gratitude during February and August of the lunar calendar in the Hai Duong, Hai Phong, Hung Yen, and Vinh Phu areas.
Vietnamese music history
"Having been part of Vietnamese culture and society through hundreds of years of ups and downs, dan bau music radiates a strong vitality. The very existence of dan bau demonstrates the vivid expression of the cultural identity of Viet Nam," said music teacher Tam.
According to scholar Hoang Yen, xam singers in the north brought dan bau to Hue to accompany singing performances for the Vietnamese royal court in 1892, said Tran Quang Hai, PhD in ethnomusicology from France’s Research Centre of Ethnomusicology.
At the end of the 19th century, King Thanh Thai, a patriotic king during the period of French colonialism, loved dan bau music. Recognising the symbolism of the indigenous instrument, he decided to replace the dan tam (36-chord zither) with dan bau in the royal court orchestra which included five musical instruments: tranh, ty, nhi, nguyet and bau (16-chord zither, pear-shaped 4-string guitar, two-string fiddle, moon-shaped lute, and monochord zither).
Starting in the 1950s, dan bau troupes were founded and many artists sought ways to develop the instrument. They began promoting the Vietnamese monochord’s role in solo, ensemble and recitation work, according to Thanh Tam.
"1956 was a landmark year for dan bau: the Viet Nam National Academy of Music - the country’s first musical school - opened and dan bau and other traditional instruments were included in the teaching curriculum,” said Thanh Tam.
“Whenever the country was beseiged by bombs and wars, broadcasting dan bau melodies on the national radio, Voice of Viet Nam was always a great encouragement for the soldiers,” said artist Kim Anh.
Famous solo dan bau performances - such as Vi mien Nam (For the South), Tinh que huong (Homeland Love) - were among the favourite pieces on air during 1960s and 1970s. Many such performances were chosen as theme music for radio programs, according to Kim Anh.
Dan bau was also so closely linked to the lives of soldiers that it was played on battlefields. This beloved music was a great comfort and encouragement to soldiers during war and a means of enriching their lives in harsh battle conditions.
Since then, the demand to learn đàn bầu has risen sharply.
"Using 5-line musical notation in studies and performance - and playing an electronic one string zither capable of a higher volume than the original instrument - helped many musicians and artists to research and apply more performance techniques," Tam said.
Dan bau is an indispensible part of Viet Nam’s music scene. It holds a unique place on domestic and international music stages.
Frenchman Sylvain Streiff first heard of the dan bau from his wife. He spent two years learning to play the instrument in Viet Nam in 2013-2015. Last month, he returned to the zither’s homeland to hold mini musical events featuring the instrument. "I choose dan bau because it is completely specific to Viet Nam," he said.
Sun Jin, a Chinese student at the Viet Nam National Academy of Music, wrote in his graduate thesis: “Dan bau is a unique instrument of Viet Nam which has long been played to enrich the spiritual life of Vietnamese people.”
"More people - including both Vietnamese and foreigners - are interested in learning about this instrument," musician Tien said. “It is not difficult to learn to play dan bau. One can play this instrument beautifully, as long as they understand the soul and characteristics of Vietnamese people."
To preserve the values of this traditional instrument and to develop it further, artist Bui Le Chi, a lecturer at Traditional Instrument Faculty of National Academy of Music, recommended training talent at an early age. Chi also advocated granting awards and financial support to encourage artists and teachers to compose more new works for dan bau.
During the workshop, researchers also urged the Viet Nam cultural authority to make a UNESCO push for dan bau.
"Relevant agencies need to co-ordinate and submit a proposal for UNESCO recognition of dan bau to assert cultural sovereignty for this instrument," To Ngoc Thanh, chairman of the Folk Arts Association of Viet Nam, said.