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Songwriter brings African rhythms to Viet Nam with Djembe collection

Update: September, 23/2014 - 09:31
Unique beat: Diep Chi Huy, 52, is the country's only collector of African Djembe, or hand-drums, and African masks. — VNS Photo Hoai Nam

by Hoai Nam

After completing a five-year course at Nha Trang Aquatic Product College, Diep Chi Huy struggled to succeed at various businesses in HCM City.

But the songwriter has since found his calling in African culture and has successfully created a niche for the unique and mysterious arts from the continent in Viet Nam's central region.

Huy, 52, is the country's only collector of African Djembe, or hand-drums, and African masks. He introduces the two arts at a showroom recently opened in the central city of Da Nang after spending 10 years in various African countries to build his collection.

"I spent quite some time in Africa," Huy recalled. "The art of handmade Djembe drums fascinated me when I saw Jason Mraz perform the song, I'm Yours. The portable drum, combined with the guitar, could be converted into a band on any stage you want."

"Of course, my business trips to the western region of Africa, including Togo, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Ghana, helped me to earn a living, but African culture and the hand drum enriched my sprit and love for arts and music," he revealed.

During his stay in Africa, he completed courses at the Academy of African Music and Arts in Krokobite, a town in the city of Ghana. It is in Ghana where the famous drummer, Mustapha Tet Tey Addy, discovered Huy.

"I studied the Djembe and did further training by playing at the academy on weekends," Huy recalled. "I found out that the portable drum has more advantages over other percussion instruments such as Cajon and Bongo.

"A drummer could use the Djembe to create the three key sounds of bass, tone and slap, and mix these with guitar music to produce an exciting and melodious tune," he explained, adding that the Djembe could replace the Cajon and Bongo in any band.

Born in central Binh Dinh Province, Huy began his musical career with the guitar, and joined bands as lead guitarist in the 1980s.

Hello: An African mask in Diep Chi Huy's collection.

He also wrote his first song when he was a college student.

"Songwriting has been my aspiration since childhood. It's fate," he said, adding that he had two live shows in 2008 and 2013.

That's the reason why he set up an African arts and music corner in Da Nang.

Vu Ngoc Long, a lecturer at the HCM City's Music Academy, said the appearance of Djembe in Viet Nam would attract the attention of the young.

"Young people can start playing Djembe easily, as its technique is not so complicated. Also, drummers have a natural feel for the native African beat and free-finger gestures," Long noted.

"The drum and the skills that go with it could replace traditional drum sets and skills in any band. The exciting sound and tune of the drum could easily fascinate players from the very first touch of the drumhead with a strong bass echo," Long said. "This is child's play for starters."

He expressed hopes that Djembe would spread a new style of music and positive entertainment among the young.

Spiritual drum and mask

Huy likewise expressed hopes that his collection of Djembe and masks would promote a deep appreciation for the beauty of African arts and create a new entertainment and interior decoration trend in Viet Nam.

"African artisans often make Djembe from the mahogany tree trunk and goat skin, so they couldn't use drumsticks or metalware during a performance," the songwriter noted. "They take months carrying out various processes for drying goat skin and carving the body of the drum, which features sculptures of the African lifestyle involving animals and nature."

"Players can wear the drum with a rope or sit any way they want with it. With Cajon, drummers have to bend their backs to beat the drums as they sit on it. But Djembe can make it easy for drummers to move or dance onstage," Huy explained.

"Djembe can create strong sounds without any amplifier or digital equipment. That's why a Djembe drummer and a guitarist can act as a band and perform pop or jazz in the streets or onstage," the songwriter added.

On the other hand, African masks are spiritual objects made of various kinds of timber and paint and used as interior decorations in homes. Each mask features an African face with metal or painted sculptures of lifestyle images.

Nguyen Duy, an architect, said Africa masks featured the mystery of nature and the life of the people in the continent.

"People can decorate their homes with paintings and other objects, but African masks could make your home a rendezvous for discussions on African culture," Duy noted.

Huy revealed his plan to perform Djembe in Da Nang once a month to create a new form of entertainment among tourists and youngsters, as well as open a showroom to introduce the drum and masks in Ha Noi and HCM City.

He said the drums were also being used as a cure for Alzheimer's disease, autism, drug addiction and depression. "I wish young people would fall in love with Djembe as I did. It makes the creation of music free and easy for them," Huy added. — VNS

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