THE MUSIC OF  SOUTHEAST ASIA:                                                                                                                                                                                         

                                                           >Home: Map<        Instruments             Videos             Articles             Links              Biography         Contact          Disclaimer                                      

Books + CDs

The traditional music of Vietnam
written by Ingo Stoevesandt

High mountains, deserts, deep jungle - Vietnam shows many faces. Speaking about traditions, it is even more divers:
The three major cultural Asian traditions of China, India and Indonesia melted with indigenous sources, thus creating
a culture which is rich and outstanding - and about to perish.

1. Invitation
When I was in Hanoi the first time I was very surprised to hear someone practise Chopins second piano concert on a detuned piano. I soon figuered out that the old building in front of me was a local music school. But still, what I heard did not match with the world I was standing in at that moment: In a typical small dusty road some corners away from the asphalt streets, in between pigs and ducks and chicken, with tin roofed small houses and people chilling out and trying to ignore me, I still could not put in the virtuosity of Chopins drama - even more as I did not expect it to happen.

This was my first motivation to search for the “real” music of Vietnam:  A short glimpse of a well-known piano piece by Chopin!
Three months later, I found out that listening to the real traditional music is not as easy as I expected it to be. I was experiencing a warm welcome at the V.I.M. institute in Hanoi, and afterwards things got much more clear to me. It seems like most of the traditional music disappeared or changed, and the main “traditional” fact is that the old instruments are still used. Another point is that many ensembles which one might listen to today mix up with instruments of the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. So, speaking about traditional “Vietnamese” music always means speaking about the music of these people too.  Sometimes, instruments of these ethnicities just get assimilated and turn into a “Vietnamese” instrument.
There are not so many opportunities left to listen to traditional Vietnamese music: Festivals like new year, weddings and funerals (if experienced at the country side) and sometimes shows on TV and radio. Vietnamese theatre and opera are, if still alive, more interested in following Western styles, and the other occasions for experiencing music are questionable if to be “traditional”, like bigger hotels serving food while ensembles play for entertainment purposes. Even in aspects of folk music like children songs, more and more traditions perish and are hard to be experienced today.
There are many webpages that introduce the traditional music of Vietnam very well. So why writing another article about it?
I would like to do something else. I would like to invite you to a short presentation of actual music performed and lived in Vietnam compared with the “typical” aspects of the traditional music and its appearance for a Western first time listener. I will try to keep the “dry facts” as short as possible in order to give a quick overview of what someone might listen to in Vietnam now and in future.

2. A mosaic of music
The actual presence of music in Vietnam is rich and divers. The market is increasing, Pop music is on its way to dominate the Karaoke sector, and it is this Karaoke virus which we find all over Asia that also dominates the whole Vietnamese music market. In Hanoi and Saigon, Cassettes, Videotapes and CDs are purchased at lowest prices, most of them black copies from Western productions. In tourist locations like restaurants, hotels and discos we find the newest Techno productions from overseas side by side with local Popmusic starlets, which are commercialized like the big stars in USA.

If we watch Vietnamese TV we do mostly find sounds of Vietnamese instruments like the Dan Bao or Tranh reduced to a background jingle, shows with “real” traditional music are not rare but even commercialized. Whenever you face a TV set in a public place like a restaurant it is getting more and more common to watch CNN and MTV than local stations. This means that American and European Pop music is more and more taking over the average ear of the Vietnamese citizen.

In the streets we sometimes find the crashing cymbals and bumping drums of a Chinese funeral - that’s also the sound of Vietnam.
Nobody should be surprised if beggars appear with a microphone and an electric guitar to sing for some money - most of the time they are getting paid to go away because their music is too bad - and in the rumor of motorbikes and vendors we hear the multiple sound of thousands of transistor radios and smaller TV sets. My last boat trip at the beautiful coast of Nha Trang was like a big Goa party with Techno music played so loud that I could even hear it under water.

But these rumors of a growing civilization are not the only sounds Vietnam has to offer. Listen up if you step on the market, and you will hear a carpet of sound as colourful as the multiple wares in front of you. Step into a monastery, and you will enter a new world of sound, whether there’s a liturgy with singing and prayers or just simple silence. Take a walk on the countryside, watch the poeple do their work on the fields and you will listen to many singing voices thus making the hard work more easy. All these sounds together with the divers music - that is the sound of Vietnam.  But, which I will never forget, when I was travelling down a river in the midth of nowhere, was the lonely cry of a Dan Bao.

3. Instruments
Somehow, every kind of traditional music of a country is bound to one or two instruments which represent this music and are only to be found in this country or region. In Vietnam, it is not that easy, as there are hundreds of them. If we keep in mind that many of the instruments are very old and appear in other Asian countries or other ethnicities with equal shape but different names, and as we also keep in mind that much of the knowledge about the instruments was lost during the decades of war, we know that it is very difficult to quote whether an instrument is truly “Vietnamese” or not.

