Conversation about Đờn ca tài tử

Sunday, October 13, 2019 3:19:00 PM

At the end of the 60s of the twentieth century, we, the National ensemble, gathered at the evacuation place at Lạc Đạo commune, Châu Quỳ district, Hưng Yên province for getting the political training and learning Marxist-Leninist philosophy. We attended the class in the morning and in the afternoon and discuss in groups in the evening. Our training schedule was so busy that we were only free on Saturday and Sunday. To reduce the stress, caused by tough lectures, Southern cải lương artists often organised performances in the evening.

In the first one or two performance, I was still not accustomed to Southern-accent singing and a lot of instrumental music with many unfamiliar sounds. However, I had a passion for that Southern music in the next performances.
Over ten years later, after all the country gained independence, I was accepted to work in the Musical Research Institute in Hồ Chí Minh by the musician Lưu Hữu Phước. At that time, I was the employee of the Department of Document Collection, directed by Mr. Mười Đờn, a famous tài tử artist both in the Southern West and the East. Thanks to that, I had many chances to listen to his instrument playing and discuss about đờn ca tài tử in the South with him.
Until 2002, after the research work “Sonic Orders in ASEAN music” was done successfully, I had a chance to show the knowledge in this work in the fieldtrip of recording đờn ca tài tử in Hồ Chí Minh and Cần Thơ cities. Those documents were published in the CD “Sonic Orders in ASEAN Music - CD9: Vietnam”.
In 2010, I was invited by Asso. Prof. Dr. Lê Văn Toàn - the Director of the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology - to join in building the nomination file The art of đờn ca tài tử in Southern region of Vietnam for the submission to UNESCO for its recognition into the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Although I studied đờn ca tài tử, my knowledge of đờn ca tài tử is just as an outsider. Therefore, I was really nervous, think twice before the offer. Then, with the encouragement of the Director of the Institute and head of the “blood emerging research”, I decided to get work.
I spent four months reading, generalizing, categorizing all handwriting or printed materials about đờn ca tài tử, which have been collected for over 40 years. Then I came to a conclusion that there are too many different results or statements of the appearance, the cultural and historic value of đờn ca tài tử. How can we take part in the preparation of a nomination file of đờn ca tài tử with so much different information? My instinct and experiences told me what I had to do. I knew I had to do wide and deep fieldwork study in order to have a frame of this kind of music.
At the beginning of November 2010, our fieldwork began. We made hundreds of dialogues with researchers, tài tử artists, cultural managers in 14 provinces and cities of the Southeast and Southwest. Their answers and real stories about đờn ca tài tử provided us much interesting information. I want to share with you.

Questions: Why is it called “đờn ca tài tử?

Answer: “In my village at that time, many people used to play music together in wedding parties or death anniversary, but there was no singing. Later they sang when playing music. That is the reason why we called “đờn ca” (playing and singing). When I was 20, people called “đờn ca tài tử.”
“When people only playing instruments without singing, it is called playing “đờn cây”. Đờn cây includes the plucked string instruments such as the kìm two-string moon-shaped lute, the tỳ pear-shaped lute, the tranh sixteen string zither and the bowed stringed instrument such as the cò two-string fiddle, the gáo fiddle. Playing “đờn cây” consists of the plucked string instruments and the bowed string instruments” .

Question: “Tài tử” is used to call people who are good at playing music or non-professional way of playing music?

