The art of Đờn ca tài tử in the cultural space of the south

Sunday, October 13, 2019 3:30:35 PM

Đờn ca tài tử (music of the talented) is a kind of art activity belonging to chamber music (an art performed by a small group of artists for a small group of listeners in a cozy atmosphere of a private house’s room, not in a large hall or on a grand stage for a large audience).

In this international conference, I would like to raise two important issues:


1. Sound

Each note used in đờn ca tài tử does not have an absolute pitch like the West which bases on diapason (e.g. the note A 435 herz, measured under the temperature of 16 degree centigrade). It also does not have a fixed pitch. In ensemble, instruments are tuned based on the unchanged flute or the singer’s voice. Therefore, the basic note is hò which can have the pitch of the Sol or Do or Re of the equal tempered scale, and based on this note hò, the pitch of other notes can be then defined.
Except for the notes hò xê and liu which are unchanged, xự, xang, cống notes can be played a little “young” (a little lower than the common xự note, not necessarily equal to 1/4 - 1/8, or a semitone) or a little “old” (a little bit higher than the common musical note). In study, you should follow the teacher’s instruction to avoid being out of tune. You can play a little bit lower or higher depending on pressing techniques while playing and trilling skills while singing.
When musical sound has only the pitch, duration, volume and timbre, it can be called thanh (physical sound) in Vietnamese language. If the musical sound is ornamented by vibrating, pressing and beating techniques, it is then characterized by the art and can be called âm (musical sound or note) (for these reasons, the subject for researching musical sound in terms of physics can be called thanh học acoustics. When that sound is used to depict art, it is called âm (musical sound), like music).
When the righ hand is used to pluck the instrument, we can hear the sound only. It is just the body of music. But, when the left hand is used to beautify the music, we then can hear the soul of music.
Thus, the typical feature of đờn ca tài tử is that the ornamental techniques of pressing in playing and ornamental techniques of trilling in singing are used.
In đờn ca tài tử, a little attention is paid to basic musical scale. Normally, musical scale is conjoined with mode. Each mode is called giọng, or điệu (modal system), for example, giọng Bắc (North) or điệu Bắc (North) is used for the pieces expressing joy; giọng Nam (South) or điệu Nam is used for the pieces expressing quietness, melancholy or sadness. In the điệu Bắc, there is also hơi (nuances) such as joyful hơi Bắc (pieces of Lưu thủy, Binh bán, Kim tiền, 6 pieces of large Bắc and many pieces of small Bắc); flowery hơi Quảng, grave hơi Hạ. In the điệu Nam, there are peaceful hơi Xuân; sorrowful hơi Ai; grave hơi Đảo which is similar to hơi Hạ but played on the Nam tuning not on the Bắc tuning.

2. Musical note ornamenting method

Every musical note has to be ornamented by using specific techniques for each instrument. Each musical note in hơi, however, has its own specific ornamenting methods. It is compulsory, not facultative:
2.1. In the musical scale of hơi Bắc (North anuance): the notes xự - cống have to be played in vibrating technique, hò - xang - xê in staccato technique.
2.2. In the musical scale of hơi Quảng: conversely, xự - cống has to be played in staccato technique, hò - xang - xê in vibrating technique.
2.3. To play hơi Xuân: the way to ornament the note xang is the most important. From the xang, with the fingering technique of glissando we move to xê that is perharp near to the lower cống (tài tử artists call it xế), and then turn back to xang.
2.4. To play hơi Ai: the note xang is vibrated at first and then is done slightly glissando to xê, not turn back to the note xang.
Therefore, it is clear that there are four ways to play the note xang in đờn ca tài tử art. If this note is played in the right four ways, all hơi are then expressed clearly: hơi Bắc will be full of joy, hơi Quảng will be very animated, hơi Xuân will be peaceful and hơi Ai, hơi Oán will be sorrowful.
- There are many ways to vibrate. The way to vibrate the note xang to express hơi Ai in tài tử music differs from that of the note xang in the melody ‘Nam Bằng’ or ‘Nam Ai Huế’.
- There are also many ways to express pressing technique: slight and soft or hard and strong.
Sometimes, the right hand is used to pluck the strings while the fingers of the left hand are used to mute them. For the kìm two-string moon-shaped lute, this is called ‘tịch’ (tồn tang tịch tồn tang) but for the tranh long board zither, this is called ‘tích’ (in Nam Xuân, there is the note ‘xể tích’).
When evaluating an instrumentalist, listeners usually depend on the way of using vibrating, pressing and staccato techniques of musical notes.

