|More than music: Meritorious Artist Ngoc Mai became famous during the resistance war against the Americans. She joined an art troupe to perform for soldiers in the 1970s. Here, the artist sings to local youth during an exchange at the Aùnh Sao Mai Don ca tai tu Club in HCM City's Binh Thanh District.
Don ca tai tu folk tunes inspired countless soldiers during Viet Nam's wars against France and the US. For prisoners, singing was an act of defiance. Today, the songs remain an integral part of southern culture. Van Dat reports.
It was 1978, three years after the American War had ended and the nation was reunited.
Meritorious Artist Ngoc Mai had just finished singing in a benefit concert for war veterans, some of them wounded, in Tay Ninh Province.
One veteran came up and asked her if she was Ngoc Mai. When she said yes, the man spontaneously hugged her and burst into tears.
While the artist tried to recover from the shock, the former soldier explained that during the war, he and his comrades did not know how she looked. They had listened to her hundreds of times on the radio, and her songs had motivated and uplifted them during the darkest hours.
He said they used to have hot arguments about how Mai would look based on her singing. There were two main camps. One believed Mai was short and had dark skin, while the other was convinced that she was tall and fair-skinned. They decided to have a bet. The side that won would throw a party for the other.
"Now, I can see that I've won, but it's a meaningless victory, because no one in my team has survived except me," he told Mai.
Mai was in tears as she recounted the story to Viet Nam News recently.
The bigger story
Behind the artist's unforgettable memory lies a bigger story - the story of how the art of Don ca tai tu has become an inseparable part of Vietnamese people in the southern region.
Hundreds of years after it was founded, the music genre, which has lent its name to the banjo-like instrument that is its main accompaniment, continues to be part of the people's daily life.
Residents of the Mekong Delta continue to play the music while working in the fields, gathering to sing them after harvests, and hum the tunes at any time of the day. There are many places where no funeral is held without this music.
The survival of this music genre is no mean feat.
During the years Viet Nam was colonised by the French, the nation's traditional music was not prohibited, but it received no encouragement. On the other hand, Western culture and music was strongly promoted among the Vietnamese community.
At these times, the music was still played in jungles and rural hamlets.
After Viet Nam threw off the French colonial yoke, the sound of Tai tu music continued to echo in the jungles, permeating the souls of Vietnamese fighters during war against the Americans.
So, during the fight against both foreign invaders for national salvation, it can be said that Ðdon ca tai tu was part of the soul of resistance.
One veteran, Nguyen Thi Cuc, told Viet Nam News that there were times the enemy considered don ca tai tu an invisible source of strength to the resistance that had to be destroyed.
|Songs of war: Professor Tran Van Khe, a famous researcher of traditional Vietnamese music, plays Don ca tai tu with Artist Hai Phuong at his house. — VNS Photos Van Dat
She said the music was used as a weapon to encourage Vietnamese soldiers to fight the enemies.
During this period, patriotic lyrics extolling the heroism and beauty of the country became an intrinsic part of tai tu music.
Meritorious artist Mai was among the most important soldiers who wielded this weapon.
She sang from Radio Liberation during the war, touching the hearts of thousands, giving them hope and courage.
Mai was born into a family with a long tradition of tai tu music. She grew up listening to it, but had no idea that her singing would one day encourage Vietnamese fighters and undermine their enemies' morale.
Between 1970 and 1975, when Mai was in her twenties, she also visited soldier's camps to sing for them.
"Singing could drown out the sound of bomb blasts. At that time patriotic songs were very powerful. No soldier can remember details of a written article, but a song would stay with them," said Mai, who has also composed hundreds of songs in another genre - cai luong.
Don ca tai tu was also a weapon deployed by Vietnamese resistance fighters who were imprisoned by the enemy.
Cuc, or Muoi Thu as she is known by friends, hails from Long An Province where this music is still very popular.
In a recent gathering held at the War Museum in HCM City after Don ca tai tu was regconised as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage, 62-year-old Cuc sang songs composed by a fellow prisoner called Nguyen Thi Xa. One of them was called Han Con Son (Hatred from Con Dao prison).
Cuc, who joined the revolution when she was just 13, said she knew Tai tu music well as a child, but her love for it blossomed when was incarcerated for two years (1968-69) in the motorious prison on Con Dao Island.
"There was no paper in the prison. People learnt, taught and composed the music orally. We learnt the music through love and passion," Cuc said, adding "the music gave us more courage and steadfastness to fight the enemy."
Since there were no musical instruments in the prison, rice bowls, pots and pans were used as the prisoners sang and kept their spirits up.
"The enemy was very scared of our music. It was our only weapon in the prison. We kept singing the music although they banned us from doing it," Cuc recalled.
"When we were badly beaten, we would start singing again, even after our hands and legs were placed in stocks. The music gave us strength. We sang to encourage ourselves and other who were jailed near us," Cuc said.
During her time in prison, she learned many songs composed by other prisoners. She said she cannot remember several songs she knew then, but if she was asked what was the strongest, most unforgettable memory she had of the fight against the enemy, she would say: Don ca tai tu. — VNS