Answer: “Tài tử are talented performers. They are good at singing and playing instruments, but they are poor because they do not sell tickets to earn a living from their performances. They have talent so they stop working and concentrate on art. If they do other jobs they cannot be as successful as playing music. When they are at the highest point of đờn ca tài tử, they become master artists - tài tử” .
“However, it is believed that tài tử are amateurs, who play music only when they want without earning money. I think you play well, I praise you, then you say: “I am a tài tử only”. Nevertheless, “tài tử” means the talent. Only ancestral artists of the old time deserve to be called “tài tử” .
“Most tài tử who are such talented are very poor. Mr. Nguyễn Quang Đại even had to move to many houses. Then the rich admired his talent and they paid him for teaching their children” .
“I remembered that at that time Chín Chiêu’s father was the landowner. He was very rich. Ba Đợi (Nguyễn Quang Đại) was very famous, so he invited him to his house to teach his two sons, Sáu Thàng and Chín Chiêu. Later I was taught by Chín Chiêu” .
“I think differently. In my opinion, at first it was the entertainment only for the rich or high-ranked people, instead of being the art of common people. Gradually this kind of arts attracted more people and thus it became more popular. Therefore, the rich, playing music, were called tài tử” .
“Đờn ca tài tử was played first by working people not by intellectuals. People who made impression on the next generations are working people.”


Question: Some people say that: “tài tử music derived from Southern folk music”. However other people say that “tài tử music derived from Southern nhạc lễ ceremonial music” and some say “tài tử music derived from Huế music. Could you tell me what is the truth?”

Answer: “I don’t really know whether tài tử music derived from Huế music or not. Being nhạc lễ ceremonial music and tài tử music players, I found that tài tử music and nhạc lễ ceremonial music have many things in common. In the beginning, people played đờn cây with 7 Nhạc pieces, 3 Nam pieces and Xuân Nữ piece of nhạc lễ ceremonial music. Then tài tử players also played these musical pieces; however, they played more slowly and more notes. Nhạc lễ ceremonial music has Bắc nuance, Nam nuance and Ai nuance. These nuance are also found in tài tử music, but it has one more nuance - Oán nuance. People only played ten musical pieces of “Thập thủ liên hườn” (which belongs to Huế music); however, now I see few people play this”.

Question: How many musical pieces have been included in the repertoire of đờn ca tài tử? And who was the first person having chosen the 20 principal musical pieces of tài tử music?

Answer: “Tài tử music has the twenty principal musical pieces which include:
- 6 Bắc trường piece: Lưu thủy trường, Phú lục chấn, Bình bán chấn, Cổ bản trường, Xuân tình chấn, and Tây thi trường. Moreover, 6 Bắc musical pieces were divided into 6 ones of Bắc Thủ and 6 Bắc Vĩ ones.
- 7 Hạ musical pieces: Xàng xê, Ngũ đối thượng, Ngũ đối hạ, Long đăng, Long ngâm, Vạn giá, and Tiểu khúc.
- 3 Nam musical pieces: Nam xuân, Nam ai and Nam đảo or Đảo ngũ cung.
- 4 Oán musical pieces: Tứ đại oán, Phụng hoàng, Giang nam cửu khúc, and Phụng cầu hoàng duyên also called Phụng cầu. Then there were 4 more musical pieces of Oán phụ or Oán ngoại such as Bình sa lạc nhạn, Thanh dạ đề quyên, Ngươn tiêu hội Oán, and Võ văn hội Oán.
Besides the twenty principal musical pieces, there are:
- Thập thủ liên hườn including Phẩm tuyết, Nguyên tiêu, Hồ quảng, Liên hườn, Bình nguyên, Tây mai, Kim tiền, Xuân phong, Long hổ, and Tẩu mã.
- Bát Ngự has 8 musical pieces: Đương Thái Tôn, Vọng phu, Ái tử kê, Bát Man tấn cống or Bắc Man tấn cống, Tương tư, Duyên kỳ ngộ, and Quả phụ hàm oan.
- Ngũ Châu has 5 musical pieces: Kim tiền bản, Ngự gia, Hồ lan, Vạn liên, and Song phi hồ điệp.
- Tứ Bửu has 4 musical pieces: Minh Hoàng thưởng nguyệt, Ngự giá đăng lâu, Phò mã giao duyên, and Ái tử kê (this composition is different from Ái tử kê in Bát ngự).
- Tam Bắc nhị Oán has 5 musical pieces which were collected in Mỏ Cày by Chín Tâm including Hội huê đăng, Lục luật tiêu hà, Bắc ngự, Quả phụ hàm oan, and Xuân tình bát Oán.
- Dạ cổ hoài lang composed by Cao Văn Lầu
- Tứ bửu liêu thành composed by Ba Chột
- Ngũ châu minh phổ composed by Nguyễn Văn Thinh.
And there were musical pieces such as Nam âm ngũ khúc, Ngũ cung luân hoán, Khúc hận Nam quan, and Ngũ khúc long phi. There are many tài tử musical pieces which haven’t been collected yet.
From the beginning of 20th century, if tài tử players want to compete each other, they often use repertoire of the four nuances and modal characteristics of Bắc, Nam, Hạ, and Oán. These are typical musical pieces in tài tử competition. Then they have been called the twenty principal musical pieces.”

