The people's band

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A small village in northern Vietnam boasts a violin orchestra run by local farmers

A farmer turned violinist playing his violin.

As the sun goes down each evening, groups of children carry their violins to Nguyen Huu Dua's house, from which stringed melodies begin to emanate.

Dua, a 76-year-old farmer who has spent nearly 50 years playing the violin, offers the free classes to sow the seeds of love for the violin in these countryside kids' hearts.

Then Village's 200 families are made up of hard-working farmers in the morning, but come sundown, they are musicians and artists of high caliber.

A group of 10 trailblazing violinists founded the village orchestra in 1955. Dua said that many senior violinists from the village, located in Bac Giang Province 90 kilometers from Hanoi, have passed away over the last 50 years, but everyone's desire is still to spread the village's music culture.

"In the beginning, Then's very-first violinists could play mandolin and guitar," said Dua. "They invited a professor from Hanoi to come here and teach them violin."

Many Then villagers joined the Vietnam War, using their music skills to entertain Vietnamese soldiers during the fierce battles of Khe Sanh and operation Lam Son 719 in Laos. After the war, they came back to the village and stirred a violin craze in the village back home.

"What a strange village"

Nguyen Quang Khoa, head of the orchestra, lives modestly in a small house with a green, moss-grown roof. It is hard to find the other members of the orchestra in the daytime as they are over their heads and ears in farming work.

Before talking, Khoa puts down the votive objects he's making and plays Strauss' "The Blue Danube" as a treat for the visitors. He's known for this act of kindness. Khoa said the violinists in the village not only play foreign classical music but also traditional Vietnamese music like cheo (traditional operetta) and quan ho (love duets), and even foreign pop.

 "Before the violin came to our village, cheo was our favorite kind of music," said Khoa.

"Many famous cheo artists were born here."

The village now possesses over 100 violins. The orchestra and its performers will play to celebrate Tet or any festival for the villagers.

"It is not an easy task for a family to afford the cost, but we still try to keep this elevated pleasure," Khoa said. "Many foreign tourists have come here and find the show interesting. They say, "˜Wow, what a strange village!'" Khoa said proudly.

Playing music is not just these farmers' hobby, but their real passion. The violin is known as the hardest instrument to learn, and the villagers wouldn't have stuck with it if they didn't love it. Khoa said it took him five years (1973-1978) to complete his training with Dua.

The group gathers twice a week to practice both Vietnamese and foreign music and the sounds of the violin sink into the ears of children while they are still in the cradle.

"I've been giving my free class for over 30 years. Now, among my 20 present students, the oldest is 18 and the youngest is seven. They have a real mania for the violin and come to my class in their free time, instead of hanging out on the streets," said Dua.

Many of Dua's students have gone on to study at the Hanoi Music Conservatory, and some are now professional musicians and instructors.

Reunion of a lifetime

The village's 56-year-old violin orchestra is the subject of a new documentary in production called Chuyen lang Then (Story of Then Village). The film, by the Central Documentary Science Film Studio, is scheduled for completion by the end of the year. 

The film crew has been shooting for some time in the village and recently surprised the farmers with a special guest: music professor Do Bai.

It was Bai, now 80, who gave the farmers of Then Village their first violin lessons 56 years ago. Upon returning half-a-century later, only six of Bai's students are still alive. Dua is one of them. 

"We've always wanted to find and meet our teacher again, but we've never had the chance," said Dua. "Bai is the one who showed us how to love the violin. Many villagers know and say that, but hardly any of them have ever met Bai."

Bai said that he never would have imagined that his somewhat accidental sojourn to this tiny village would have actually changed the place's destiny and created a unique cultural phenomenon.

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