Dan Bau, a unique musical instrument of Viet Nam

Dan Bau, the Vietnamese monochord/Courtesy of Hon Que.org

The monochord, called “Dan Bau” in Vietnamese language, is one of the only two traditional musical instruments of purely Vietnamese origin.

With only one string stretched over a sound box, the Dan Bau can emit all the sounds in the pentatonic scale and produce smooth melodies which embody the beauty of the country and its people. Its sound is so soft, charming, and emotional that the Vietnamese have to warn themselves by two folk verses that:

“The music of the Dan Bau should be solely for the pleasure of its player.
Don’t listen to it if you are a young woman.”

The legend and history of the Dan Bau

Like almost all of Vietnamese traditional musical instruments, there is not enough reliable documentation to determine the age and the inventor of the Dan Bau.

According to the “Dai Nam thuc luc tien bien”, a history book of Vietnamese composed by Nguyen dynasty in the 18th century, the first Dan Bau was made in 1770. However, nowadays, many scholars estimate its age to be up to one thousand years older than that.

The ancient Dan Bau in early 20th century/Courtesy of the Museum of Vietnamese history

A popular legend of the Dan Bau’s beginning tells of a blind woman playing sorrowful music from the instrument in the market to earn money for her family while her husband was at war. She received this instrument as a special gift from a fairy, who was very touched by her behavior of sacrificing her eyes to save her mother-in-law’s life.

According to Professor Tran Van Khe, a well-known scholar of Vietnamese traditional music, addressed in a workshop of Dan Bau in Bulgary in 1998, and then was quoted on Vietnam Beauty website, “whether this legend is based in fact or not, it remains true that the Dan Bau has historically been played by blind musicians. At its first appearance, it was a very simple instrument comprised of a bamboo section, a flexible rod, a calabash or half a coconut.

After a process of evolution and improvement, the present form of the Dan Bau is a bit more sophisticated, yet still quite simple. Until recent times, its soft volume limited the musical contexts in which it could be used. The Dan Bau, played solo, is central to Vietnamese folk music, a genre still popular today in the country. Its other traditional application is as an accompaniment to poetry readings.”

The modern Dan Bau/ Courtesy of Hon Que website

Actually, not only Viet Nam has the monochord, but many other Asian countries also have their own one-string instrument. According to findings of Professor Tran Van Khe, China has “Ixian qin” with one silk string plucked by right fingers; Japan has “Ichigenkin” with one silk string plucked by metal nails; India has “Gopi Yantra” with one bamboo string. However, as Professor Tran analized, none of them can create “the serene, melodious and inspiring melodies that reaches out to the emotions to wherever the wind carries its sound like the Dan Bau. Every pluck of the Dan Bau’s string is a tale of love and history in itself touching every listener’s heart while stirring their souls.”

The structure of the Dan Bau

The word “monochord” means one-string. In Vietnamese, Dan means a stringed instrument, and Bau means gourd. The appearance of the Dan Bau looks like exactly what it says.

According to Wikipedia, originally, the Dan Bau was made of just 4 parts: a bamboo tube, a wooden rod, a coconut shell half, and a silk string. The string was strung across the bamboo, tied on one end to the rod, which is perpendicularly attached to the bamboo. The coconut shell was attached to the rod, serving as a resonator. Now, the bamboo has been replaced by a wooden soundboard, with hardwood as the sides and softwood as the middle. An electric guitar string has replaced the traditional silk string. While the gourd is still present, it is now generally made of wood, acting only as a decorative feature.

Also, most Dan Bau now have modern tuning machines, so the base pitch of the string can be adjusted. Usually the instrument is tuned to one octave below middle C, about 130.813 Hz, but it can be tuned to other notes to make it easier to play in keys distant from C.

The structure of the modern Dan Bau/ Courtesy of Dactrung.net website

In recent years, Dan Bau is made very carefully to ensure aesthetic and sound quality. When played in public, it is often used with an electronic amplifier.

How to play the Dan Bau

Although having ony one string and simple structure, the Dan Bau is not easy to play well. Playing the Dan Bau requires high precision to allow rise and fall of pitch along with lengthening and shortening of the notes with the aid of the flexible rod that permits the shifting tension of the string, thus, trills could be played.