Question: Besides traditional musical instruments used in đờn ca tài tử such as the tranh sixteen-string zither, the cò two string fiddle, the kìm two string moon-shaped lute, the gáo fiddle, the tỳ bà pear-shaped lute, the tam three-string lute, the đoản lute, the tiêu vertical flute, the sáo horizontal flute, the độc huyền monochord, the song lang percussion instrument, we can find many other musical instruments such as the sến lute, guitar with a hollowed-out finger board, violin whose strings are altered to suit tài tử music, Hawaii guitar. Many people accept these instruments but some don’t. Why?

Answer: “A guitar with a hollowed-out finger board enables musicians to play notes like líu lỉu liu lìu and to play the special tài tử ornamentation such as press, vibrato, glissandi, and so on. Playing electronic guitar appeared in đờn ca tài tử band. The sến lute became the instruments for tài tử music long time ago. There is no argument about this.”
“From the 1965s up to now, there has been electronic guitar. The sound of electronic guitar is very interesting. Its sound vibrates because of electricity so that we can perform lyrical musical pieces and some musical pieces of the Nam voice, Bắc voice, Xuân voice or Oán voice. Pressing an electronic guitar is better than a barrel one because the latter’s sound is shorter than that of the former.”
“Every tài tử music band has had guitar until now. Guitar plays an important role in tài tử music. There is no need to argue about this.”

Question: Some people say that tài tử music was made by pentatonic scale including hò, xư, xang, xê and cống. Others say that is not enough. What is the truth?

Answer: It is the fact that there are only five main tones: hò, xư, xang, xê and cống; however, each tone can be played in 4 different sounds. For example, the kìm lute has 2 strings, Yin and Yang ones (tồn and tang), 8 keys, and 9 sounds: hò, xự, xang, xê, cống, líu, ú, xáng, and xế. Each tone can be played in 4 different sounds. Thus, with Yin and Yang strings, we can create 72 different sounds. It is said that someone who can use Yin and Yang well to make 72 different sounds obtains Thất thập nhị huyền công (excellent 72 sounds).”

Question:Some people call “Oan nuance” (known as hơi Oán), but some say “Oán modal characteristics” (known as điệu Oán). What is the correct one?

Answer: “In my opinion, nuance consists of a musical scale with playing techniques such as vibrate, press, etc. Nuance doesn’t include rhythm. Only when nuance is structured into musical phrases and rhythm, it became the skeletal melody. The skeletal melody is modal characteristics” .
“In the book “Southern tài tử music”, I stated that Oán is one modal characteristic, instead of nuance because Oán is different from Nam. The keynotes of Nam are xàng-xang, which are lower or higher then a tone. In contrast, the sound from Oán to xàng is played from liu-xáng-xế and then comes back xàng. However, it is not played through the intermediate note cộng. Therefore, it is called Oán. The Oán modal characteristic is very woeful and majestic because it goes straight. For example, Nam goes líu công xê xàng very softly while Oán goes through liu xế xáng xàng. It reaches the two highest tones and then comes back xàng. That is my understanding of the modal characteristics of tài tử music” .

Question: Where do people play đờn ca tài tử? And what do we need when playing this kind of music?”

