Plucking the right strings

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Leading zither artists fall back on passion and commitment as lack of funding limits planned international get together

  Senior Ä‘àn tranh (plucked zither) artist Hai Phuong performes in the third zither reunion held at Ho Chi Minh City's Labor Culture House on September 21, 2012. Photo: Binh Chau

They were all professionals, but as excited as children as they examined each other's "toys" the Japanese koto, the Korean gayageum, the Chinese guzheng and the Vietnamese Ä‘àn tranh.

Beyond the physical dimensions, the each of the zithers from different countries had a quality that was unique.

"Each kind of zither reflects its nation's aesthetic concepts and somehow, it speaks the languages.

"Korean artist Min Yung Kim, who is the most beautiful zither player that I have ever seen, told me that my Ä‘àn tranh 'speaks' like me, although I know she cannot understand what I had said in Vietnamese."

These are impressions and notes extracted from the diary of senior Ä‘àn tranh artist Hai Phuong after she returned from the Asian Zither Rendezvous held in Macau in August.

Phuong's efforts to organize a similar event in Vietnam have not been fruitful. After successes in 2000 and 2008, a third one has failed to materialize for lack of sponsors. 

However, the 43-year-old artist, who has played the Vietnamese zither since she was just 10, has been the heart and soul of the national zither "reunion" that has taken place every year since 2010.

The third zither reunion, held in Ho Chi Minh City on September 21 and 22, was also a bit of a dampener for Phuong because it was not the big gathering of zither artists from other Asian countries that she had hoped for.

"When they ask me to perform in their shows, they cover all the expenses and even pay me. It was really a shame to invite them here but on their expense. Only the Japanese artists agreed to attend," she told Vietweek.

The two shows featuring performances by Vietnamese and Japanese artists were held at the HCMC Labor Cultural House and at the house of musicologist Prof. Tran Van Khe in Binh Thanh District's Huynh Dinh Hai Street.

But the disappointment at not having more participants from abroad was forgotten as Phuong stepped on to the stage to perform.


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"Many people came to enjoy our music. That is the most important thing, that we still have our music lovers. Having just one person in the audience can still inspire me."

More than four hundred people came to the Culture Labor House despite the heavy rain to enjoy the zither concert. In the next show, Prof. Khe's house was overloaded with a hundred people sitting and standing, trying to catch every single word that the learned musicologist spoke.

Dinh Ha, a reporter of the Phu Nu newspaper, told Vietweek that she had come not only to cover the event but also to rekindle her love for Vietnam's traditional arts. She got what she had bargained for.

"The undeniable talent of both local and foreign artists would have enchanted even the most choosy audience. I noticed that besides the middle-aged, the show also attracted many young viewers.

"I also saw those faces at the second performance at Prof. Khe's house. This year's show may have had more people attend because it was free, but it is a really good sign when the young people show interest in their country's traditional art forms."

The audience seemed most impressed by a group performance by members of the Tieng Hat Que Huong (Motherland's Voice) Club. The club, which organizes Ä‘àn tranh performances and teaches all those interested to play the instrument, has members aged 8-70. They put on this performance after months of practice.

Ha said that Hai Phuong has shared some good news with her.

"Phuong told me that one company has contacted her and made a sponsorship offer. What is interesting is that the company had previously focused on entertainment shows with leggy girls. The offer, whether it materializes or not, is a hopeful sign. We have something to look forward to in the next event."

All about music


Vietnam's Ä‘àn tranh originally had 16 strings. In the mid-50s, it was renovated by Master Nguyen Vinh Bao and his 17-stringed zither has been in popular use since.

Đàn tranh has the same roots as the Chinese guzheng, Japanese koto, Mongolian yatga and Korean gayageum.

The Chinese instrument has 18 to 23, even up to 36 strings and movable bridges, while the koto only has 13 strings and over 13 movable bridges.

The traditional Korean zither-like string instrument has from 12 to 21 strings while the yatga, related to the Chinese guzheng, is most commonly used in its 21-stringed-version.

94-year-old Nguyen Vinh Bao plays his 17-stringed zither at his home in HCMC's Binh Thanh District
Despite the lack of funding, many senior Ä‘àn tranh artists are not giving up. They are still finding ways to do what they want to keep the art alive and train future generations to appreciate and learn their skills.

94-year-old master Nguyen Vinh Bao, who renovated the Vietnamese Ä‘àn tranh from 16 strings to 17 strings in the mid-50s, has spread the art through online classes for foreign students.

Phuong, her sister Hai Yen and her mother, senior Ä‘àn tranh teacher Pham Thuy Hoan, are three of the most well-known Ä‘àn tranh artists in Vietnam, and are usually invited to international zither shows.

Hoan, born in 1942, is also well known as the head of the Tieng Hat Que Huong Club. The club, established in 1981, is a co-organizer of the annual zither rendezvous in HCMC and is credited with having revived popular interest in the Ä‘àn tranh. It has nearly 100 students of all ages, and is supported by world-renowned music professor Tran Van Khe.

Hoan told the Doanh Nhan Sai Gon Magazine that it was her daughters that had given birth to the club.

"At first, I just taught my daughters to play Ä‘àn tranh. Then they asked me if they could get their schoolmates involved. Then the club got bigger and bigger and has since settled down at the Labor Cultural House."

Hoan also said that she believes that music, especially traditional music, helps people restore balance to their lives.

"Our Vietnamese music is sane and harmonized. It is neither too happy nor too sad. Very balanced," she said.

However, not enough has been done to promote Vietnamese folk music that uses the Ä‘àn tranh, she said.

"Once I went to Taiwan to visit a pottery village with some foreign professors. One of the villagers brought out a zither for us to play. When a player played a song, the others applauded and mentioned the name of the songs. I felt sad that none of them knew Vietnamese songs like Trống cơm and Lý ngá»±a ô. Our traditional songs are not well-introduced."

But despite all the difficulties that the zither family has faced, they are optimistic about the future.

Hoan's family tradition with the Ä‘àn tranh continues in the form of her granddaughter, Hai Minh, the eight-year-old daughter of Hai Phuong. The little one has taken a liking to the instrument that her mother and grandmother play so well.

Phuong says she has not just one successor, but many, through the Tieng Hat Que Huong Club.

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