VietNamNet Bridge – Nguyen Thi Thanh Tam was the first woman to play the dan bau in Vietnam and she has wowed audiences around the world with her musical gift.
The dan bau is a traditional Vietnamese monochord instrument which is made of a single-steel string stretched over a gourd. Originally, the dan bau was made of four parts including a 120 centimetre-long bamboo tube, a wooden rod, half of a gourd shell, and a silk string. The ground shell was attached to a rod, which served as a resonator.
Nowadays, the bamboo has been replaced by a wooden soundboard, with hardwood for the sides and softwood for the middle. An electric guitar string has replaced the traditional silk string. Also, most dan bau now have modern tuning machines, so the base pitch of the string can be adjusted.
According to the Vietnam National Academy of Music teacher Thanh Tam, the first women to have a successful dan bau career, it is possible to identify whether it is a bamboo or wooden dan bau based on its natural sound. “While a bamboo dan bau’s sound is short and resounding, that of the wooden one is long,” she explains. “But when we attach an equalizer to the two kinds of instrument, they sound alike.”
Dan bau players can use their bare hands or a stick to pluck the string. Though dan bau can be used to play any kind of music, for Thanh Tam, it is most suited to gentle and emotional melodies.
There are many single-stringed instruments in the world such as the Indian ektara and the Japanese ichigenkin, but what sets the dan bau apart is the playing technique. “If you simply pluck the string, the sound will be flat. First you have to lay the lower part of your hand on the string to hold it. When you play a note, you must simultaneously release your hand.
That combination will create a loud and firm sound,” Tam explains. “The dan bau’s notes depend on not only their locations on the string, but also the elasticity of the string when you move the rod. That’s why this instrument can play several difference notes in one pluck, creating a melody similar to human’s humming.
An instrument for men
There was an ancient Vietnamese belief that dan bau is a man’s instrument and women were supposed to not listen to its melody because it was so charming that they would leave their family for the man who played it.
Thanh Tam was first female student to study the dan bau. “At that time, I only loved guitar and dan bau, but the Music School did not teach guitar. Though I had not seen a dan bau in person, I had heard its melody through radio and fell in love with it,” the teacher recalls. “Vu Tuan Duc, the first director of the Department of Traditional Instruments, asked me constantly to make sure of my passion for the ‘instrument for men’ and finally accepted me as the first female dan bau student in the Music School’s history”.
On the first day at school, Thanh Tam was teased and bullied for being different. “I still remember that day. When I walked into the room where freshman students gathered, people recognized me and called each other to come and see a girl playing dan bau,” she call.
The first year was Thanh Tam’s hardest time because of not only being teased but also the difficulties in playing this unique instrument. “Sometimes I wanted to quit, but my teacher talked to me and played the dan bau for me. Its sound made me realize that my love is bigger than all hardship,” she shares.
Thanh Tam now believes both genders can play the dan bay equal well. “Girls playing dan bau will create a soft and delicate sound while that of boys playing this instrument will be quick and firm,” she explains.
After graduation. Thanh Tam stayed at the Music School, which is now the Vietnam National Academy of Muisic and started recruiting female students to her class. “The number of male and female is now fairly equal,” she says.
Blowing the world away
In the 1980s, Thanh Tam introduced Vietnam’s unique instrument to people in many countries through tours. She shares that international audiences really loved the dan bau: “I still keep letters and poems they gave me. They were so touching!”
Her most memorable tour was of the Soviet Union. “I had an opportunity to perform at a military school in Volgograd,” she recalls. “After my performance, there were cheers and claps and soldiers lined up to give me flowers. When I left the stage, I saw the flower garden next door was picked bare. I do appreciate their love for the dan bau and me. That great love has crafted a good memory in my heart,” she shares.
Another good memory is of 1974 when Thanh Tam performed ‘Beautiful Volga’ with the dan bau in Leningrad Square. “When I started playing, it rained. I just remember that someone came and covered me so that I could continue my performance without being wet,” she shares. “After the song, I looked up and saw many Russian soldiers holding umbrellas behind me. I burst into tears- I cannot forget that moment.”
Thanh Tam’s friends have suggested she writes a memoir about her overseas tours, but she says she wants to keep those memories to herself. “To be honest, having performed in many places in the world, when I came back and performed in my own country, I have to say that our people do not appreciate this treasure as much as foreigners do.
It’s said that youngsters nowadays don’t care about traditional instruments; however, many simply have no idea about them. If an introduction to traditional instruments is put in every school’s syllabus, things would be different.”