The giver of melodies

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A paragon of traditional music has dedicated his life to keeping the art alive, and he's asked little in return


94-year old music professor Nguyen Vinh Bao records his plucking away at dan tranh (16-chord zither) by his MP3 recorder then uploads on the internet as syllabus for his students

In a small Binh Thanh District cul-de-sac, the echoes of the dan tranh, a traditional Vietnamese string instrument, can be heard resounding through the alleyways every evening.

It's Nguyen Vinh Bao plucking away at his 16-chord zither the same way he's done every day for nearly a century.

Many of his neighbors listen each night, but not many know that their 94-year-old friend is one of the finest, if not the best, dan tranh player in Vietnam.

He's by no means a rich man, as playing folk music has never been a financially rewarding profession. His home is modest and his old craft has all but faded into oblivion for most modern Vietnamese. He can play a dozen other major Vietnamese folk music instruments, as well as Western guitar, mandolin and piano, but the rewards he reaps are not material. Though the French Minister of Culture recognized his talent by awarding him the Order of Arts and Literature in 2009, Vinh Bao doesn't see his talent as an achievement he sees his major accomplishment as being able to pass on what he's learned to future generations. 

 "It would be a lie, if I told you that I am not greedy for money," he tells Thanh Nien Weekly over coffee and cigarettes in his living room. "But sometimes money will take away humanity's natural kindness. The exception is when money can be saved for those who really need it."

Bao, who never even owned his own home until he was 80, uses the meager fees he charges for music lessons to buy instruments for students who cannot afford them.

"I cannot leave them [poor students] alone with their simple passion," he says.

And nowadays, most of the teaching Bao does is online and for free. He likes it that way because he can reach students around Vietnam, and around the world.

The oldest cyber-teacher

Bao, though impressively hale and hearty with long white hair, is not someone you'd expect to see using the computer all day, surfing the net, uploading and downloading music. But he's actually working, putting his lessons and syllabi online for his students, and replying to dozens of daily emails while researching the history of folk music.

Bao says that at first no one he knew wanted to teach an old man to use a computer.

 "I told my grandchild to look for a tutor for me. After weeks, no one came. Maybe the young tutors hesitate to teach old people."

But the musician finally found a young teacher and after two weeks of learning, he was an independent netizen.

"The neighborhood kids were eventually really great teachers as well," he said.

Times change

Bao first began selling his music directly in 1960 by recording his own cassette tapes and distributing them by hand. He's come a long way since:

"Previously, it took weeks to exchange cassettes by mail," says Bao. "It is faster now with mp3s and Skype chatting."   

Fluent in English, French, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Khmer, Bao says using the computer to teach is easy as pie.

Bao has also invented a plain and simple system of musical notation for traditional Vietnamese music so that foreign students, some of whom are working for PhDs, can read it easily.

"My students are also my friends," Bao says. "Their e-mails include not only lessons but also stories they share about life."

Bao prints and files each email he receives from a student. 

Unique among teachers, Bao sets no study schedule for his students. On the contrary, he follows whatever plan they set.

"Some people said that makes me less of a music teacher," he says. "But I don't think so. Distractions happen when students who are busy because of something else must follow the teacher's strict schedule."

He says the staleness and strictness of traditional music teaching is putting most young students off of folk music.

"It's like having a huge promotion for an unsalable product. Nowadays, many people are turning their back to traditional music," he says, unleashing an ironic laugh.  

For Bao, the only way to lead is by example, and the only way to inspire a love for folk music is to show its beauty, not to teach it in a rigid and bland manner. 

Sowed seeds

Bao's narrow home is filled with all kind of musical instruments, books and student profiles. It's a treasure trove of musical history. He says many people have asked to write his biography, but he has refused, saying that biographies can often get too political. 

"I just want to tell the truth, as I have witnessed the history with my own eyes," he says. "But sometimes, the truth is too bitter to swallow. I just keep the stories for myself or turn them into idle words with my friends. Besides, it is also not important to brag by telling the whole world your personal life," he says after sipping coffee and pulling on a cigarette.  

Born to a rich family in Mekong Delta's Sa Dec (now Dong Thap) Province, he learned to play his first instrument a two-chord round guitar called the dan doan when he was five. He supported his artistic career, which never earned enough money to support his family, by working as a language teacher, a court officer and a taxi driver.

He was also one of the founders of the Saigon National Music School, which has since been renamed the Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory. He taught there for 10 years during his prime, 1956-1966. Bao then took up an invitation to teach music at the University of Illinois 1970-1972.

But ever since then, Bao's been back in Vietnam, leading a humble life.

When Bao first bought his house, there were two homeless men who used to sleep outside it. He asked his wife to lend them a mosquito-net and sleeping mat. She did so reluctantly because she was worried they wouldn't return them.

"My wife was right," Bao says laughing. "They took them away and used the area in front of my door as a toilet. But nothing like that matters; they had a good sleep, and so did I."

BOX: Music professor Nguyen Vinh Bao's researches on traditional music can be found on his website www.vinhbao.theonly1.net which was set up by a group of his students. Bao's e-mail is vb1908@gmail.com.

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