The performance of the Dan Bau/ Le Quang

When playing the Dan Bau, the musician uses a long plectrum to pluck the strings by his right hand while touching it lightly with the side of the hand at a point producing a harmony. At the same time, the player uses his left hand to push the flexible rod towards the instrument using the index finger to lower the pitch of the note, or to pull the rod away from the instrument with the thumb to raise the pitch of the note. This technique is used both to play notes not available at a node as well as to add vibrato to any note.

 

The Dan Bau may be played on a scale consisting of third-tones or even quarter-tones. The notes played by the Dan Bau are smooth, sweet, and captivating.

In the past, the Dan Bau was usually played solo or along with poetry recitals. In recent years, it has taken part in large orchestra to accompany stage operas. Now the Dan Bau has been usually performed in big events of Viet Nam and on major stages in foreign countries.

The music of the Dan Bau

With soft and charming sounds, the Dan Bau was used only to perform Vietnamese ancient traditional music, such as “Cheo,” a traditional operatic genre for many folk stories in North Viet Nam; Hue’s music, a combination of popular local music and royal chamber music from Central Viet Nam; “Tai tu Nam Bo,” the royal chamber music in South Viet Nam.

However, in the past 50 years, the music of the Dan Bau has taken a huge turn where players infused electrical pickups and amplifiers with the instrument to make its sound more distinct and audible to larger audiences. In addition, traditional musicians not only play the older inherited repertoire but also new compositions, creating new performance techniques for this instrument.

Now, there are many modern musical pieces exclusively composed for the Dan Bau solo, such as Truong Chi’s smoke by composer Nguyen Thien Dao, Dance of the Central Highland by Duc Nhuan, For the South by Huy Thuc, and so on.

Watch the Dan Bau performance of artist Ngo Tra Mi with the “Truong Chi’s Smoke” song. 

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Vietnamese monochord gains American audiences’ sympathy

Artist Ngo Tra Mi performs the Vietnamese monochord in New York/ Le Quang

The female artist in Vietnamese traditional dress gently plucked the string. The sound of the Vietnamese monochord began resounding rhythmically. The whole hall was sunk in ancient melodies which sounded like sorrowful inner voices. Some old woman softly wiped her eyes. Some closed their eyes to enjoy the music. And when the last sounds were fading out, all the audiences stood up and applauded thunderously to the artist, Ms. Ngo Tra Mi from Viet Nam.

“This is the first time I perform the Vietnamese monochord in the United Sates and I’m so happy about it,” Tra Mi said to her American audiences. “I really want to introduce the monochord to American people very long time ago. Now, my dream comes true.”

Ngo Tra Mi is a famous master of the Vietnamese monochord. The 35-year-old-artist got the top degree in this instrument in 1994 and a master in Musical Pedagogy in 2007. She currently lectures on the monochord at the Ha Noi National Conservatory of Music and the Malmo Academy of Music in Sweden. She performs widely in Europe, Australia and Asia.

“Tonight, I want to show everyone here the Vietnamese traditional music through the sound of the Dan Bau,” Tra Mi said. “It’s one of the most unique traditional instruments of Viet Nam. Although it has only one string, it can express our soul, the Vietnamese soul.”

The monochord, called “Dan Bau” in Vietnamese language, is one of the only two traditional musical instruments of purely Vietnamese origin. It has also been an integral part of the Vietnamese heritage. With only one string stretched over a sound box, the Dan Bau can emit all the sounds in the pentatonic scale and produce smooth melodies which embody the beauty of the country and its people. Its sound is so soft, charming, and emotional that the Vietnamese have to warn themselves by two folk verses that: “The music of the Dan Bau should be solely for the pleasure of its player. Don’t listen to it if you are a young woman.”

(Watch the clip to know how to play the Dan Bau) 


In her first performance before American audiences in New York on April 21, Tra Mi played famous classical pieces of Vietnamese traditional music, such as “Cheo”, a traditional operatic genre for many folk stories in North Vietnam; “Hue royal chamber music”, a combination of popular local music and royal chamber music from Central Vietnam, which UNESCO recognized as a world heritage; and “Tai tu Nam Bo”, the popular music of South Vietnam.

In addition, Tra Mi performed some modern compositions with new performance techniques, surprising not only American audiences but also Vietnamese ones who are very familiar with the monochord.

