A dozen young men stand in a circle around an older man playing the khen (panpipe) and dancing passionately at the Vuong House in the village of Sa Phin in Ha Giang Province's Dong Van District.
|Paying the piper: Men dance and play the khen at the Gau Tao Festival in Rao San Commune in Lai Chau Province's Phong Tho District. — VNA/VNS Photo Xuan Truong
The house used to be the residence of Vuong Chinh Duc (1864-1962), a spiritual leader of local Mong people. It's now a popular tourism destination.
The small audience consists of students taking part in a class on how to play the khen and perform the traditional dances, held by the district for the last few months to teach and help preserve this cultural tradition among young people in the Mong ethnic group.
"Artists who know how to play the khen like this man are rare," said one of the students. "Sometimes I used to see some men playing the khen in the local markets, but now there is almost nobody. The sound of the khen is only heard during art performances and festivals.... If this project didn't exist, the sound of the khen would become extinct."
"In my hamlet, I am the only one who regularly takes part in festivals," said khen player Vang Quay Phu from Dong Tien Hamlet in Yen Thanh Commune, Quang Binh District. "Not many young people know how to play it. Here, the khen is most often played during funerals."
The khen is a wind instrument consisting of several small bamboo tubes, arranged closely together with one end connected to a wooden sound box. The khen may have six, 12 or 14 tubes. While popular with a number of ethnic groups in Viet Nam, including the Thai and the Muong, it is most associated with the Mong group.
The khen was once closely related to the daily lives of the Mong. Tour guides in the northwestern region used to say, "When we enter the house of a Mong person, only when we see the khen can we know that we are in the house of a powerful and talented man."
Legend has it that, long ago, an old couple gave birth to six children. When they passed away, the children cried their eyes out and blew through small bamboo tubes to tell of their sorrows for the death of their parents and the loss of their love. Thereafter, the Mong composed touching melodies to show their sentiments toward their ancestors.
But the tradition is gradually dying.
"Young people still like dancing to the rhythms of the khen they hear on CDs," said khen player Ma Khai So from Quan Ba District. "It's too difficult to learn the music, and there are fewer and fewer artists who know to blow and dance correctly.
"Festivals and singing contests are too few and far between," So added. "That's why young people and the players themselves have gradually forgotten how to play the khen. Some young people still compose melodies on the khen and play them amongst themselves. But the melodies are not composed in the traditional way and cannot be played in festivals.
"If young people don't learn it, this culture is at risk of being lost," So said with a sigh.
"The khen is representative of the Mong people," agreed 80-year-old Sung Dai Dung. "If we don't train people to play the khen, it will be lost in another 10 years." — VNS