On the other hand, there are few instruments which are sure to be truly original Vietnamese, and these are the instruments which you may find at any corner in Vietnam. They are sold as tourist souvenirs and if it comes to the point that somebody wants to learn traditional music in Hanoi, Hue or Saigon, one of these instruments will be in first place of his interest.

Nearly all instruments are still made by hand, only few (mainly the tourist versions) get produced in factories. The manufactured ones are of course better in quality and sound, and many of them get ornmanted with carvings or inlays.
There are many websites that describe these instruments with pictures and audiofiles, so I will only list the most important instruments with a link to the VIM pages, as they are:

Dan Bao     Dan Tranh       Dan Trung (not truly Vietnamese)       Dan Nhi       Dan Nguyet     Dan Moi

One interesting fact is, that most of the traditional music of Vietnam is no solo music. Solo pieces may be found for Tranh and Bao, but these are not so old, so these pieces rather belong to the contemporary music. Most instruments belong to an ensemble, and even instrumental music is rare, as traditional Vietnamese music is centered around the human voice and singing. Ensembles appear in many sizes, starting from one instrument to accompany a singer, up to fifty or more for a theatre play. If you find yourself in the situation to listen to an ensemble nowadays understood as “traditional”, you will also find many “exotic” instruments from the ethnic tribes living in central and northern Vietnam, like the Goong or the K’ny (speaking fiddle).

4. Melody and Rhythm
The musical system of theory is as much important for the listener as the instruments. Traditional Vietnamese music is often experienced as “strange” by Western listeners, because it uses a different basic scale for melodies, the anhemitonic pentatonic scale:

   (1)(1)   (2)

Looking at these two modi (“dieu” in Vietnamese), "bac" (1) and "nam" (2), we already mention something which is also different from Western temperized music, and this is the difference between these two most ofcten used modi in Vietnamese music. They seem to be the same, but the red signs +/- indicate the differing of the pitch by a quarter to eigth tone higher or lower. This kind of microtonality is not common to Western ears. If you play both melodies to an unprepared listener he would not recognize a difference.

If we now keep in mind that most of the Vietnamese music is rather homophone or heterophone than polyphone, but still chords like our “major” or “minor” do not exist as a result of the lack of semitones, we soon know that we have to change our listening habits as much as possible.
These modi are fixed and several tones get ornamented. Ornamentations require skilled players (which is not always fact), and a well trained audience will seperate a piece from the North from that one from the South of Vietnam just by listening to the used modus and the ornamentations within. Ornamentations are very important, also if used during improvisations.

The rhythm instead is mostly quite easy, held in 2, 4 or 8 beat steps. Of course, polyrhythmic elements are usual, and pieces often become faster to the end. Dynamics change within the instrumentation of an ensemble but never overtake the voice of a singer.

One more problem for the Western listerner is to divide between the individual pieces, as they first seem to be quite the same.           
The structures in this music are better described like grown branches of a tree, not like the clear architecture of the form in Western music. Periods and sequences do exist, but they are not obvious and are covered in organical developments.

5. Conclusion and future
Are there any tendencies for the future of traditional Vietnamese music? If we figure out that many genres like the classical chambermusic, the court music and most theatre forms already passed away, and if we also remember that most of the common music experienced in Vietnam today is inspired by Western aspects of the globalization, one could reach to the point that there is no hope for this kind of music - but this is not true.

Traditional music in Vietnam has always been a convergence of art music and folk characteristics. As the Vietnamese art music was linked to the kings court it surely had to pass away. But the folkloristic element is still alive. For the one who is travelling with open ears and open eyes, he will always experience a tradition in culture, dance and music which is indigenous, rich and unique.

The outstanding instruments, even if some of them might appear as “exotic”, their quality in simple shape but multiple sound, the task to listen to pieces which run through microtonaly differed melodies, the elegance and beauty of the perfomance as well as the rising emotions following the affects of the performed music - all these points are sources of joy that the open minded listener does not want to miss anymore and which he hardly finds in other music anywhere else.

It is a task of responsibility for the Western people to show Vietnam that they are not only interested in this music, because it is a new branch for a market called “Worldmusic”. It is a task for Western people to give an appropriate sign for their interest that, even in times of globalization, the Vietnamese keep their cultural identity.
It is a task for the Vietnamese people to encourage themselves to be more critical against the Western influencies and to keep their traditions alive, and to think about ways to motivate young people in order to learn how to love this music again.

If we all, dulich as also Vietnamese, do seriously engage ourselves to treat this music with the respect it demands, than we all can be sure that one of the most important columns of the Vietnamese identity will survive in the 21st century.

(written in Germany, 2007)