The 95-year-old keeping traditional Vietnamese music alive

Vinh Bao

Vietnam's Music of the Amateurs has been likened to Western Chamber music. Fans of the traditional Asian art form describe its beauty and subtlety - attributes which Justin Rowlatt found difficult to appreciate, until he met its leading exponent.

It is quite rare to get an audience with Vinh Bao.

The 95-year-old is reckoned to be one of the greatest of the country's traditional musicians and the guardian of a form of Vietnamese music called Nhac Tai Tu Nam Bo - or the Music of the Amateurs.

He is not so mobile now, so it is his daughter who meets me at the door of his small house in a back street of Ho Chi Minh City. She leads me up to his tiny music room on the first floor.

The maestro is sitting on the floor. He is a small, slight man with a sweeping mane of white hair and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. It quickly becomes clear he has not lost any of his sharpness or wit.

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He gestures to a strange instrument beside him and offers to play. I am surprised to detect the hint of a challenge.

He has told me this is his favourite instrument, the dan tranh, or Vietnamese zither. It is certainly a beautiful thing. The zither is made of polished blonde wood. It is about a metre long and 15cm wide. The surface is convex and it has 17 strings, each supported by two wooden bridges.

The old man bends over the instrument and begins to pluck with one hand while the other presses and bends the strings. His hands move surprisingly swiftly and precisely. But the result is not what I expect.

I hear an almost random cascade of sound. There is little rhythm and many of the notes sound - to my ear at least - distinctly out of tune. As he finishes I nod uncomfortably and try to smile appreciatively. I think he realises I have found the music difficult.

"You have to forget the idea of absolute pitch," he explains. He tells me Vietnamese musicians tune the instruments as they see fit or according to the vocal range of singers who accompany them.

Vietnamese music is a product of the tonal nature of the Vietnamese language. A word with a high rising tone cannot be sung with a falling melody, and vice versa. So melodic forms have developed that allow improvised changes of notes to fit the tones of the words used.

He says that is why there is such an emphasis on what he calls "ornamentation", on bending and embellishing the note - another reason traditional music often appears "out of tune" to the Western ear.

Music of the amateurs

This type of music is "a highly bourgeois evolved art form... whose beauty lies in an extremely subtle and melodic style.

"Although comparable to Western Chamber music, [it] is of a strictly private nature to be heard by a small audience and practised by professional or semi-professional people as hobby for their own enjoyment."

From Introduction to Vietnamese music, by Nguyen Vinh Bao.

"That is why it has been so difficult to keep the Nhac Tai Tu Nam Bo form alive," he says, clearly frustrated. "The West displays to the Vietnamese young people its flawless instruments, its accurate notation, its varied repertoire, its orchestration, and its disciplined orchestras," says Vinh Bao.

"It is hard to get them interested in old-fashioned instruments," he tells me, sweeping a hand towards the collection that adorns the walls of the small room.

There are examples of dan nguyet, the "two-stringed moon-shaped lute"; the dan bau - a one-stringed instrument which has a buffalo-horn rod to bend the notes like a Hawaiian guitar; and the dan gao, the "coconut viola".

"Young people have tended to see Vietnamese music as a clumsy old lady, as old-fashioned," he sighs. But he warns darkly: "A nation that loses its culture will number its days before losing its entire nation."

Given his age and what he has said I am anxious when I ask him about the future. But to my surprise he breaks into a big smile and gestures towards a computer on the table behind him. I notice an expensive digital recording device beside it.

"I have more students than ever," he says with obvious pride. "I have got pupils all over the world." It seems Vinh Bao has been learning how to recruit the latest technology in his battle to preserve Vietnam's musical legacy.

He says he has recorded many of the classic Nhac Tai Tu Nam Bo melodies and, as well as teaching people in person, he now gives lessons over Skype. In fact, he says, our interview has overrun and he is due to give a lesson right now. I accept his offer to stay and watch.

Vinh Bao playing the Vietnamese zither

The nonagenarian is as deft with a computer keyboard as with a coconut viola. A few moments later he is chatting with a Vietnamese-American woman in Texas and the zither lesson has begun.

My translator had told me Vinh Bao's music is so delicate and mournful it moves her to tears - so now I understand it a bit better I am keen to give it a second chance. Vinh Bao bends over his instrument and plays once again.

This time I think I discern a purpose among what had seemed a jumble of random sounds. The music may be challenging but the way this old man has harnessed modern technology to preserve the tradition he loves is truly impressive.

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