The chapi, a little-known stringed instrument

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The chapi is unique to the Raglai ethnic people, but there is concern that the instrument will fall into oblivion because younger generations are uninterested


Chamalé Au (L) is happy when a young person wants to learn about the chapi. He is worried the instrument will fall into oblivion one day.

We traveled to places in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan to see if we could find the chapi, a string instrument played by the ethnic Raglai people.

We went with a local official to Ninh Son District, where he took us to Do Village to meet Chamalé Au, apparently the only person in the area who can make and play the instrument.

Au was busy working on a rice field, but without reservation stopped to talk to us when he learnt about our quest.

We went and sat in the shade of a tree behind his house, and he went inside to get a chapi he was making and showed us.

We were seeing the instrument for the first time, and it looked just like a piece of bamboo. He got some knives and strings and continued to work on it, and soon finished the instrument.

He then explained to us how to make a chapi. One has to go into a forest to find a suitable piece of bamboo, choose a 40-50cm piece with a diameter of 7-8cm, and leave it in the sun to dry.

Then small pieces of bamboo are cut and wedged between the wood and strings. There are eight strings, made, interestingly, of bamboo strips that run almost the entire length.

After that, holes have to be made at both ends so that the sound can resonate inside the wood.

Au looked at us and smiled: "It looks simple, but it is very hard to make a chapi. In addition to choosing the bamboo, cutting it, drying and making it, a chapi maker must be able to tune it to give it a "˜soul.'"

He has seen almost 60 crops the Raglai way of keeping time, with one crop representing a year and he learnt how to make the chapi when he was just 12 or 13 from his uncle. But he could not play it until he was 20 since it takes very long to master the instrument.

He said until a few decades ago every household, rich and poor, used to have a chapi. People played it when they were happy and when they were not very happy. They took it along everywhere to play it. The music described people's lives and their feelings about nature.

RAGLAI ETHNIC GROUP

In Vietnam there are around 122,000 Raglai people, living in 18 out of its 63 cities and provinces. They live in large numbers in the provinces of Ninh Thuan (almost 60,000) and Khanh Hoa (50,000).

In Ninh Thuan, they farm in their traditional way and live in difficult conditions.

As a rule, marriage is forbidden between relatives and even people with the same family name, since the Raglai believe that it is against gods' rules. The wrath of the gods cause loss of crops and diseases, they believe.

Anyone violating the rule is punished. They have to offer two chickens to gods and promise to separate. If they do not, they are driven out of the village. Their parents are also fined a cow or two pigs and a pot of can wine.

Divorces are not allowed unless a couple quarrel constantly and their parents cannot settle their problems.

When it happens, the man must leave the house and can take with him nothing or only what his wife allows him to. The property must be left to his wife so that she can raise their children.

Au placed one end of the chapi against his midriff, held it with both hands, and began to pluck the strings, playing tunes like one to welcome guests and cuckoo and frog imitations.

Another master

Leaving Ninh Son District, we headed for Chau Dak Village in Bac Ai District and made our way to the house of Katơr Tuan, another of the rare chapi artists still around.

"In the past, everyone in my family could play the chapi. I could play many songs when I was 12 and I learnt from my brother how to make a chapi," he said.

"At 4 a.m. my brother would play the chapi when it would still be dark and quiet. The sounds from the chapi echoed far and wide. It was amazing."

The village elders said their people used to love listening to the ma la (a set of musical instruments made of copper that needs five or six people to play and creates sounds similar to the gongs in the Central Highlands). But since it cost as much as three or four buffaloes or cows, only the rich could afford to buy one.

Once, at a ma la playing contest, a person claimed: "I can replicate the sound of a ma la without five or six people; I can do it alone."

Then he got out a bamboo instrument that looked simple and surprised everyone by exactly producing ma la sounds. He called his instrument the chapi and from then on it became popular.

According to the elders, that is why the song Giac mo Chapi (Chapi dream) by composer Tran Tien says "Ai ngheo cung co cay dan chapi (Even poor people have a chapi)."

The Raglai make the instrument differently in different places, some even with 12 strings instead of eight.

Who will remember the chapi?

Au has often taken the chapi to play in places like Hanoi, Phu Yen, Nha Trang, and Da Lat, but is now very concerned about its possible disappearance because modern life has made the younger generations lose interest in it.

"I am afraid the chapi will disappear. I, as ama (father), tried to teach my eight children how to make and play [it]. What can I do when young people now are only interested in western instruments?"

At 50, Tuan is concerned about the instruments future: "I wonder if anyone will be able to make and play the chapi in the future. Children no longer like [it]. I'm trying to teach my oldest son but he can only play it and has not been able to make it."

Nguyen Van Lam, deputy head of the Ninh Son District Cultural Center, said: "The chapi has been around for a long time. It is the soul of the Raglai, but it is on the verge of falling into oblivion because those who can play and make the instrument are old now, while the younger generations are not interested in the traditional instrument and say the chapi is not exciting."

Nguyen Van Sinh, deputy head of the Bac Ai District Cultural Center, said: "Just a few people in the district can play and make the chapi. As cultural officials, we are very concerned about this situation because the chapi is one of the cultural features of the Raglai.

"We will be blamed by future generations if it disappears. We now expect concerned government agencies to pay attention and offer assistance by starting classes to teach people to play and make the chapi."

Vo Dai, vice chairman of Ninh Thuan Province People's Committee, said: "Provincial authorities want to preserve the Raglai people's special cultural features, especially the chapi.

"The province now has a policy of having classes to teach chapi playing and making in areas with a large number of Raglai. We will also educate young Raglai people to value and love their traditions."

But he admitted it would be very hard because younger people were no longer interested in the chapi and are more interested in modern music.

"At the moment, there are classes to teach the ma la, and in future, when the districts have detailed plans, we will start classes to teach the chapi, mainly in schools which have Raglai children."

We left Ninh Thuan hoping Tuan's dream of preserving the chapi would come true.

"I hope the chapi won't fall into oblivion because its sounds not only express the emotions of the Raglai but also are the sacred soul of the ancestors and the rivers and mountains where generations of Raglai have lived," he said.

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