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Villagers carve out a wonder of melodious musical instruments

Update: January, 18/2013 - 10:32

by Hai Nguyen

Music man: Artisan Bui Van Vuoc displays a variety of his products. — VNS Photo TranThanh Giang


Finely crafted: The dan bau (a single-stringed instrument) is among the many traditional musical intruments made by Dao Xa craftsmen.

(VNS) My father's Australian friend recently sent him an email to inform him that he would be visiting Viet Nam in early March, and expressed a desire to tour a craft village outside Ha Noi.

He was excited about the idea, and, upon my suggestion, plans to take his friend John Gibson to Ung Hoa District's Dao Xa Village, which is known far and wide for its handmade traditional musical instruments.

I took a trip to the village some time ago for a video project featuring the hundred-year-old craft, and recently returned as a "tour guide" for my old university classmates.

Dao Xa itself used to be a farming village. About 200 years ago, Dao Xuan Lai, a local carpenter, travelled to Ha Noi to work for a French employer, and learned how to make musical instruments from a craftsman he worked with.

When he felt he had mastered the craft, he returned to the village to share his skills with his neighbours.

Since then, the craft has been developed and preserved through the generations and Lai was named the village's Craft Master.

Instruments produced by the hands of Dao Xa craftsmen have become a favourite among many stage performers.

Workers craft a variety of traditional instruments such as the dan bau (a single-stringed instrument), dan ty ba (a pear-shaped guitar with four strings), dan nguyet (ful-moon-shaped guitar with two strings), dan nhi (upright two-string fiddle) and dan thap luc (Vietnamese 16-chord zither).

It took us one and a half hours by motorbike before we turned from the main highway on the same route to the famous Huong (Perfume) Pagoda, and drove down the winding roads and through the paddy fields into the village.

A sense of calm hit us as we passed through the village's front gate, and the noise and chaos of the city seemed a long way away.

As we slowed to a halt, we heard a confused melody of music combined with the sounds of carpenters chiselling away inside their workshops.


Old master: Nguyen Xuan Soan is considered to be one of the top craftsmen in the village.
We visited Dao Ngoc Khuong, an artisan who recently became a musician.

"We learn from each other and gain experience by working together," said the 42-year-old, cross-legged by a monochord.

"Our teachers were our ancestors and they've been plying this trade for years. As you can see, we do not have any equipment to measure the quality of the sound," added Khuong, who has a classic rustic appearance and lumpy hands dotted with black paint.

These artisans have never been trained in the professional sense. If you were to speak of pitch, length, harmonies or sheet music, it would be met with a bemused look.

In fact, most of these men are farmers and make musical instruments to support their incomes.

Khuong learned the craft from Dao Xuan Soan, who has been in the job for 30 years and is now considered one of the top craftsmen in the village.

Soan said the most important task is to shape a proper resonance box for each type of instrument which itself needs a certain type of timber.

"It requires the harmonious link between the cover and the bottom of the box which determines the sound. And the adjustment of the sounds is totally experience-based," said Soan, lifting a 16-stringed zither off the wall.

Having adjusted the strings, he played a little piece of music, his scraggy fingers sliding gently on the frets with the sounds flying high in the air, seemingly to express the very maker's innermost feelings.

Soan went on to add that only those who nurture an ardent love for the trade may pursue this path.

"Also the craft requires artisans' patience and more importantly, their love, passion and dedication. Without these, one couldn't produce a standard instrument."

Listening attentively to his music, and then to his words, to some extent we saw how dedicated he is.

Soan said he and other craftsmen in the village would like to hang a sign shaped like a stringed musical instrument at the gateway to the village to remind passers-by of the village's specialty.

Unlike many craft villages I have visited such as Chuong Conical Hat Village, Van Phuc Silk Village and Bat Trang Pottery Village, I did not encounter the day-to-day haggling that normally goes on because the pieces that are produced there are far more specialised.

I think I came to understand that, to absorb all the sounds and melodies of life, there's no better place to visit than Dao Xa Village. — VNS

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