Đào Xá Village revives folk melodies

July 13, 2023 - 16:56
Đào Xá stands as a quintessential agricultural village in northern Việt Nam, where its inhabitants primarily rely on farming for their livelihoods
Đào Văn Tuấn, artisan Đào Văn Soạn's son in Đào Xá Village, introduces the process of making a traditional instrument. Photos courtesy of the Hà Nội Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Nestled approximately 50km away from Hà Nội, Đào Xá stands as a quintessential agricultural village in northern Việt Nam, where its inhabitants primarily rely on farming for their livelihoods. However, what remains largely unknown is the village's unique craft – making traditional musical instruments.

As soon as visitors arrive at Đào Xá Village, located in Đông Lỗ Commune, Ứng Hòa District, they are immediately greeted by the scent of wood and the faint echoes of melodies from the strings of musical instruments being crafted by the local households.

The village is now home to five workshops producing a wide range of instruments, which are wholesaled to music stores within the city, as well as fulfilling custom orders for special gifts or even exporting them abroad. Their most typical products are monochord, Vietnamese lute, moon shaped-lute, four-stringed lute, three-stringed lute, zither and two-stringed fiddle.

However, the esteemed titles of National Folk Artisan and Hà Nội’s Excellent Artisan has been bestowed upon only one villager, Đào Văn Soạn, who has been recognised for his exceptional expertise in the realm of traditional craftsmanship. Currently, Soạn has been passing down his craft to his son, son-in-law, and a group of young apprentices who are studying at his workshop.

With over 40 years dedicated to making traditional musical instruments, Soạn thoroughly understands the ups and downs that the craft of his hometown has been through.

According to him, the art of instrument making in Đào Xá Village traces its roots back over 200 years to the founding efforts of villager Đào Xuân Lan. In the mid-19th century, the skillful artisans of Đào Xá village, along with their families and relatives, migrated to Thăng Long (present-day Hà Nội) to establish specialised craft districts, giving rise to the famous Hàng Đàn street among the 36 ancient streets of Hà Nội.

Traditional musical instruments crafted in Đào Xá Village are renowned nationwide for their fine tunes and exquisiteness.

With diligence and skillful craftsmanship, the instrument makers of Đào Xá have created exquisite products to supply the royal court, contributing to the prosperity of the craft districts. Over the course of time, the craft of instrument making in Đào Xá has continued to flourish. The skilled artisans in the village proudly honour Đào Xuân Lan as the founding figure and master of their craft. They also built a Craftsmen's Temple, serving as a place of worship and reverence. Each year, on the ancestral anniversary day, the villagers gather there to pay homage, offering prayers and burning incense to honour those who contributed to the establishment and development of the craft village.

In the 1990s, thanks to the Government's policies aimed at revitalising traditional culture, the craft of instrument making in Đào Xá experienced significant growth. The village saw a surge in the number of households engaged in the craft, with over 50 families involved during that time.

According to Đào Văn Tuấn, artisan Đào Văn Soạn’s son, the musical instrument craftsmen must have a profound understanding of woodworking, in addition to keen ears and discerning eyes.

“From the process of selecting and preparing the wood, to the meticulous steps of shaping, assembling, covering with python skin, polishing, refining, inlaying mother-of-pearl, and finalising, all stages are meticulously executed using traditional manual techniques.

“However, the most challenging aspect lies in achieving the desired sound quality. The craftsmen must possess both the skills to fine-tune the instrument and the ability to discern and refine the sound, ensuring that the final result meets the highest standards of excellence,” he said.

Interestingly, though the village is where the majority of ethnic musical instruments are produced, local craftsmen do not receive formal training in music. Instead, they rely on the inherited knowledge of sound refinement techniques passed down from their ancestors to create instruments with distinct tonal qualities. However, it is rare for their craftsmanship to fall short of standards, and many musicians from various provinces even travel to the village to place orders. Some foreign artists also seek out Đào Xá Village to purchase instruments, highlighting the reputation and demand for their products.

Recently, in an effort to preserve and promote the traditional craft of instrument making in Đào Xá Village, the People's Committee of Hà Nội has made a decision to officially recognise seven products of the village having achieved four-star OCOP (One Commune One Product) rating, indicating their high quality and craftsmanship at the city level.

These products include the monochord made of ebony wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl, plucked lute made of rosewood, moon-shaped lute made of ebony wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl, four-stringed lute made of rosewood with inlaid mother-of-pearl, zither made of rosewood with inlaid mother-of-pearl, three-string banjo made of rosewood and two-string fiddle made of rosewood.

Dương Minh Cường, representing Cường Anh Instrument Workshop, said: "Đông Lỗ Commune is renowned for its craftsmanship in making traditional musical instruments. In my family, I am the third generation continuing the traditional trade. Currently, our family-owned workshop employs 16 workers and produces thousands of instruments each year. Our products are ordered and consumed by musical instrument stores both domestically and internationally."

Students view the exhibited traditional musical instruments crafted in Đào Xá Village.

According to Nguyễn Văn Chí, the Director of the Rural Development Division under the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development of Hà Nội, the craft of instrument making in the village is not only a means of livelihood but also a distinctive cultural heritage passed down from their ancestors.

“Amidst the bustling and dynamic sounds of a rapidly changing society, the craftsmen of Đào Xá Village, are still keeping the flame of passion and dedication to contribute to the preservation of the essence of the traditional craft,” he noted.

The article is published with coordination of the Hà Nội's Division of Rural Development. — VNS