Exploring the Musical Traditions of Vietnam

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Exploring the Musical Traditions of Vietnam

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When I was young, my parents used to watch video cassette tapes of a popular Vietnamese-American variety show called “Paris by Night,” which showcased numerous comedic skits and musical performances. The shows were primarily conducted in Vietnamese, but the performances often bore distinctly Western influences.

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Nội dung Text: Exploring the Musical Traditions of Vietnam

  1. 1 Before the Sound of War: Exploring the Musical Traditions of Vietnam Andrew Pham
  2. 2 When I was young, my parents used to watch video cassette tapes of a popular Vietnamese-American variety show called “Paris by Night,” which showcased numerous comedic skits and musical performances. The shows were primarily conducted in Vietnamese, but the performances often bore distinctly Western influences. One particular act stands out in my memory, in which a singer and four or five backup dancers parodied “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” The Vietnamese rendition featured the performers dancing in tacky sparkling outfits while using chairs as their dance props. Like most Vietnamese imitations of popular American songs, the performance was sung in both English and Vietnamese. Such performances, as I remember them, were usually awkward and embarrassing to watch, but I also remember musical acts on the show that seemed more authentically Vietnamese in style. In these performances, the language and melody would seem to fit together much more naturally, and the outfits usually consisted of traditional formalwear called áo dài. Upon reflecting on these memories, I realize that I have only a vague conception of what characterizes Vietnamese music, and in order to achieve a fuller understanding of the technical and philosophical aspects that constitute the Vietnamese musical aesthetics, I researched traditional Vietnamese music, including both vocal and instrumental folk tunes. While researching, I struggled to narrow in on one topic, finding myself overwhelmed by the vast field of information. My motivation for selecting this particular topic derived from two main factors. I believe that because I grew up hearing the Vietnamese language spoken and sung, my tastes and tendencies in music as a listener and musician have been influenced by characteristics such as the language’s tonal inflections. I want to learn if and how these Vietnamese sounds have shaped my musical sensitivity and personality. Secondly, as a composer, I like the idea of incorporating traditional melodies into compositions and want to imitate
  3. 3 composers such as Béla Bartók in that regard. In order to do so, I must familiarize myself with the instrumentation and sound world that is unique to Vietnamese music. During my research, I came upon a chapter about transnational Vietnamese music in East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture, which introduced me to the phenomenon of the 1975 refugee movement and its effect on the output of Vietnamese music in both the United States and in Vietnam. Its discussion of music as an expression of resistance fascinated me, especially because “Paris by Night” had been deemed as a “reactionary cultural product” ("Paris by Night," Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia) by the Vietnamese government. This discovery raised several questions. I have always known of “Paris by Night” as a show, but I never questioned its political and social implications. My interest in studying the traditional methods and customs of Vietnamese music had me split, however, and I knew that my paper could only effectively cover either the traditional aspects or the popular musical developments that have arisen as a result of more recent historical events. One of the main issues that influenced the direction of my research was being able to find audio examples and sources that would complement each other. Fortunately, I encountered the CD “The Music of Vietnam,” which opened up my mind to a broad array of instrumental tracks that sounded new and fresh to me. This discovery reinforced my desire to focus on traditional music since I knew very little about it and would not have to worry about tracking the historical origins of miscellaneous mp3 recordings of Vietnamese songs given to me by my parents. Moreover, my curiosity heightened when I read the first line of the CD description on the back of the case: “Vietnam has the dubious distinction of being one of the most misunderstood countries in the world” (The Music of Vietnam Volume 1.1). This short description introduced the idea that, in the West, Vietnam bears the impression of war and very little else, which I have found to
  4. 4 be shockingly true after making numerous subject searches in the JMU library database. The majority of the titles have connotations of war, and when I limited the search to exclude the subject, very few results were left. At this point, I found a strong purpose in studying the traditional music of Vietnam. I grew up hearing the sounds of resistance that East Main Street discusses—vocal pieces that express sadness and memories of the homeland—but thought it would be refreshing to examine the culture of Vietnam before it inherited the name and face of war. Also, it would be particularly interesting to study traditional instruments that, according to “The Music of Vietnam,” “even the most ardent music lover” would not typically associate with Vietnam. In order to understand Vietnam’s musical and instrumental traditions, it is important to become acquainted with its cultural and physical geography. As the most culturally diverse country in mainland South-east Asia, Vietnam includes 54 ethnic groups. The largest group is the Viet or Kinh who lived in the lowlands, and other ethnic minorities resided in the highlands of the country, finding influences from Chinese, Laotian, Mon-Khmer, and Malayo-Polynesian cultures. The country’s diversity ultimately impedes the process of trying to identify a uniquely Vietnamese quality in music because even the music of the majority group, the Viet, reveals regional influences. The physical geography seems to play a significant role as well. Because the Viet lived around mountains and rivers, mountains and rivers were the subjects of many narratives and songs (Tran and Nguyen, Background). For example, one piece on the “Music of Vietnam” translates to “Crossing the River” (Qua Song), featuring a Vietnamese hammered dulcimer (đàn tam thập lục) performing a very percussive and rhythmic piece of music that uses little repetition. Other songs complemented rituals and festivals. The music of other ethnic
