The Music of Vietnam
by Bruno Deschênes
Only since the beginning of the 1980s have we on this side of the world, started to hear appropriately about Vietnam and especially about its music. Vietnam is an intriguing country, located just south of China, and east of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The music of Vietnam has had many influences. It has been influenced by China from the north, and through the south and west by its western neighboring countries as far away as India. Moreover, Vietnam has over 60 ethnic minorities, many of which have their own music and instruments, but which also influence each other. The music of Vietnam is therefore extremely diverse and can be divided into three main regions: South, Center and North, the music of each region having its own particularities.
In the following article, a general historical overview of Vietnamese music is presented, with its most particular types of instruments, few of which are unique to Vietnam. The last section will present what characterizes Vietnamese music and its musical genres.
A Short Historical Background of Vietnamese Music
Vietnam as we know the country today started in the Xth century with its first Dynasty (968-980), the Dinh dynasty. From that century on, historians have discerned four main periods in the history of its music. Previous to the Xth century, Vietnamese history is obscure; little is known about the origins of its music. Archeological findings as well as few historical texts indicate that drums, some percussions, mouth organs, and conch, were used, but little more can be conclusively told about the origins of Vietnamese music prior to the Dinh dynasty.
The first period is from the Xth to the XIVth centuries, and combines influences from India and China. This influence is clearly shown at the base of the Van Phúc Pagoda, in the village of Phât Tich, in the province of Bac Ninh, which was built in the Xth century. At the bottom of a group of columns, we still find frescos of musicians and ensembles playing instruments. These frescos give to historians a pertinent idea of how music was performed at that time. For example, some musicians sit like Indian musicians while wearing gaiter distinctively Chinese. The Chinese k’în (seven-string zither) is played alongside a drum similar to the Indian damaru.
The second period is from the XVth to the XVIII century, the influences being predominantly Chinese. In the middle of the XVth century, the king Lý Thái Tông ordered two of his advisers to establish the music of the Court. Other advisers also participated in this work later on. To a large extent, this new music was based on the music of the Chinese Court of the time, that of the Ming Dynasty. This influence could be seen in terms of instruments, orchestras, pieces, repertoires, styles and even modes and theories, although some of the advisers made sure that it suited the Vietnamese spirit of the time. Many different styles of music were then created from this base.
The third period is from the XIXth century to the beginning of World War II. The Court imposed some new rulings on music which brought along the creation of a lot of new music and theater. With these rulings, Vietnam was able to develop an original and unique music that it could finally call its own, and which forms most of today’s musical genres and styles. At the beginning of the XXth century, a new theater was created, called « reformed » theater. Additionally, Western influences discretely started to appear. A few Western instruments made their way into use in the South: mandolin, Spanish guitar and violin.
And the fourth period started around 1945 and continues to date. Because of a strong influence of Western modernization and music, there had been a sharp decline of traditional music followed by a revival, especially since the 1980s. During this period, there has also been the development of a European style of music and, as well, composers have been writing music incorporating the Western style. As this period is still ongoing, it is difficult to generalize the current style of Vietnamese music, which is still in the process of evolution.
Vietnamese music uses an unusually large number of musical instruments. I list them here and then describe a few of the most important ones.
There are also several other wind, string, skin, wood, bamboo and metal instruments not named above, but many of which have been equally contributed by ethnic minorities.
The most typical, popular and most used Vietnamese instruments are the dàn bâu (monochord), the dàn tranh (16-string zither), the dàn nguyêt (lute in the shape of the moon), ty-bà (4-string lute) and dàn cò (2-string fiddle).
The dàn bâu is a one-string instrument that is apparently at least two thousand years old. It is unique to Vietnam. It is played with the right hand. The little finger side of the hand touches the string and applies pressure to shorten it, while a pick held by the thumb and index fingers plays the note. The left hand manipulates a handle that varies the tension on the string, creating different effects and pitches. The instrument has been modernized during the XXth century.