“With soft sounds, the Dan Bau was used only to perform Vietnamese ancient traditional music,” Tra Mi explained. “However, in recent years, the music of the Dan Bau has taken a huge turn. The monochord musicians now can play both the older inherited repertoire and new compositions.”

One of the modern compositions that were performed by Tra Mi in her New York show was “Truong Chi’s Smoke” of composer Nguyen Thien Dao. This song made many audiences very moved. It told a sad love tale of an ugly peasant named Truong Chi, who played a flute very well and fell in love with a princess. After a long time being heart-broken due to the princess’s refusal, he died and transformed into a jade glass of the princess. One day, the princess used this glass and saw Truong Chi’s shadow in the bottom of the glass. She suddenly sympathized with his desperate love and burst into tears.

(Watch the part of  “Truong Chi’s Smoke” played by artist Ngo Tra Mi)  

“I feel so moved when listening to this song. I think the monochord music can touch our hearts and bring relief,” said Rachel Cooper, Director of Cultural Programs of Asia Society, the co-sponsor of Tra Mi’s one-month-performing tour in the US. “The performance tonight was very special, and those of us who were able to hear this concert were very lucky to be the audiences.”

Tam Nguyen, 64, a Vietnamese – American woman from New Jersey said the monochord sound made her very moved. “I miss my home town in Vietnam very much. When I was a child, I was used to listening to this sound on radio before going to bed. It’s like a part of my blood.”

Artist Ngo Tra Mi felt very happy with the support of American audiences. She said: “Through Vietnamese traditional melodies performed by the monochord, I would like to show small part of Vietnamese culture to international friends, including Americans. I really want you all to love Vietnam, my country, more, and hope we will have a chance to welcome you in Viet Nam.”

After New York, Ngo Tra Mi continues her tour to present her unique instrument to American audiences during May and June of 2010.

Some photos of Tra Mi’s performance in Hartford in June 3, 2010.

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Yale University holds 2010 Commencement Ceremony

Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yi Mou at 2010 Yale commencement ceremony/ Le Quang

Yale University held its 309th Commencement Ceremony in the Monday morning of May 24 on the Old Campus.

There were about 18,000 people, including nearly 1,300 undergraduates and more than 3,000 graduate students, attending this three-hour-long event which began at 8.30 am. The ceremony was also warmly welcomed the appearance of director Steven Spielberg and actor Denzel Washington, whose children are conferred degrees this year.

A total of 3,243 students earned degrees this year. In addition, the University conferred honorary doctorates on 10 renowned politicians, artists and scholars including Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, soul singer Aretha Franklin, and Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou.

Holding the doctor degree of biology in her hands, Cu Yen from New York said of the graduation day: “It’s so great. I have to spend five years working very hard for this day. And I did it.” Yen is planning to study in Boston University as a postdoctoral researcher for next two years, and then move to California for working.

Cu Yen and her mother at 2010 Yale commencement ceremony/ Le Quang

The day before, Yale Class of 2010 held the Class Day ceremony on Sunday of May 23 with Class Day speaker Bill Clinton. In his address in front of the crowd of Yale seniors, former President Bill Clinton, a 1973 graduate of the Yale Law School, urged the students to build up the positive and reduce the negative.

“You have choices. As you make those choices do what makes you happy and relentlessly check yourself: Am I building up the positive and reducing the negative?” Clinton said.

He also urged the class to listen to different points of view. “The only place we’re bigoted now is we only want to be around people who agree with us,” he said.

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Three death in Hartford crash

Earl Glazier\Fox 61

Hartford police report that three people died after a crash this morning on 236 Tower Avenue. The crash was reported at 3:50 am. A silver 2000 Nissan Altima lost control and struck a tree on the street. The road is closed.  

Three occupants on the car were announced death. They are Shakela Patterson, 19, Anthony Smith, 22, Carlos Diaz, 22, all of Hartford.  

Ladisha Williams, 17, of Hartford survived the crash. She was transported to Saint Francis Hospital and is listed  in stable condition. 

The preliminary investigation of the police showed that speed was a factor in the crash.

If anyone has information regarding this incident, contacts the Hartford Police Department’s Crime Scene Division at 860-757-4225.

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