  5. 5 minorities stemmed from traditional customs and beliefs of the region and thus varied from culture to culture. The Vietnamese language is an inherently musical language with its tonal inflections— the language consists of six different tones or accents that can be applied to a syllable to change the meaning of the word. As a result, Vietnamese people were inclined to sing spontaneously on various occasions, and the different accents determined how one should shape the melody, particularly in folk music. In general, Vietnamese musical tradition goes hand in hand with its literary tradition since poems and dramas were often set to music, and the musical style reveals influence from Chinese and Indian cultures. For example, like classical Indian music, Vietnamese music contains much improvisation and ornamentation of melodies. Performances are often preceded by rhythmically free preludes in which musicians explore the possibilities of the modes of a piece, similar to the improvisatory alap of Indian music. Folk songs consisted of work songs, love songs, satirical songs, and smoking songs, and they reflected the emotions and sentiments of the working class as well as the “vivaciousness, quickness, candor, ironic wit and common sense of the Vietnamese people” (Vietnamese Realities 97). During the ten centuries of Chinese domination, folk songs heightened people’s spirits and hopes in preserving Vietnamese traditions and customs. Vietnam has an interesting historical evolution of music. In 1924 in North Vietnam, archaeologists discovered bronze drums and coins with engravings of two men playing an instrument made of several flutes tied together (khene). The music was very folkloric and used drums, khenes, castanets, and cymbals in ritualistic dances. From the second to the tenth century, Vietnamese music fell under the domination and influence of the Chinese and adopted the five tone scale of Chinese music. From the eleventh to the fourteenth century, Vietnamese music
  6. 6 received more Southern influences as the people made contact with the Champa, and two more notes were added to the five tone scale. From the fifteenth through the eighteenth century, songs accompanied by castanets, guessing game songs and boat songs became popular. Following these developments, Vietnamese music became modernized from the influence of Occidental traditions (Vietnamese Realities 97-98). In addition to the chronology of Vietnam’s musical history, it is important to note that classical Vietnamese music can be classified into northern tunes (Dieu Khach) and southern tunes (Dieu Nam). Northern tunes were thought to have derived from the victory over Mongol invaders in 1285, when an accompanying theatre troupe and an entire orchestra were captured and incorporated into the Imperial Court. In 1470, two members of the National Academy were assigned to study Chinese music in order to adapt its methods to Vietnamese music. They formed three committees that each took on a different task. One took on symphonic music, another music education, and the third the popularization of the musical arts. As for the southern tunes, origins come from contact with the Champa and Fou Nam kingdoms (Vietnamese Realities 98). Whereas northern tunes tend to be optimistic and lively, southern tunes express nostalgia and melancholy. An example of a southern tune is the twelfth track from the “Music of Vietnam 1.1.” According to the CD pamphlet of this album, the piece, Ly Giao Duyen, is a southern folksong that employs a musical mode or scale that creates the mood of a lullaby or a lament. The Vietnamese further modified the scale and instruments taken from the Chinese. The complete scale resembles the Western major scale with the addition of a ninth on top, and the third and seventh scale degrees are tuned a quarter tone lower. The Vietnamese solfege is as follows: ho, xu, y, sang, xe, cong, phan, luu, u. From the Chinese instruments, the Vietnamese made alterations to suit the Vietnamese temperament, resulting in the “five perfects,” or the
  7. 7 instruments that every cultivated person should play. These instruments include a violin (đàn nhị), a zither (đàn tranh), a kind of long necked guitar (đàn nguyệt), a lute (đàn tỳ bà), and a three silk-strung pear-shaped guitar (đàn tam). Another significant instrument is the monochord (đàn bầu), a trapezoidal wooden resounding case with a brass string (Vietnamese Realities 98- 99). While the core of Vietnamese music is vocal, instrumental ensembles exist in chamber music and theatre ensembles. Three kinds of instrumental ensembles exist: a large ensemble (đại nhạc), which uses drums, gongs, and wind instruments such as oboes and conches; an ensemble of bronze and stone chimes (nhạc huyền); and a small ensemble (tiểu nhạc or nhã nhạc), which uses string instruments like lutes, fiddles, and flutes. A large ensemble typically uses twenty large drums, eight oboes, four large gongs, four medium gongs, four conches, and four water- buffalo horns. The small ensemble uses two transverse flutes, one two-string fiddle, a moon- shaped lute, a pear-shaped lute, a three-string lute, a small drum (sinh tiền), and a set of three small gongs (Tran and Nguyen, Instrumental Ensembles). Traditional Vietnamese music had a spiritual and social role. Confucian ethics dictates that music should contribute to social harmony and bring peace to one’s heart. Music is to play a role in a disciplined society to preserve social order, good manners, and respect for tradition. Such roles of traditional music include serving theatrical performances, ballets, religious ceremonies, and burial music (Vietnamese Realities 99). This reminds me of various other cultures, in which certain kinds of music serve particular social roles such as the Tovil and Qawwali music, whose trance music served important social functions such as healing ceremonies and worship gatherings. Traditional Vietnamese music seemed to pervade numerous areas of life from the fields and mountains to the courts and religious temples.