The dàn tranh is a 16-string zither of Chinese origin. The length can be between 98 and 110 cm. Up until the XVIth century, the strings were made of silk; since then, the great majority of instruments have been made with metal strings. It is played quite similarly to the Chinese gu zheng or the Japanese koto, with picks in the right hand which play the notes, while the left hand is used to press on the strings to create effects and change their pitches.
The Spanish guitar and the violin are mostly used in the reformed music of the South. The guitar was modified to better suit the needs of Vietnamese music. The spaces between the frets are carved deeper to allow for a change of sound by pressing on the string. There are four or five strings instead of six, and it is tuned differently (do1 fa1 do2 sol2 do3). The violin is also used and tuned as follow: do2 fa2 do3 sol3. It is played similarly to the dàn cò or the dàn gáo. The guitar and violin are used only in the South as they did not attract the interest of musicians from Central or North Vietnam.
Vietnamese music is modal, the most important mode being the pentatonic scale, among 10 typical modes. The pitches of the notes of these modes are not fixed, contrary to the Chinese traditional scale. The pitches of a mode and even melodies may vary from one region to another, from one instrument to another, or from one musician to another. Moreover, an important part of Vietnamese music is improvisation (in particular an improvised introduction to a song) and ornamentations, which vary with the styles, regions, instruments and musicians. The melodies of songs, no matter their genres (folksongs, theater, court or religious music, or others), follow the intonation of the Vietnamese language.
About musical genres, there are:
1) Court Music, called Nha Nhac, with large ensembles and dances.
2) Ritual and Religious music, which includes Buddhist ceremonies as well as shamanistic rituals.
3) Entertainment music, which includes the Hát a Dào, meaning the songs of the women singers; the music from Huê, from the Center of Vietnam; and the music of the South, which has four different styles.
4) Theater music, which is divided into three types: a) Popular theater which is called Chèo, b) Classical or Traditional Theater, called Hát Tuông or Hát Bôi, c) Reformed Theater, called Hát Cai Luong.
And finally, 5) there exist in Vietnam popular forms of music, which include folk music as well as the music of the more than 60 groups of ethnic minorities.
Nowadays, the Vietnamese government shows a strong political will to support and encourage the development, preservation and restoration of all forms of traditional music and arts. An Institute of Research on music and dance has been created. The well-known Vietnamese ethnomusicologist, Professor Trân Van Khê, has been a most influential figure in this revival. He has been teaching to young people, reopening traditional music schools and much more. Furthermore, there is strong support by the Vietnamese population to encourage the broadcasting on radio and television of traditional music, as well as for concert halls to present regular concerts. Many traditional music genres which were on the verge of extinction are now being revived. And finally, song books are published and CDs are produced, and well distributed throughout the country.
Suggested List of CDs
Those who would like to broaden their knowledge of Vietnamese music are invited to read the following book (unfortunately only in French) and booklets of the CDs listed below. Each CD booklet contains plenty of information in English. Any articles, books or CD booklets written by the extraordinary Professor Trân Van Khê are the most appropriate/informative.
Trân Van Khê, Vietnam, Tradition du Sud (Ocora, 1992)
Trân Van Khê & Nguyen Thi Hai Phuong, Viêt-Nam – Le dàn tranh, Musiques d’hier et ‘aujourd’hui ( Ocora, 1994)
Trân Van Khê, Viêt-nam, Poésie et chants (Ocora, 1994)
Pham Duc Thanh, Vietnamese Traditional Music (Oliver Sudden Productions Inc., 1999)
Khac Chi Ensemble, Moonlight in Vietnam (Henry St., 1997)
Vietnam Hát Chèo, Traditional Folk Theatre (Auvidis/Unesco, 1976)
The Music of Vietnam, Volume 1.1 ( Celestial Harmonies, 1994)
Northern Viet-Nam: Music and Songs of the inorities, ( Buda Records)
Viet Nam, Traditions of the South (1984-1996) (Unesco/Auvidis)
Trân Van Khê (1967/1996), Musique du Viet-Nam (Paris: Buchet/Chastel)
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