3. Melody’s composing and developing

In ensemble, đờn ca tài tử players never perform exactly the nuclear theme that the teacher has instructed him. According to an aesthetic viewpoint that my family has transmitted to our descendants, we should learn the basic but play in a flowery way. This viewpoint helps artists to be creative in performing to make their music more cheerful and the rhythm morelively. When performing melody, every instrumentalist has his own method of arranging the musical notes and sentences providing that he follows closely the skeletal melody and keeps điệu and hơi. Listeners follow the melody horizontally rather than vertically. In case of many different parts, the audience can choose the part that they love to enjoy. The parts are mostly interspersed with other artistically. Some instrumentalists play loudly, some stop playing and then resume later and perform as ensemble in harmony at the end of the sentence. Sounds in parts are not the same but never discordant. All together are in the same modal system and nuance.
In ensemble, although tài tử instrumentalists develop the melody in their own way and have never harmonized in ensemble with each other before, they can cooperate harmoniously with each other in performing thanks to the melody’s composing and developing method in đờn ca tài tử art following principles of the Principles of Changes, a philosophy of life in the Vietnamese society in particular and in the East Asian region in general.
According to the Principle of Changes, all things change minute by minute, second by second. Tools are the same, being worn out little by little per second and per minute and our human body has hundreds of thousands of cells dying and being born (biến dịch - variation). However, that change does not lose the shape of objects and the appearance of human beings because there are the elements that never change (bất dịch - non-variation). There is a temporary change when we meet a person. That is when we meet close friend, we show a smiling face but when we meet a stranger person, we show a decent face (giao dịch - interaction).
In the method of developing and composing melody, musical phrases always change in the viewpoint of plain and flowery (variation), but the nuclear theme never changes (non-variation). And when two musical instruments are performed together, musical notes are also changed to fit and support each other. That principle serves as a guideline for musical instrument combination in choosing the kìm two-string moon-shaped lute having the sound of silk string, the sound of terracotta to go with the tranh long board zither having the sound of steel string meaning steel sound, for example. The sound of terracotta is dull but bass while the sound of steel is pure but high. These sounds are complement to each other like yin and yang. Also based on that principle, an instrumentalist, sometimes, stops performing so that his partners can raise their playing. He can take part in at the end of the musical phrase, or in suspending phrase, repetitive phrase. This way is the same as the weaving bamboo pieces together to make large and flat baskets, etc, or the mixing of color threads in the embroidered pictures.

4. Method of tuning the instrument

There are two main ways to tune the strings in đờn ca tài tử art: dây Bắc (tuning according the Bắc mode) (used to play the melodies of hơi Bắc, hơi Quảng and hơi Nhạc) and dây Nam (tuning according to the Nam mode) (used to play the melodies of hơi Xuân, hơi Ai and hơi Đảo). Sometimes, there are also dây Oán and dây Vọng cổ (Special tunings to play the Oán pieces or the piece Vọng cổ).
Each musical instrument has its own specific tuning way:
+ Kìm moon-shaped lute: consisting of hò Nhứt string, take the tiếu (small) string to play in open string as Hò - hò Nhì string, take the tiếu string and press on the Xự fret as Hò - hò Ba string, take the note obtained by pressing the small string on the Xang fret as Hò - hò Tư string, take the note obtained by pressing the small string on the fret Xê as Hò - hò Năm string, take the note obtained by pressing the small string on the fret Cống as Hò.
There is a special way of tuning the instrument created by the late master Trần Quang Triều (or Bảy Triều as pen-name who is my father). He named this way of tuning as Tố Lan which was used to play such melodies as “Tứ đại oán” and “Văn Thiên Tường”. The two strings tồn tang are not tuned at the fourth, the fifth but at a minor seventh interval.
Many instrumentalists tune at Bắc Oán. It means that the distance between the two strings tồn tang is at the fourth, which is often used to play the melodies of Oán mode. But, it is used to play melodies of Bắc mode, so it is called Bắc Oán.
+ Tranh long-board zither: when tuning, the dây Bắc, also the dây hò Nhứt or the first string (the lowest) is taken as Hò. If the second string is taken as Hò it is called dây Hò Nhì the third string is taken as Hò it is called dây Hò Ba; the fourth string is taken as Hò it is called dây Hò Tư or sometimes it is called dây Oán.
Later Master Vĩnh Bảo made the tranh long board zither with 17 strings and then 19 strings and 21 strings which received a large support. Thanks to the addition of strings producing notes of lower pitches, the ambitus of the tranh long board zither became wider.
With the nineteen-string tranh long board zither, Master Vĩnh Bảo can play all hơi without adjusting the strings. Following him, many artists also have concerned on the innovation of the tranh long boar zither. Music teacher Phương Bảo has produced a special tranh long board zither which can be tuned based on the Western scale and can be used to play ancient melodies, new music and foreign music as well. Some of her students have practiced on that instrument. However, nowadays, most of artists and music students still use the tranh long-board zither according to the traditional form. Only sizes and the number of strings change more or less.
About the innovation of musical instrument, I would like to raise three principles:
4.1. Appearance should be more beautiful than ancient one
4.2. Ability of performing should be higher
4.3. Innovated instrument should express honestly traditional music language.