Answer: “Đờn ca tài tử is very public. People can play everywhere even in a conference. People who know a little bit about it or much about it can play. We needn’t a large stage but only a small stage, a corner of restaurant, and sometimes there is only one singer with one instrumentalist.”
“According to the way of playing đờn ca tài tử a long time ago in Southern Vietnam, Mr. A left Sài Gòn for Sóc Trăng to meet Mr. B. Mr. B welcomed him and invited him to eat together without talking about playing music. They drank evening tea, then took their musical instrument and played together affectionately. They had never argued with each other and considered each other as brothers and sisters.”
“Before a đờn ca tài tử performance, people had to keep silent. When I was 20, we often sat on a wooden camp bed in a circle and played music without any machine. There were only 5 or 7 people. When playing, I had to sit quietly and enjoyed others’ singing and playing if it was not my turn.”

Question: Up to now cải lương and tài tử artists have reached an agreement that cải lương derived from tài tử. Why can’t some cải lương artists play tài tử as some people say?

Answer: “Cải lương instrumentalists are very good at đờn ca tài tử. Ba Tu was the only person who could play 20 principal musical pieces. My teacher said that we had to be with the troupe to sing well. Tài tử couldn’t develop without cải lương.”
“Đờn ca tài tử is not tài tử only but also is cải lương stage. Tài tử is different from cải lương only in the way of playing thick or thin notes, starting a piece or ending a piece because in cải lương singing, playing instruments had to depend on character’s situation.”
“The time I played music for cải lương was the time I practiced my tài tử playing techniques. Most of the tài tử artists of today are cải lương artists. It is wrong to think as you said.”

Question: It is said that every Southern people like đờn ca. Đờn ca is the invisible thread which makes local people be closer and also helps people have more social relations. Is that right?

