Sprightly at 101, court musician promotes royal music

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Lu Huu Thi is one of two sole surviving members of the musical entourage the Hoa Thanh Band that served Vietnam's last king Bao Dai from 1926 until the end of the Vietnamese feudal dynasty in 1945

At 101, Lu Huu Thi is the undisputed doyen of nha nhac cung dinh Hue (Hue royal court music), but he has another claim to fame.

He is one of two sole surviving members of the musical entourage the Hoa Thanh Band that served Vietnam's last king Bao Dai from 1926 until the end of the Vietnamese feudal dynasty in 1945.

Thi dismisses these distinctions as vanities he does not particularly care about.

"That I can impart my knowledge and pass on my love for the art to the younger generation, including my children and now my grandchildren and great grandchildren, satisfies me the most," says Thi.

Thi has plenty of knowledge to pass on for he is adept at around eight of the nha nhac instruments. Usually, a nha nhac song is performed by the following instruments: ken bau (conical oboe), dan ty ba (pear-shaped lute with four strings), dan nguyet (moon-shaped two-string lute), dan tam (fretless lute with snakeskin-covered body and three strings), dan nhi (two-stringed vertical fiddle), sao (also called sao truc; a bamboo transverse flute), trong (drum played with sticks), and other percussion instruments.

Diligent centurion

Every week, the former royal musician is accompanied by his son and grandson to the Duyet Thi Duong Theater, the oldest in the nation (built in 1826 to serve the emperors and other members of the royal family) to give instructions to young nha nhac artists.

Inside the theater, located in Hue's Forbidden City, hangs a blurred black-and-white picture of Hoa Thanh Band's ten members, taken at the Thai Hoa Palace in 1943. Thi stands in the last row, dressed, like his peers, in the uniform for royal musicians.

The old artisan dressed in the traditional uniform of per formers of Hue Royal court music

Even at his age, Thi's memory is so good that he can remember not only all the members' names as well as their positions in the band, but also details of the long story of how he got involved with the art at the age of five and how he had to overcome many hurdles to preserve it until today.

Thi was born into a very poor family whose father forced his children to learn nha nhac for living.

"My parents could not afford to send me and my siblings to school to study literature or martial arts like others at that time. So we all were sent out to learn how to perform nha nhac, where the discipline was so strict that we were not allowed to eat unless we were able to recite a song we had to learn without mistakes."

Thi, however, handled the restrictions with ease because of his aptitude for music. He knew all the melodies and could play several musical instruments by the time he was just 16 years old.

The more Thi learnt and practiced nha nhac, the deeper it drew the young man in. Soon, he had decided that this music was his life and found a way to improve his skills by working at the house of a royal music officer. Recognizing Thi's talent, the officer promoted him to play at the palace.

Like others, before performing officially in front of the royal family, Thi had to pass several strict, exacting, and complicated lessons relating to royal rites that discouraged him the most. He compared it with the stringent childhood training he had to undergo.

"In the palace, I was taught how to stand in a straight line and dress properly, how to arrange and tie the head covering in the king's presence according to royal regulations. Even if I accidentally stepped on a red ant's nest and was bitten by the insects, I was not allowed to move my body. It haunts me till now."

Thi recalled that everyday, no matter what the season, band members had to report at 5:30 a.m. and then stand still in line at 6 a.m. until the king appeared, when they could start performing for him.

Thi says that Vietnamese court music, performed from the time of the Tran Dynasty in the 13th century to that of the Nguyen Dynasty in early 20th century, was usually performed at annual ceremonies, including anniversaries and religious holidays, as well as special events like coronation, funerals or official receptions.

It is said that nha nhac did not truly reach the pinnacle of its development until the reign of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) when it was standardized. The Nguyen emperors declared it the official court music, and it became an essential part of the extensive rituals of the royal palace.

The art fell into decline as the feudal system declined and the last emperor, Bao Dai, abdicated his throne and handed power to the new government in 1945. The band, of course, was disbanded soon after.

Survival, revival

All the royal musicians then scattered to different places, some of them going back to their previous jobs or returning home to work as farmers.

Thi and his eldest children, however, continued to perform for parties, temples and in  public places to earn their living, and more importantly, preserved the art form by practicing together at their house.

Their endurance was tested for nearly five decades, from 1945 to the 1990s, when the government started  restoring and preserving the nation's traditional culture and arts.

In 1995, Thi and his two sons, Lu Vien Minh and Lu Huu Bau were offered a chance to work at the Hue Ancient Capital Relic Preservation Center thanks to their knowledge and skills of the art. Thi and his family have the knowhow to make instruments of top quality.

Since then the father and sons have served with the Hue royal music troupe and Duyet Thi Duong Theater as nha nhac artisans.

In 2009, Thi was honored at the Hue Traditional Handicrafts Festival for his contribution to having nha nhac recognized by UNESCO in 2003 as a world cultural heritage.

At present, the old artisan entertains himself by playing the art for his descendants, who like their great grandfather, have also made friends with the music from age six or seven.

Every day, the old house, located in Dang Tat Street, reverberates with the harmonious melodies of nha nhac performed by father, children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren. "The total number of all the members in my extended family can form at least three nha nhac bands," Thi says proudly.

Lu Huu Quang, Lu Huu Thi's grandson, whose son is only six years old, but can already play the drum and sing a few nha nhac songs, explained his family's passion for the art: "This is something natural, like it's in our genes. I didn't force my little son to learn the music, yet he loves it for it is now part of his body and soul."

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