Back to the roots

The Dong Kinh Ancient Music Ensemble in Hanoi has been assiduously reviving traditional Vietnamese music.

By Duong Nguyen. Photo: Trinh Tin on March 15,2016 09:12 AM

Back to the roots

Photo: Trinh Tin

Let me ask straight up: ‘When was the last time you went to a real traditional Vietnamese music show?’ If your answer is something like ‘About a thousand years ago’, behind the joke is an element of truth - Vietnam’s once-popular folk music is fading away.

Over the last decade or more, as the karaoke virus continues to sweep through the country, foreign pop music has increasingly dominated Vietnam’s music market. Ask any teenager who their favourite music icon is and they’ll probably say Taylor Swift. One may have expected some traditional music on TV and radio over Tet, but more likely it was ABBA’s ‘Happy New Year’ being played seemingly on a loop. Head to any shows advertised for tourists and you’ll find that traditional music is not only rare but also overly-commercialized. Venture outside of Hanoi to a local festival in Bac Ninh to hear romantic quan ho singing and what you get in return is a detuned microphone and the sound of the crowd.

As the glorious legacy of this intangible Vietnamese heritage may soon be in danger of disappearing there are very few opportunities left to hear traditional Vietnamese music. This fact drove Vu Nhat Tan and Dam Quang Minh to set up the Dong Kinh Ancient Music Ensemble, in an effort to revive the many genres that span Vietnam’s musical spectrum, from theatrical to chamber music, from folk songs to Buddhist chants.

For more than a year the Dong Kinh Ensemble has presented a series of monthly performances at a new arts venue in Hanoi, at 50 Dao Duy Tu in the Old Quarter. Each show has been curated to include a combination of five different traditional genres: ca tru, hat van, cheo, tuong, and hat xam. While the roots of ca tru can be traced back to Royal Court music and later to an intimate circle of socially elite groups, hat van is a ritual nurtured through ‘Four Palaces’ worshipping ceremonies. Tuong is considered the most classical and scholarly drama of the country, and cheo is a form of generally satirical musical theatre. Hat xam, meanwhile, was originally performed on the street by guilds of sight-impaired singers.

The Ensemble’s co-founder, Vu Nhat Tan, is a classically-trained musician who has spent his life fusing classical music with ambient noise and experimental sounds from field recordings. He has always, however, found great inspiration in the folk, court and concert music in various regions throughout Vietnam. Dam Quang Minh is also an enthusiast when it comes to traditional music. Born and bred in Hanoi he can be seen as the keen spectator striking a drum to show his appreciation at each ca tru performance. Joining forces, they are determined to make this music available to ordinary people.

‘The traditional music we sometimes hear at commercial shows or even at festivals is very questionable,’ Tan said. ‘Back in the old days there wasn’t even electricity, so why is ca tru or cheo now sung with a microphone? That’s not traditional music. Frankly, it’s fake’. He and the team of 20 artists at the Dong Kinh Ensemble worked hard for years to bring the music back to its original form as much as possible. ‘What we present is real Vietnamese music,’ he exclaimed. ‘Nothing else!’

In keeping the spirit of the arts alive, the first thing to do is recover traditional instruments. People’s Artist Nguyen Xuan Hoach is a master when it comes to this. He has beautifully restored the silk strings used on a Dan day (a long-necked, three-string lute), a Dan nhi (a two-string fiddle), and a Dan nguyet (a two-string lute). In each ca tru performance he skilfully plucks the silk strings of his Dan day in time with the beat of the phach, a bamboo percussion instrument struck with two sticks by singer Thanh Binh. Thanh Hoai is another great vocalist who associates her name with cheo while Luong Trong Quynh uses her beautiful voice in hat van.

Each performance by the Dong Kinh Ensemble is an unforgettable experience for the audience. If you like the show you can express your gratitude by tossing a bamboo stick into a clanging metal bowl as a symbol of your appreciation. ‘The reward stick is the traditional way the audience signifies their approval and delight,’ Tan explained. With its setting, the performance also allows audience to sit very close to the stage, which makes for a most charming and intimate experience.

Hans Johnson, a Swedish native, was surprised by the sincere beauty of the music the Dong Kinh Ensemble presented. ‘Though I’m not familiar with it, the musical expression is unique,’ he said. ‘Both the lute player and the vocalists did an amazing job.’ Hai Anh, a local student, was also happy to be introduced to these pure art forms and the enchanting sounds and poetry.

So whether you’ve only just arrived in town or care deeply about these fading music genres, the Dong Kinh Ancient Music Ensemble promises to present an exotic side of Hanoi, a hidden gem behind its bustling streets. It’s music that invites you to travel back in time, to reflect, to rethink and re-imagine what is beauty, what is poetry, and what is art, and to feel the vibe of the country’s musical history from its past to the present.

The Dong Kinh Ancient Music Ensemble performs monthly, on every second Friday of the month at 8pm, at the Old Quarter Cultural Exchange Center, 50 Dao Duy Tu, Hanoi. Tickets can be bought at the door. For further information contact Mr Tan on 0124  9125 212 or email or

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