Vietnamese women in traditional ao dai walking past a giant model of a dan kim (two-string guitar) in Bac Lieu's Hung Vuong Square during the country's first national festival dedicated to the don ca tai tu musical genre
Vietnam has witnessed a rapid escalation in the attention paid to a moribund southern musical genre, but experts and locals wonder if that will be enough to keep it alive.
On December 5, 2013, Vietnam’s traditional don ca tai tu music genre was recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
On February 11, 2014 the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism held a glittering ceremony at the Independence Palace – a common Ho Chi Minh City venue for major government meetings and national events – to honor the title.
A national don ca tai tu festival was held for the first time in Bac Lieu Province from April 24-29.
Critics of this process have pointed out that these events did more to showcase than to preserve the music, which is increasingly unpopular among young listeners.
“We have to bring the music to schools. The media has to report more about don ca tai tu… Good preservation requires effort from all corners,” said Professor Tran Van Khe, a master of Vietnamese traditional music and an honorary member of the International Music Council.
In English, "don" means "to play” [a musical instrument] and “ca” means “to sing”. "Tai tu" has been translated variously as "inspiration," "talent" or "amateur".
It is typically played by a group of musicians who sing over traditional instruments like the dan nhi or dan co (Vietnamese two-chord fiddles), dan tranh (zither), song lang (bamboo claves), doc huyen cam (monochord), and dan nguyet or dan kim (Vietnamese two chord guitar). In more recent years, a modified six-string guitar with curved fretboards and pentatonic tone has also become a popular instrument in the south.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is home to the country's highest concentration of clubs and bands dedicated to the genre. According to the city’s culture department, the city has about 118 don ca tai tu clubs with more than 2,000 singers and musicians.
Prof. Khe said that don ca tai tu and other traditional arts should be taught during basic education to nurture a love for the music among young people and create a new generation of singers and players in the future.
“Bringing music into school won't turn students into singers and composers," he told Thanh Nien News. "It will let them know what Vietnam’s traditional music has to offer and what's interesting about it.”
“By doing those two things, we can be confident about the preservation of the music because students then will begin to love, learn, practice and perform it. When young people perform and listen to the music, it can survive,” he said.
The HCMC culture and education departments recently collaborated to launch a trial project to introduce traditional music to students.
Last month, a performance was held at District 1’s Bui Thi Xuan High School; famous singers like Phuong Hong Thuy, Phuong Lien and Tan Giao performed snippets of cai luong, a traditional operatic genre featuring don ca tai tu songs.
Reporter Ngoc Tuyet of The Thao Van Hoa newspaper said the students listened as if faced with a “heavy task.”
“They are only fond of Big Band, DJ Kawasaki, etc. How can they enjoy traditional music? Moreover, most of the songs are sad in nature despite the fact that don ca tai tu also boasts many merry melodies,” she said.
Huynh Khai, acting head of the HCMC Conservatory of Music's traditional music faculty, said he's had several bittersweet experiences working with people who do not have basic understanding of traditional music.
“During one TV program, the director asked the cameraman to focus on the dan co player but he mistakenly focused on the dan kim... singer once told his band to prepare for the next song by reciting one of its lyrics -- he'd forgotten its name,” he said.
During the national don ca tai tu festival in Bac Lieu, festival spokesperson Le Thi Ai Nam admitted that most artists could not earn a living from the traditional music genre, a fact that has been acknowledged by many experts.
According to Prof. Khe, most don ca tai tu artists he's met were facing difficulties in life and have preserved the music with passion alone. Any support from the government, so far, has been paid in compliments.
“The government has to help the artists earn enough to live on so they can pass the music to future generations. There are great artists who have to earn a living working as blacksmiths," he said. "The government should also offer scholarship grants to poor students.”
Vu Kim Anh, deputy director of HCMC Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said many artists can't wait for government support any longer.
“Artist Lam Van Xieu died waiting for don ca tai tu to be recognized [by UNESCO]. Soon after its recognition, singer Bach Hue, who had a beautiful voice for don ca tai tu, passed away at the age of 83,” she said.
Anh added that the government should immediately implement policies favoring artists and singers.
“The government has activities to promote don ca tai tu, but it has had problems supporting the people who directly preserve the traditional music genre,” she said.
Pham Cao Phong, general secretary of the Vietnam National Commission for UNESCO, said the agency closely monitors commitments a country makes after the recognition of a heritage.
“For an intangible heritage of humanity, the owning country has to report its protection and promotion efforts to UNESCO every six years, including about the country’s commitments,” he said.
“If the comitments are not respected, UNESCO can revoke the title.”
Phong said Vietnam has concentrated on performing intangible heritages without caring much about the value of spreading them throughout the community.
“Its vitality within the community represents the actual spirit of traditional culture and the true value of a given heritage.”
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