As a UNESCO decision on the cultural heritage status of don ca tai tu is awaited, experts say the unique music needs to be protected and preserved in its original context
People perform don ca tai tu at a gathering in a Mekong Delta province. Experts said the music, which is more than a hundred years old, needs to be preserved in its traditional form.
While experts agree don ca tai tu is far from sinking into oblivion, considering its popularity and firm anchor in southern Vietnamese culture, many are concerned with the direction in which the musical genre is developing.
In an interview with Thanh Nien Weekly, Huynh Khai, dean of traditional music at Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music, said that despite the invasion of Western pop and hip-hop, don ca tai tu retains a strong presence in Vietnamese culture.
It is performed at weddings, death anniversaries, and even in temples, usually using four traditional instruments dan nhi or dan co (Vietnamese two-chord fiddle), dan tranh (zither), dan kim (two-stringed Vietnamese moon lute), and doc huyen cam (monochord).
There are approximately 2,000 clubs, and more than 23,000 performers of don ca tai tu in southern Vietnam.
Despite its popularity, however, experts are worried about the way in which don ca tai tu is assimilated in urban spaces.
Professor Tran Van Khe, an authority on Vietnamese music, said don ca tai tu can easily be distorted when removed from its original contexts like post-harvest parties and full moon night gatherings.
Recently, semi-professional bands have begun mushrooming across southern Vietnam to meet tourist demands.
At national and international music conferences held in HCMC late last year and this January, experts said don ca tai tu music is now being recorded on CDs and accompanied with live singing at food courts and restaurants. Sometimes, singers even use lip-sync. Some others mix the music with cai luong, modern folk opera with origins in don ca tai tu, and comedy skits.
Researcher Dang Hoanh Loan, who helped write a petition to UNESCO for the recognition of don ca tai tu as one of the world's intangible cultural heritages, said the quality of don ca tai tu he had heard in several restaurants was appalling.
The music needs a national program to preserve and protect it from being distorted, according to Loan.
Attributing the damage to a lack of awareness and responsibilities, on the part of both management and performers, Khe called for more conferences on the music while waiting for its application to be reviewed by UNESCO next year.
"I really hope that the responsible organizations will take timely action to restore don ca tai tu to its traditional space," he said.
Researcher Bui Trong Hien, meanwhile, said it is crucial to support and nurture new talent.
According to master performer Nguyen Vinh Bao, there are few masters of don ca tai tu left in Vietnam, and most of them are old. The government and authorities must support the master performers so they can have a better life, and teach the art to future generations, said Bao.
Through the ages
Started by some musical officials of the Nguyen Dynasty (1892-1945) who immigrated to the south in the late 19th century, don ca tai tu is the only traditional recreational music in Vietnam, since it is not reserved for special occasions or specific seasons, Loan said.
However, despite its popularity and informality, the music is still an art reserved for professionals, and demands learning and practice.
In fact, through the last century, the music, which has a vast repertoire of both short and simple songs and extended pieces of complex compositional quality, has evolved both in terms of quantity and quality of performances, Khai said.
Don ca tai tu is the glory of traditional Vietnamese music, according to researcher Loan.
Since lyrics are written based on the music, and this genre is also suitable for instrumental performances, he said.
On the other hand, music and lyrics are inseparable in other traditional genres like xoan (ancestor worship songs), quan ho Bac Ninh (Bac Ninh love duets), and ca tru (an ancient genre of chamber music featuring female vocalists), he added.
The music retained its popularity through the 20th century, when most other art forms were influenced or subsumed by American and European culture.
It even did the one thing that no other genre in Vietnam's musical history was able to do adapting Western instruments like the guitar, mandolin, and violin to indigenous music, according to Loan. An example is dan ghi-ta phim lom, a customized acoustic or electric guitar.