02 September 2005

Music Lessons

Coming up the stairwell at about floor three of the Palace, I heard music. At the top of the stairs, before one headed left into the cavernous expanse of presidential meeting and entertainment areas, stood an open door. I could see that it led into a small room. I walked in not knowing what to expect, and was thrilled and delighted to find young man seated, playing a traditional Vietnamese instrument.

The dan bau is a one stringed instrument. The wooden sound base sits lengthwise on a table, with a string suspended about an inch and a half above it. On the left side is a horizontal rod that is attached to the base and the string. The string is plucked with a wooden pick that is held between the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand. The little finger rests on the string. The left hand controls the rod, bending it either inwards or outwards to raise or lower the pitch. The result is a beautiful, soulful sound. I was mesmerized.

When Dung, the young man, finished playing, he moved to another instrument, the trung. This one you play while standing. It is made of various lengths of bamboo, strung together both vertically and horizontally. The shape reminded me of a turtle shell, if you were to view it from the inside out. (one of those sea turtle sizes). It is played by striking the bamboo with mallets, also made from bamboo.

Next, Dung went over to what looked like a bamboo xylophone, except that it had two rows on top of each other. He cupped his hands together, pointed them downwards, and sort of clapped in front of the open ends of the bamboo. The sound produced was a low, rich, echoing tone.

When he finished, several on-lookers walked over and he encouraged them to try it. They clapped their hands and no sound came from the bamboo. I had to try this. Dung helped to position my hands. I clapped, and that is all I heard. This was not possible. Again, he demonstrated. It looked easy enough. We tried again, and nothing. He then realigned my hands and raised them up a bit so that the tips of my fingers were aligned with the openings. I clapped and was rewarded with a lovely bamboo reverberation. Great! I had it, and was eager to try a tune. I clapped my hands in front of a different note and, once again, nothing. Several more attempts, some successful, others not, proved that the klong put was much, much more difficult to play than it appeared.

The room emptied and I started asking questions about the instruments he had played and the others that hung on the walls around the room. I asked about the musical scale used. I believe it is five notes, the same as in China and other Asian music. He picked up a bamboo flute and played several songs with complete virtuosity. I pointed to the dan bau, adorned with inlay work, and asked how old it was. I think he said over 100 years old. Then he invited me to sit down and give it a try. I was a little hesitant to mess around with a valuable antique, but he assured me it was ok.

Dung showed me how to hold the pick and pluck the string. After a few tries, I was able to do it. Then came the left hand bending the rod, which took no skill to manipulate, but it didn’t quite sound like when he’d played it. I could have sat there and played with all the instruments all afternoon, but I didn’t think that was what the other visitors to the Palace had come to hear.

There were CD’s for sale and I asked if he was the one on the CD. No, it was his teacher, a renowned traditional musician. I bought the CD, and gave the money to a young woman who turned out to also be a student of traditional Vietnamese music. Tram then carefully wrote down the names of the instruments that Dung had played, and a few words of description so that I would be able to keep all the names straight. She said she had only been studying a year, but that Dung had studied at the music academy in Ha Noi. I asked if they ever performed. No, but there is a traditional music concert every Saturday night, very close by.

This had been the absolute BEST part of the Palace trip, and I was reluctant to leave the music room. I wish I could have stayed there all day.

With a song in my heart,