Straight from the heart

Not only has Ba Pho collected hundreds of traditional Vietnamese instruments, he also knows how to play them.

By THUY DUONG on August 15,2019 11:59 AM

Straight from the heart

PHOTOS: JESSICA NGUYEN

Straight from the heart

Ba Pho Nhac Duong, or “Mr. Ba Pho’s Music House”, is among the most unique music spaces in Hanoi for displaying, preserving and playing various traditional Vietnamese music instruments. It is the only place in town where you can blow on a flute with your nose, as the Khang ethnic minority people from son La in Vietnam’s north do, try the “Dan gao”, made by the Khmer in south Vietnam from a coconut shell, or knock on stones, like some ethnic groups in the central highlands.

Vietnamese spiritual values

Sitting in a cozy space in Hanoi decorated in the Vietnamese style, artist Ba Pho dotes on his “Dan nhi” or “erhu”, creating music in harmony with the soft beat of a “krongbut” played by his son, Ba Nha, accompanied by high notes from the “Thach Cam”, made from stones, played by his wife, Mai Lien. The magical sounds from simple materials like bamboo and stone lead listeners into a musical maze. The artist family have given audiences many surprises, enchanting them with vivid but mysterious melodies played on traditional instruments.

“Every musical instrument of a minority group bears the hidden aspirations for their lives, their love of their origin,” Ba Pho says. “so, for every musical instrument there is a single way to play it; players must understand its ‘soul’ to be able to play it best. For example, the sound of the ‘Trung’ must be like the sound of water running over tiny pebble stones in a stream in the forest. The sound of gong music must be like the roars of a lion. The ‘Dinh-tut’ must resemble the cries of the forest birds; some gentle, some ferocious.”

Straight from the heart

Unique preservation

Visitors to Ba Pho Nhac Duong can not only admire and learn about more than 200 instruments from Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups but also enjoy the music of the Ba Pho family as well as try to play the instruments themselves.

Ba Pho, the owner of the traditional instruments in “Ba Pho Nhac Duong” and a renowned collector of famous folk musical instruments, showcases his collection hung on walls, placed on stands, or even on the ground, giving visitors a chance to take in them all. They are free to pick them up if they choose, to play them or examine their every detail.

The collection of more than 200 types of instruments is the result of 60 years of searching by Ba Pho. His desire has been to create a space for displaying traditional musical instruments, where people with a love of traditional music can come to learn, connect, and enjoy “truly authentic music of the Vietnamese people.”

“I want to find as many traditional Vietnamese instruments as I can, or even all of those our forefathers created,” he said. In those 60 years of collecting he also learned how to play hundreds of different instruments. He is perhaps one of only a few musicians with a deep understanding of the origins of these instruments, the way they were made, and how they are best played.

Funky instruments

An interesting trait of Vietnamese people when it comes to music, according to Ba Pho, is that they often turn their tools into instruments, or “turn material support items into mental support items,” as Ba Pho put it.

An ethnic minority group in the central highlands, for example, turned fragile bamboo pieces that were hung and made a sound to ward off evil spirits and birds, into the “T’rung”, which can create joyful sounds.

Few would know that the modern appearance of the “T’rung” was created by artist Ba Pho. It was originally just a curtain in a hammock shape hanging in the forest for the purpose of chasing away animals. Ba Pho renovated the shape to make it more beautiful, crafting the body of the instrument into a shape that resembled a stilt house, then placed a line of bamboo, the shorter pieces first. Players use two sticks, also made from bamboo, tapping them to elicit the sound of a running stream.

Similarly, the “Tan Mang” is also created from a big piece of bamboo normally used to store water. The “Dan Gao”, or “Dan Co Ke”, meanwhile, is made from a coconut shell used by the Khmer people in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region to draw water.

The set of stone musical instrument made by M’Nong people consists of 22 elongated-shaped stone bars, weighing a total of 22 kg. The instrument was discovered by people noting the sound of certain stones while they were fishing in streams.

These rocks, when knocked, had a strange tone, which may be because they’ve been soaked in water for so long. Over time, the outer, porous rock layer is worn down, leaving only the “stone skeleton” inside, with great stiffness and high impact resistance. When knocked, these stones emit the sounds of thousands of bells, linking listeners with their lives amid nature in majestic old rainforests and mountains.

The magical sounds from
simple materials like bamboo
and stone lead listeners into
a musical maze.
The magical sounds from simple materials like bamboo and stone lead listeners into a musical maze.

Ba Pho also successfully restored an ancient bronze drum that makes a loud resounding sound. In his opinion, “the bronze drum, when echoing, would make an enemy feel terrified, so it must be a bronze drum created during the ancient nation of Lac Viet.”

Every saturday night from 7.30pm, Ba Pho enthusiastically performs on bronze drums, the “Khanh”, the “Dinh-pang” and “Ding-pa”, “krongbut”, “pikhuu”, “Dinhtut” and “Krongduk” for local audiences who love traditional Vietnamese music as well as foreign visitors to Hanoi. He has spent most of his life studying and “understanding” every instrument he collected or created by himself. “Each instrument here is a testimony to the soul, to the civilization of every ethnic group, and contribute to the magical music garden of the Vietnamese nation,” he explained. “Playing music with all your heart helps listeners ‘absorb’ all of these messages.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that if you want to learn about Vietnamese culture through music, you need only visit artist Ba Pho’s place. The recently re-opened “Ba Pho Nhac Duong - Vietnam Traditional Musical Instrument space” on Nguy Nhu Kon Tum street in the capital’s Thanh Xuan district is truly worth a visit.

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