When the hoi polloi take ownership of royal music

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Don ca tai tu remains a "˜commoner' at heart as it awaits UNESCO recognition


A Don ca tai tu band performs at the Binh Quoi Tourism Resort in Ho Chi Minh City. UNESCO is expected to examine the genre and decide whether or not to give the World Intangible Heritage status at a meeting in Bali later this month.

Thanh Dien came to Ho Chi Minh City early this year in search of a job and found one washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen at a restaurant in Binh Chanh District.

The 24-year-old native of An Giang Province was willing to do any job in the city to cover daily living expenses and, if possible, save some money and help his poor family back home.

It was hard work and the remuneration of less than VND2 million (US$95) a month barely covered his basic necessities in the city food and accommodation. But he was willing to stick out for a while and see what happens.

In his spare time, Dien indulged in his hobby, playing a folk instrument, a pentatonic guitar known as luc huyen cam, one of the instruments used to play the Don ca tai tu music genre popular in southern Vietnam.

Once the restaurant owner heard him play the Don ca tai tu music and Dien's life changed.

For several months now, Dien has performed every day at the restaurant mostly serving each table on demand together with a singer. Appreciative customers have tipped the artists and now, "I can earn more money and pursue my hobby at the same time."

Young Don ca tai tu performers like Dien are not uncommon in southern Vietnam, and their profile might just get a boost if the music genre gets UNESCO recognition.

According to UN cultural organization, Don ca tai tu has been nominated and will be examined at the next session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage that will be held in Bali, Indonesia from November 22 to 29.

Le Van Toan, director of the Vietnam Institute of Musicology, said he hopes UNESCO's recognition of this genre would raise people's awareness that they are living in the same "space" with a valuable art and should work better to preserve it.

"It's easy to see residents perform Don ca tai tu in any commune in the south. It carries with it the generous and romantic spirit of the people in the region, and is an indispensable part of their life," he said.

Regal origins

Don ca tai tu has its origins in Hue's famous royal court music, when some officials of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) migrated to the south in the late 19th century.

According to Professor Tran Van Khe, Vietnam's most esteemed music authority, the officials migrated to the south with King Ham Nghi when French colonials arrived in Hue.

On the way, they took on musical influences from Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Quang Nam provinces, and by the time they reached the south, the birth of a new genre of music had taken place.

"The generosity of the southerners"¦ totally changed the court music. They didn't want to maintain the original pieces, but made additions to make it sharper and more charming," Khe wrote on his website.

Don ca tai tu is typically played by a group of musicians who sing to the accompaniment of traditional instruments like the dan nhi or dan co (Vietnamese two-chord fiddle), dan tranh (zither), song lang (bamboo claves), doc huyen cam (monochord), and dan nguyet (Vietnamese two chord guitar).

Toan said that besides being nurtured in the working environment of southern farmer, the genre was also evidence of a perfect combination between traditional Vietnamese and western instruments.

"The [modified] guitar and violin from the West have been localized wonderfully to match Don ca tai tu," he said.

Both instruments have been re-tuned to a pentatonic scale and the guitar has deeper and curved down fret-boards to create the desired tones.

According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, there are more than 2,000 Don ca tai tu clubs in 21 southern provinces, with more than 22,600 members.

Strong growth of the genre can be clearly seen in the provinces of Binh Duong, An Giang, Tra Vinh, Hau Giang, Bac Lieu, Ca Mau and Soc Trang, Can Tho City as well as Ho Chi Minh City.

Many districts have clubs in every hamlet or neighborhood that providing entertainment after work or playing at weddings, funerals and death anniversaries, the ministry said.

Professor Khe said the southern farmers often spread out a mat inside the house or in the front yard on bright moon nights to perform this music.

"Performing together also helps consolidate the relationships of people who work hard on their farms. Sometimes, the smooth rhythms may make them remember a time when their ancestors migrated to the wild southwestern region," he said.

No amateur and need better preservation

In English, "Don ca" means singing and playing an instrument and "tai tu" can be translated as "actors and actresses", "amateur" or "talented." However, experts in Vietnamese traditional music say "tai tu" in the genre should only be translated as "talented."

"Besides that meaning, it also means a distinct way of adoring the genre by not considering it a job to live on, but a means to confide their sentiments or share their feelings with other performers in the band," said Professor Khe, adding that many people often misunderstand the word as meaning "amateur."

"It means talented. The music used to be played for the royal family only and by professionals or highly knowledgeable performers," said Vinh Bao, a 94-year-old doyen of Vietnamese traditional music.

"In Don ca tai tu, performers communicated with each other via music and could thus find their true friend. Sometimes, people quit playing the music just because they lost their inspiration after their true friend died," he said.

Vinh Bao said nominating Don ca tai tu as a UNESCO World Intangible Heritage is not the best way to promote the music.

"It is not necessary to spend money, about VND12 billion ($571,000), for the process. The money can be utilized for other, more useful things like identifying masters of Don ca tai tu and helping them make a living with their talent."

"These masters will pass on their talent to younger generations," he said, adding that conserving the genre requires efforts from the Vietnamese instead of foreign people or organizations, at least as a first step.

"There are not many truly talented masters of Don ca tai tu and most of them are old. There should be a specific plan to preserve this traditional and unique music from our ancestors," he said.

"The Vietnamese government and involved agencies should support Don ca tai tu musicians and outstanding performers to have a better life. Then, they will dedicate their best to pass on the traditional music to future generations," he repeated.

Ba Tu, a known Don ca tai tu master, who conducts regular classes for dan kim and dan tranh at his home in District 7, said teaching the music does not help him make ends meet.

"Every Don ca tai tu teacher knows no one can live on teaching," he said, adding that many teachers offer low fees in a bid to promote the traditional music to young people.

Bay Hien, a Don ca tai tu performer in HCMC's District 8, said besides teaching, he performs at restaurants and funerals to try and make a living.

"I also lease audio equipment to earn a few more dong," he said.

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