Unique music form that bridged all classes in Vietnamese society and enhanced humanitarian values gets a welcome shot in the arm.
Tai tu musicians felt a sense of relief as well as vindication last month when the art from southern Vietnam was recognized as an intangible heritage by UNESCO.
They are hoping that the recognition proves decisive in preserving and popularizing the art form, ensuring its survival.
Dang Hoanh Loan, a Hanoi-based musician who made important contributions to getting the UNESCO recognition, staaid tai tu music (also called don ca tai tu) has several characteristics that make it a treasure. He listed them numerically.
“First, it has been an inevitable part of the daily life of southern people for around a hundred years, like their rice and water. Second, unlike all other Vietnamese traditional arts, it is independent of seasons and cultural space. People play it anytime they feel like it.”
The third characteristic of this music also has to do with randomness, Loan said, explaining, “Each performance is improvised.”
“It is probably the only improvisational art in Vietnam. People usually describe the performance as “throw and catch” as the musicians need to be able to understand each other’s thoughts and feelings to throw and catch it right.”
Its clear articulation is tai tu’s fourth characteristic. “It has perfected the musical language.”
The fifth characteristic is that the musicians have special tricks in pressing the strings of the instruments in ways that play to different levels of emotions.
Loan said the sixth and final outstanding characteristic of tai tu is that the music is still alive, loved and passed through generations.
Tai tu music is typically played with people sitting together on the ground, some singing and some playing string instruments, sometimes also a flute. The performers would wear casual as they usually just perform among neighbors.
Professor Tran Quang Hai, a traditional music master who also played important part in winning the music its recognition, said the music was brought to the south by Hue royal musicians in the late 19th century, who were resisting the colonial French after their revolutions, known as Can Vuong, failed.
They taught the southerners to play music to relax during their work, and the formal royal music was transformed through the flexibility and spontaneity of the southern people.
Hai said other traditional music of the north and central regions typically have one main singer, but tai tu has many singers and everyone in a performance is equal.
“A barber, a cyclo driver and any poor man can sit down to play with a doctor, a businessman or a big government official. They have no titles other than co-players,” he said.
The name of the music genre already shows that it is something that is not bound by rules and boundaries.
Tran Van Khe, Hai’s father and a world renowned traditional music expert, said tai tu means doing something not for a living, or one pursuing something not for a living. Don ca means strumming and singing.
Nguyen Van Ut, a 61-year-old native of Long An Province, the cradle of tai tu music, is one of its most well-known exponents.
He said: “You have to accept to be poor as this game doesn’t generate money.”
Ut said tai tu artists sometimes play at weddings and similar parties only to have money to further pursue their passion.
He himself went to Ho Chi Minh City, where a lot of parties are held, so that he could earn more money that he could use to study the music further.
“The more I learned, the more I realized it would never be enough. Each musician has his or her own charisma, and one can play this way today and that way the other day. The creativity seems to be endless.”
Ut, whose father was a musician and usually invited performers over to play together, said the sound of tai tu in the old days was more sincere as it was completely raw with no intervention of electricity like microphone or speakers.
“The listeners would sit close together to listen attentively.”
Vo Van Chuan, a veteran musician of the old days, said that without tai tu, people rarely came together.
“Life would have been so lonely… And there would be no means to honor love and what’s good about life,” he said.
The 95-year-old, also from Long An, is better known by his artist name Tu Ben. He has spent more than 80 years playing the music and teaching it to younger generations.
Chuan said he loves music in general, but tai tu is his soul as he was born and grew up with it.
“Anyone who loves the sounds of a song or an instrument lives with a more open heart, and treats others with more tolerance.”
He learned to perform tai tu at age 11 from his father and grew up among many musicians. He opened a band in the 1950s. They traveled around to perform until the members received a call to serve during the Vietnam War.
All musicians of his generation have died, but Chuan said he has managed to pass his “tricks” down to many younger people including his son, now a famous musician in the area.
