Experts rush to preserve Vietnamese blues

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Proponents of Vietnam's bluesy free-form musical genre hope to receive international recognition from the United Nations' Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Scholars plan to submit don ca tai tu (an amateur musical performance style that from southern Vietnam) for consideration as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity before spring of this year.

The announcement was made this week during a three-day international workshop in Ho Chi Minh City entitled "The art of don ca tai tu and sentimental performance."

"The genre meets all of UNESCO's requirements, including its great cultural influence, its unique artistic value and its survival despite the influx of Western music in the region," said Professor Tran Van Khe, Vietnam's most esteemed musical authority.

Despite the push for preservation, the art form is by no means lost. New clips of amateur performers seem to appear on YouTube, daily.

Le Van Toan, deputy director of the Vietnam National Academy of Music, claims that 22,643 members of musical clubs currently perform don ca tai tu in 21 provinces and cities throughout Vietnam.

During the event, more than thirty studies of the genre were presented to the 120 delegates including a group of seven foreign experts.

Professor Sheen Dae-cheol of the Republic of Korea (RoK) said the style began when a number of Hue residents (who enjoyed their city's famed royal court music) migrated south more than 100 years ago.

They were not professionals, but enjoyed gathering and playing music as a communal pastime.

Professor Yamaguti Osamu of Japan, argues that the genre is unique in that it has been passed down by generation after generation of amateur performers - without any formalization of training.

Don ca tai tu is often played by a group of musicians who sing and employ traditional instruments. These often include the dan nhi or dan co (Vietnamese two-chord fiddle), dan tranh (zither), song lang (essentially bamboo claves), doc huyen cam (monochord), and dan nguyet (Vietnamese two chord guitar).

Professor Dae-cheol likened the genre's history to the art to the Korean Gagok and Nanyin of China, both of which began as amateur music and developed into more sophisticated forms.

Don ca tai tu, however, has retained its original characteristics.

Because it does not require a stage, it quickly became popular in every corner of society.

The Korean professor said he was impressed with the traditional Vietnamese musical instruments, some of which have a single string and are capable of producing a wide range of tones.

"The feeling and soul of the Vietnamese people are tied up in tai tu music," he said. "The music has also served as a beacon of gender equality. Since it began, don ca tai tu has always been performed by male and female artists. It is noble amateur music. It deserves to be considered as a world cultural heritage."

Though the word tai tu means "˜amateurs', it also implies talent. Though these artists don't make music their livelihood, they dedicate years to practicing and perfecting the art.

Professor Gisa Jaehnichen, of Germany, and researcher Tan Sooi Beng of Malaysia, suggested that the music should be documented and recorded. Thus far, no printed record of the music has been produced.

Vinh Bao, a master performer, has learned to play several don ca tai tu instruments. He argues that the genre certainly has its rules but those rules are flexible and permit players to express their emotions in different tones, melodies and rhythms.

Since April 2010, cultural experts and officials throughout the country have been working to compile research and systemize the theory of this form of music to prepare a dossier for submission to UNESCO before the April 1 dealine.

Lovers of the genre hope that its inclusion on the UNESCO list will help preserve the musical form from becoming another lost art.

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