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Vietnamese lip lute gets an ambassador

Update: October, 04/2015 - 03:33
Resonance: Dang Van Khai Nguyen plays one of his dan moi instruments. He often teaches the children in his neighbourhood during their free time.

Dang Van Khai Nguyen is trying to introduce the Vietnamese lip lute to the world - starting with the kids in his neighbourhood. Mai Nga and Trung Hieu report.

Dang Van Khai Nguyen, 23, is trying to be a "messenger" who introduces the Vietnamese dan moi (lip lute) to the world.

Dan moi is the Vietnamese name of a traditional musical instrument widely used by ethnic minority groups in the country.

This instrument is somewhat similar to the Jewish harp, but there are some differences. Most dan moi are crafted out of a single piece of brass and have a string attached to a decorated bamboo case.

Rather than being played against the teeth, like a jaw harp, the dan moi is played against the lips. This gives much more flexibility to the player, leaving him free to shape his oral cavity as a resonance chamber to amplify the sound.

Nguyen, a resident of Tan Phu District in the southern province of Dong Nai, works in the Nam Cat Tien National Reserve.

Speaking about his teacher, Nguyen said, "Two years ago, I saw a man who looked like Professor Tran Van Khe on television. He gave a very interesting lip lute performance.

"He is a researcher of the jaw harp and has been to more than 70 countries to introduce the Vietnamese lip lute.

"Then I learned that he is Prof Dr Tran Quang Hai, son of Prof Khe. I admired him very much.

"At that time, I also had some lip lutes but I was playing them just for fun. I didn't know much about the techniques as well as its beauty. When I played the lip lute, my father often laughed at me. So I decided to contact Prof Hai and ask him to teach me how to play it correctly."

As the professor lived in France, and the student was in Viet Nam, the teaching sessions were done online for four years.

Hai taught Nguyen thoroughly, from the basics to advanced techniques, and sent his video clips. Nguyen practised quite easily and quickly by watching the clips.

In addition to the instructions on playing it, Prof Hai provided Nguyen interesting information about the instrument.

"At first I liked it because it was strange," Nguyen said. "Its sounds are deep, very subtle. It is not played as other instruments."

During his training with Prof Hai, Nguyen knew that Viet Nam was considered a country that has a large variety of dan moi of 10 kinds.

Dan moi is the characteristic musical instrument of ethnic groups such as Mong, H're, Lach and Co Tu. They often use it to declare and exchange feelings of love.

Nguyen said he was surprised to know that this instrument was not commonly used in Viet Nam, but many countries in Europe and the United States welcomed it warmly.

"Few people know that thousands of dan moi are made and sold abroad every year. None of the other national instruments of Viet Nam can surpass it. This is because each Vietnamese lip lute is considered to have the best and the most accurate sound, compared with other types of lip lutes," he said.

After Nguyen became skilled at playing the instrument, combining the techniques from other parts of the world and of Viet Nam, he began to make the instrument himself.

From the simple instrument made of bamboo to completely new types, his innovations made Prof Hai say, "Now I have lost to my student!"

Hai said about his student, "He is just 23 years old, but this guy plays the lip lute better than even I do. Unfortunately I live in France and cannot meet him regularly."

Nguyen made the lip instrument partly because he wanted to explore and be creative, and partly because he wanted to make instruments free for the children in his neighbourhood to practise.

"One evening three years ago, when I was playing the lip lute, some children came. All were wide-eyed and interested. They begged me to teach them to play it.

"I thought I could popularise the instrument this way, both to arouse passion among the children and also have a group of enthusiasts to share it with, rather than play alone," he said.

"Teacher" Nguyen was a "true copy" of Prof Hai while teaching the kids, the only thing different being that he taught them in person. He imitated Prof Hai's style in all the lessons and teaching methods. The way he taught was effective and the children understood easily as he had done.

He taught them during summer, when the children had free time. Sometimes when the learners seemed slow, Nguyen performed a musical piece to stimulate them to feel more passion and strive to play the instrument like him.

Nguyen also taught the children during the spare time they had after school. He said a few of his students could now play all the lip lutes of Europe and Asia.

Messenger of music

His love for the instrument has affected not only the children in his neighbourhood, but also people abroad.

As he knows that there are several kinds of lip lutes in the world, Nguyen has set up a Facebook account to communicate with friends across the globe.

He makes video clips to guide people on playing the lip lute, about its features and how to make the instrument, and uploads them on YouTube.

Friends from countries that do not have lip harps such as Argentina asked Nguyen to sell them the instrument. Nguyen did not sell them, but presented them as gifts. His friends then presented Nguyen some flutes, trumpets and souvenirs.

The Sunda region in Java island of Indonesia has received a variety of Vietnamese lip lutes, presented by Nguyen to their traditional orchestra.

When he visited Phan Thiet City in Central Viet Nam in September last year, Nguyen met a group of friends from the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the home of the Khomus lip harp.

Nguyen played music and presented Vietnamese instruments to them.

Yakutia television made a report about Nguyen and his lip lutes.

Nguyen said he was happy to present instruments to foreign friends.

"I feel I have indirectly presented this Vietnamese instrument to the world."

Foreign friends also gift their instruments to Nguyen because they know it is the most meaningful gift for him.

Thanks to these exchange visits, Nguyen has a collection of 600 assorted lip lutes from more than 25 countries, compared with the 35 countries in all that have lip lutes.

In addition to the instruments of the ethnic minorities in Viet Nam, Nguyen owns those from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, besides Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Japan, as well as India, Nepal, Pakistan, Austria, France, Norway and Finland.

Nguyen said, "It's been a joy collecting lip lutes for the last three years. I collect them because I like to study them more than playing them. Each country has their own lip lute with different timbres and shapes."

At the presentation of this instrument held at the home of Prof Tran Van Khe last year, Prof Hai and Nguyen met each other for the first time.

The teacher and the student were happy, and so their symphony that day was great.

Nguyen said he wished, like his teacher, to travel all over Europe, America, Africa and other regions to become an official messenger bearing lip lutes to international friends.

"The paradox is that our country is home to many kinds of lip lutes, but there is too little information about it," he said.

"The lip lute has not been widely introduced, so many people still do not know about it. They do not see its interesting points. I hope to organise many performances to promote this Vietnamese instrument." — VNS

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