Answer: “In 1947, I was the deputy head of ensemble troupe of Bạc Liêu. At that time we played đờn ca to serve people. After the first ten performances, we had to stop because of banning rule. However, we only stopped for a few days. We went to work in daily time, and in the evening we gathered to play music near a pond because all of us wanted to play this music. When the banning rule was erased, we were all happy.”
“During the war, although we had to obey the slogan “walking without trace, cooking without smoke”, the movement of đờn ca tài tử still developed. After a bomb attack, we watched tài tử Thanh Hùng and Ngọc Hoa performing. Our enemy awarded people arresting them but finally they couldn’t do that.”
“When Battalion 19 came to Chòm lẻ Cây khô, I was arrested. When some wanted to shoot me, suddenly some ones shouted loudly “Don’t shoot. He is good at playing. Take him to Cà Mau.” A month later, they asked me to playing đờn ca in the evening. Then I was released just because they liked my instrument playing.
Once I was asked to be a secretary in Linh Tự pagoda. This was in 1965 or 1966. Some monks liked me very much. They didn’t know I was a communist. A year later Phượng Hoàng Mỹ arrested me. It was said that I must have been tortured in prison. Over a week later, about at 7.30 p.m. or 8 p.m. there was a Jeep coming to Prison 17 where I was kept. There was a voice: “Tăng Phát Vinh.” I thought that “it’s time I was killed.” I replied: “Let me change my shirt. My shirt is too old.” “Don’t change. Come here.” Then two soldiers drove me to Bà pagoda. Then this Jeep stopped and they asked me to get off. After few steps I saw a table with many musical instruments on, then I also saw Sáu Tiểng, Sáu Hườn Bạc Liêu and Ba Ngọc. They were very happy when seeing me. Ba Ngọc said: “Captain Thi knows about đờn ca so he is very interested in it. He knows you are good at that so he wants you to play for him.” I had no chance to play đờn ca since when I lived in Linh Tự pagoda. Now I could play đờn ca again which made me very happy. We played đờn ca until early morning. Then Captain Thi asked some people to take me to my prison. I was released later. Đờn ca tài tử saved my life twice.”
“In 1970s when I came to Sài Gòn, hát bội classical theatre and cải lương reformed theatre were very popular. That was the reason why I often played both kinds of music. In dry season I played music for hát chầu and hát bội and in rainy season I played music for cải lương. At that time, Văn Giỏi, a famous electronic guitar player in Sai Gòn, and I lived nearby and were often invited to play instruments. Some policemen in the district loved our playing so much that they took us out of conscription. Thanks to my skillfulness in playing instrument, I could escape from military service for over twenty years.”
“At first when I took part in revolution, I was asked to carry out undercover activities in enemy-occupied zones. I didn’t have much experience so I was very confused. When I was called by the organization’s leaders, I thought I would take another duty. However, when meeting they asked me that “Can you play đờn ca tài tử?” “No, I can’t.” They asked to learn how to play đờn ca tài tử because only by that way could I have people’s love. Until that time could I recognize the art value of đờn ca tài tử.”
“The way how I became a tài tử artist was very strange and different from others’. I was born in a poor family. I didn’t go to school. Everyday I used to lead my buffalo to the field and sang. I remembered Ba Trực was Mr. Mộng Vân’s younger brother. He found my singing good enough so he said: “Hey, Guy, come to my house this evening, I’ll teach you how to sing.” I felt great. At that time I was 9 or 10 years old. In my village there used to be đờn ca tài tử group in wedding parties, families and funerals. They could sing until the next morning. They can sing while standing or sitting, which was called “ca bộ” (singing with gestures). Once in a wedding party, Uncle Sáu Lầu and Duy Kỳ were there. I found that many people singing before me had difficulties because the way Duy Kỳ played instrument. I thought I couldn’t sing. Then I asked Duy Kỳ who was blind to play as I required. He agreed and I sang very emotionally. When I finished I had girls’ support. I thought singing was very happy.”
“In 1993 I took my child to a đờn ca tài tử competition. Although we were very poor, I still wanted my son to pursue đờn ca tài tử. So I sold our rice to have money. However, she failed when playing Văn thiên tường and Phụng hoàng because the judges said they were cải lương pieces. I insisted on them but they refused to let my son pass the exam. We had to come back home. I remembered that day was on November 1st 1993. However, my child persuaded me to come my brother’s house, Hai On artist, to learn 6 musical phrases of Tứ đại oán. At night of November 13th we set off and arrived in Sài Gòn in the morning of November 14th. On November 15th 1993, we practiced more one time before the competition. She played beautifully and emotionally. The judges gave her compliment and journalists interviewed her. She would be awarded on November 22nd but we had no money to stay more so we had to come back home earlier without receiving the prize.”

Question: The young are not interested in đờn ca tài tử and other folk music. How have Southern people protected and developed đờn ca tài tử?

Answer: “In my opinion, when tài tử artists are still interested in đờn ca tài tử, they can train many young people who like đờn ca tài tử. Now cải lương still exists, therefore, đờn ca can develop. At first when I established a đờn ca tài tử club, there was no facility. My students and I had to use our own money to buy tables and chairs. I taught my students in the following way: For example when teaching Oán piece, I chose the most interesting phrase and wrote lyrics based on that tune in order that this was suitable to my students’ emotion. Therefore, everyone liked learning. However, the most important thing was that we had to organize shows to let them have chances to perform in front of many people. Fortunately, my club could perform in local area or in other provinces, which encouraged them very much.”
“I have taught hundreds of students. I also took part in teaching 4 or 5 classes in my district and province. I thought I was taught freely and this is time I had to do the same to young generations. Therefore, they are taught without being worried about fee. I hope that they are interested in singing and playing instruments only.”
For me, the conversations about đờn ca tài tử in our fieldwork during the last over two months not only have provided detailed and comprehensive knowledge about this kind of music but also helped me to understand the thought about culture, art and music as well as the way tài tử artists pursuing and practicing art look at them. They do not need to make research, but their life experience can help them answer questions clearly and exactly about đờn ca tài tử. The saying “No one understands you better than yourself” is really true.


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