Viet Nam News
by Trần Nguyễn Anh
Eminent music teacher Nguyễn Vĩnh Bảo, the sounds of whose guitar were recorded by the French before 1945 and who was the head chief of vintage music at University of National Music and Drama before 1975, always hung a colloquial đàn ghi-ta phím lõm (sunken fret guitar, or lute with six strings), as a unique feature of Vietnamese music, among other traditional musical instruments.
The guitar was born in Spain and was popularised in many countries. When it was introduced to Việt Nam, it was adapted by the players and guitar makers here into the sunken fret guitar to play cải lương (reformed theatre), vintage music and to recite poems.
Many cultural experts have mentioned the specific character of Vietnamese culture as being an open culture of receiving and adapting. When the guitar was first introduced to southern Việt Nam, it also underwent adaptation, as it became a common musical instrument in đờn ca tài tử (music of amateurs), which has been recently recognised as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
At first, the guitars are pierced to have sunken frets. After that, when the electric guitars appeared, they were sunken to play folk music.
At the Trần Hữu Trang Reform Theatre, audience can see sunken fret guitars being mostly used by the artistes in the show. Even these artistes have no idea when the guitar was first used, but according to a veteran artiste, “it was not until after the guitar was brought to Việt Nam; it has already been adapted to sunken fret guitar.”
Strung up: A shop selling sunken fret guitars in HCM City’s Gò Vấp District. — Photo 5giay.vn
The sunken fret guitar has an enchanting sound. When veteran artiste Út Bạch Lan was alive, she told the reporter that she had fallen for the guitar sound of veteran artiste Văn Vĩ, and that was when she decided to become a cải lương (reform theatre) singer.
“Vĩ was 15, and I was 12. We sang in front of the market gate to raise money for our mothers. We were even offered an opportunity to sing at Pháp Á broadcasting station. Vĩ was blind, but his sunken fret guitar enthralled many audience. It was hard to believe,” said Lan.
If typical guitars can be found all around the world, the sunken fret guitar can only be found in Việt Nam. “The difference is seen in what’s inside it, not what’s on the outside,” the artisans who make the guitar said.
“For example, with a sunken neck and the pressure of the fingers, the iron frets are easily worn out. The frets have to be replaced often, so sturdy material is needed to do that.”
Nguyễn Vĩnh Hoàng, an old musician, said that in Việt Nam, only a few knew how to make quality sunken fret guitar.
In a traditional guitar, the smallest string is 0.9mm in diameter. In the sunken fret guitar, the smallest is only 0.5mm. With the string smaller than a hair strand, when it comes under the pressure of the fingers, they are easily broken. Therefore, the secret to making the strings successfully is tough to learn.
Nguyễn Hoàn, a guitar artiste, said the sound of the guitar is recorded in Việt Nam. “With the string only half the diameter of the traditional guitar string, we have to make separate recording and sound mixer for our guitars,” he said.
For all occasions: Sunken fret guitars are performed at parties, countryside weddings, and funerals. — Photo tourdulichmientay.org
Trần Việt Bảo, a technician at the Đại Dương guitar store, one of the biggest sunken fret stores in HCM City, said, “Every month, we sell at least 100 sunken fret guitars, which include those sold at the store and distributed to the provinces.”
He added that "most of the vintage music players do not have stable financial conditions, and their guitars are used at parties, funerals, and countryside weddings".
“Although they are all electric guitars, the price is VNĐ1 million (US$44). The artiste is ready to play at the show with this price.”
The materials needed for the electric sunken fret guitars produced in Việt Nam, from the body, neck and fret to the tuning pegs, are imported from abroad.
Vũ Ngọc Oanh, a guitar technician, explained the reasons for the materials being imported. “The prices of rare woods in Việt Nam are extremely high, so importing them helps reduce the price and makes it easier for players to buy them. After the cai luong art genre was recognised as world intangible heritage, more and more people are taking interest in this vintage music, and buying and learning to play sunken frets guitar.”
Trần Văn Tài, a vintage music player from the Mekong Delta, who travels to HCM City to buy guitar, expressed his love for the instrument.
“We are farmers, and we love music; so everytime we travel from afar, there is nothing better than giving each other a guitar, or at least some string sets,” he said.
Artiste Nguyễn Hoàn added that in order to make it comfortable to move and perform, a kind of sunken fret guitar with two necks was available. The two-necked guitars have different characteristics and serve as 2-in-1 instrument. Some guitars with two necks are made with both sunken frets, but the sizes of the necks and sounds are diffirent.
Trần Trọng Kha, a professional guitar researcher and maker, has designed and made multi-task and multi-culture guitars, including American Hawaii guitar, Vietnamese sunken fret guitar and đàn bầu (monochord lute).
As an artist of the Trần Hữu Trang Theatre, Kha’s guitars are priced up to VNĐ10 million ($439) per piece, helping him promote Vietnamese music among the young people and foreign friends.
He said, “Many people take a particular interest in Việt Nam musical instruments, like these unique guitars and want to buy them. I usually order hundreds of guitars, but as it takes time to make them and the materials needed for the purpose are rare, it is not until several months later that I am able to procure these guitars.” VNS