Ut, a member of the generation that succeeds Chuan’s, said he used to play out of passion, but now feels a certain responsibility as well. He likened this to being religious.
“Practicing the music keeps you calm and ethical. That’s why true tai tu artists are respected not only for their talents but also their personal traits.”
In Long An, where many of this genre’s first songs were composed, tai tu music festivals have been organized for 20 years now. Ut and many of Chuan’s students perform there, looking to popularize the music among younger generations.
Ngoc Can, a 37-year-old player from Bac Lieu Province, is a prominent figure among contemporary tai tu artists as a woman playing the two-stringed dan kim (moon lute), which has always been characterized as a male instrument.
Can started playing when she was just 9 as her father took her to parties eking out for a living, besides working on others’ rice fields. She is still leading that nomadic life, working in the fields and performing at major tai tu festivals when invited. She has decided to not think about marriage so as to devote her life to the music.
She became known to tai tu experts after joining a contest in Ho Chi Minh City in 1993, playing fluently all 20 original songs of the genre. Her father had brought her to an old artist to receive some proper training for the contest and she learned all his tricks in just one day.
Can is a rare talent as according to Hai, “few musicians these days can remember to play all those songs.
“We really need a solution to keep those songs, or they will be lost.”
Nguyen Vinh Bao, a 96-year-old teacher and musician now living in Ho Chi Minh City, is considered the doyen of the music.
Prof. Khe has called him “The Best Musician.”
Khe and Bao, the only two Vietnamese to have received the Order of Arts and Letters from the French President, recorded a disc for French label Ocora in 1972.
The disc caught the attention of UNESCO, which commissioned another album, Collection UNESCO, in which Khe played the Vietnamese four-string instrument ty ba, an instrument modified from China’s pipa, and Bao played the Vietnamese zither dan tranh to perform some original tai tu songs.
Bao also performed several songs by himself. The record’s copyright was bought by UNESCO several months later.
Prof. Khe had said at a Netherlands conference more than 20 years ago that “If one day Bao dies, the world will lose a unique, bewitching player.”
Bao has dedicated most of his life to learning, playing and teaching tai tu and modifying its instruments.
The native of Mekong Delta’s Dong Thap Province has learnt with nearly 200 musicians nationwide.
He has not only mastered most Vietnamese instruments but also plays the mandolin, guitar, violin and piano.
In 1955, he added strings to the 16-string dan tranh so the musicians did not have to adjust the strings for certain types of songs.
He was Vietnam’s representative at a Southeast Asia music conference in Singapore in 1963, as head of the southern traditional music faculty at the Saigon National Music School.
In 1970, he was invited by Japanese television channel NHK to Tokyo to play dan tranh.
He was one of the first musicians to teach foreigners to play tai tu music by recording his performances and sending them overseas between 1960 and 2004. He first sent cassette tapes and later received MP3 players and PCs from his students to teach online.
He is still teaching some foreigners and Vietnamese living in the United States and Europe.
During late 1910s and early 1920s, tai tu was taken to the stage and performed for larger audiences. This led to the emergence of cai luong, the operatic folk theater with stronger plots and colorful costumes.
Chau Van Tu, better known as Sir Nam Tu, from the Mekong Delta’s Tien Giang Province, founded the first tai tu cai luong troupe in 1918.
Neither a singer nor a musician, the businessman also built the country’s first cai luong theater in the province’s capital town of My Tho, signing contracts with French record studio Pathé Phono whose representatives were interested in the music.
Each record started with the same introduction: “This is Sir Nam Tu’s troupe singing for Pathé Phono for fun.”
Another tai tu cai luong all-women troupe called Dong Nu Ban was formed in 1927 to foster patriotism and resistance against French colonialism.
It was started by Tran Ngoc Vien, aunt of Prof. Khe, after the French government sacked her as a teacher of a female students' school in Saigon for organizing a students’ visit to the funeral of famous scholar and nationalist Phan Chu Trinh in 1926.
The troupe was disbanded after a year when its purpose was exposed.
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