Before starting to perform a melody of a hơi (nuance), instrumentalists of đờn ca tài tử always play the rao prelude of that hơi. The rao prelude in the Southern tradition is completely different from the dạo preludes of the Central region. These Dạo khách, Dạo nam preludes have a fixed musical pattern. Students learn them and play these dạo preludes as their teacher has taught without changing. The rao prelude of the South has much more fantasy. Each teacher has his way to perform the rao prelude. At first, students perform what they have been taught but after they reach to a high level of art, the teacher allows them to create their own particular rao preludes.
When starting to perform rao prelude, the players, on the one hand, lead the audience to the tune, musical nuance to enjoy the musical piece. On the other hand, playing the rao prelude is also to test whether any frets are of right levels or not and the instrument strings are too hard or too soft so that they can play better their music. It is the same as the horse rider before his riding show, he should understand bad habit of the horse that he is controlling.
During the rao prelude performance, the player can test whether his newly-composed musical phrases receive the support or criticism from the audience or not. Besides, it is also the way to show off his special fingering technique that he has studied to create. Many masters have various ways to perform the rao prelude, which makes listerners prefer to listen to rather than enjoying melody.
Through the rao prelude, connoisseur can recognize the temperament of the player. The sound of the rao prelude can be refine, snobbish, or impure, vulgar, or modest, or arrogant (which was considered a “rude” in the past).
Those who share the same taste often meet and play đờn ca tài tử all together. In the ancient times, at a start, melodies of Bắc mode, hơi Bắc (usually the melodies Lưu thủy trường, Phú lục chấn, or three short Bắc melodies, Lưu thủy đoản, Bình bán vắn and Kim tiền) were played and next hơi Quảng (Khốc hoàng thiên, Xang xự líu, Sương chiều, or Tây Thi Quảng), hơi Nhạc, hơi Hạ (Ngũ đối hạ, Xàng xê), and then Nam mode, hơi Xuân, hơi Ai and Đảo ngũ cung). At the end, as always hơi Oán, Ai Oán, and Vọng cổ were performed. Listeners prefer listening to sorrowful to funy melodies.
A đờn ca tài tử concert does not follow an arranged program. People meet together and play as ensemble any melody they love in a spontaneous way.
Because it is a performance for entertainemt, not an art program to introduce to the public, there is no decoration of stage or the place for performing. Players dress very normally as everyday not in any special costumes.
However, in recent years, because the radio and television programs want to introduce đờn ca tài tử to audience and tourism companies want to introduce đờn ca tài tử to travellers as a special art element, artists are encouraged to correctly dress. They can wear shirt with tie or traditional clothes. And from that, đờn ca tài tử art has lost its non-professional characteristics and become a semi-professional or professional art.


Đờn ca tài tử art is linked with the lifestyle of many social classes in the old days. Many tài tử artists are barbers, boatmen, public servants, doctors and lawyers. Within a speech limitation, I can not go into the details of all the raised issues. However, through above mentioned things, we also find that đờn ca tài tử art is very varied, diversified, profound and subtle. Few viewpoints on performing arts or aesthetics are written into sentence or an article but in the tài tử circle they all know.
If each artist can write their own experience in the profession, write biographies of the teachers, friends that they knew clearly, then we will get some accurate and sufficient data on history, language and principle in đờn ca tài tử to build completely and comprehensively a national file on đờn ca tài tử art.
The tradition of đờn ca tài tử is not immutable but changeable according to age, environment and aesthetic viewpoint. Yet, we have to recognize that đờn tài tử nowadays no longer has “non-professional” characteristics like the old days, but there are many groups or clubs which have become the “semi-professional” or “professional” (because they often perform for the travel agency, the Radio and Television).
Wishing the conference successful.



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