  8. 8 Several listening examples from the “Music of Vietnam” reflect some of the discoveries I have made in my research. The first track of the CD, “Cung Dan Dat Nuoc” (Melody of the Country), is one of the first Vietnamese instrumental pieces I heard that really caught my attention. The piece consists of an ensemble that features the monochord (đàn bầu), which is accompanied by the lute, zither, and percussion. What strikes me about the music is the rhythmic intensity, textural variety, and freedom of the tempo. The composer of this piece, Xuan Khai, is considered important for writing music in the traditional style between the 1960s and 1980s. Prior to listening to this track, I assumed that traditional music was very simple and repetitive. It might also be the case that the composer had arranged the music in such a way that integrated traditional sounds with more modern innovative ideas, similar to the way Philip Koutev modernized Bulgarian music while maintaining a sense of tradition. The fifth track, “Tu Dai Oan,” which means “Four Great Sorrows,” features one of the five perfects, the 2-string fiddle or the đàn nhị. The timbre of the instrument is what surprised me the most. It is unlike the Western string instruments that I am so accustomed to hearing and instead resembles a reedy timbre characteristic of a flute. The embellishments in the melody sound similar to the way Vietnamese singers would embellish songs. This might be because the piece is a folksong that is associated with modern theater called cải lương, which is another medium through which I had become introduced to Vietnamese music while growing up. Cải lương is essentially a musical soap opera that features spoken dialogue and interludes of music. My parents, grandparents, and other relatives sometimes watched episodes of cải lương on video cassette tapes and often pretended to be cải lương performers, singing silly sentences to me with typical ornamentations and cadences found in it.
  9. 9 The sixth track, “Doc Con Xa”, is religious ritual music called Chầu Văn and also features another one of the five perfects, the moon-lute or đàn nguyệt. The music is associated with healers and stems from Buddhism. It is a religious form of art that combines trance singing and dancing, and the main purpose was to hypnotize a person who was estranged from the spirits with the rhythms and lyrics of the music, similar to the Shamanistic Tovil healing ceremony in Sri Lanka. After learning about the ceremony that the music serves, it is clear why the music is very fast paced and rhythmic. The lute, which is supported by metal and wood percussion, provides a driving rhythm rather than a singable melody to help set a person into trance. Throughout the research process, I found myself frequently frustrated by the challenges of gathering information and placing it in a precise historical context. One of the most difficult aspects of my research was trying to focus entirely on traditional music because the ambiguous denotation of “traditional” lends itself to different interpretations by different sources. Moreover, the omission of dates hindered my ability to establish a clear chronology of the historical developments of the music, particularly the instrumentation of the different ensembles. Even David Parsons, the producer of the CD “The Music of Vietnam,” states that “the line between purely traditional and completely modern music can get quite blurry.” Nonetheless, I found that focusing on instrumental music broadened my understanding of Vietnam’s musical culture, and the research ultimately spawned questions that I might decide to investigate in future projects. One subject includes music that arose after 1975 when several Vietnamese fled their country for the U.S. Because my parents are part of that generation, it would provide me with more insight into what my parents experienced and would allow me to better understand the motivation and incentives for shows like Paris by Night. Additionally, after watching a musical performance given by JMU’s Vietnamese Student Association about
  10. 10 memories of Vietnam after the Vietnam War, I realized to an even greater degree how much of an effect the Vietnam War had on the musical expression of Vietnamese people. Because I am more aware of my culture’s musical history, I will be able to appreciate traditional Vietnamese music when I hear it, and as a result of my research, I have incentive to investigate other aspects of Vietnamese culture and history.
  11. 11 Works Cited East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture. Eds. Shilpa Dave, LeiLani Nishime, and Tasha G. Oren. New York: New York UP, 2005. "Hat chau van." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Oct 2007, 16:29 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 Dec 2007 . The Music of Vietnam. CD-ROM. Vol. 1.1-2. Tucson: Celestial Harmonies, 1994. "Paris by Night." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Dec 2007, 16:21 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 8 Dec 2007 . Schramm, Adelaida Reyes. “Tradition in the Guise of Innovation: Music among a Refugee Population.” Yearbook for Traditional Music Vol. 18. (1986): 91-101. Journal Storage: The Scholarly Journal Archive. James Madison University Libraries, VA. 2 November 2007 . Tran, Van Khe and Nguyen, Thuyet Phong. “Vietnam.” 2007. Grove Music Online. Ed. L. Macy. 7 December 2007 . Vietnamese Realities. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Vietnam, 1967.
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