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Coconut instrument maker nuts about craft

Update: April, 28/2014 - 10:51
Music maker: Tai tu musician Vo Van Ba plays one of his coconut wood instruments at the Bac Lieu Tai Tu Music Festival. — VNS Photo Van Dat
by Van Dat

As a lover of coconut trees and tai tu music, it was only natural that Vo Van Ba, a native of Ben Tre Province, combined his two passions into a lifelong hobby.

A military man for 20 years, Ba sings tai tu songs, an art genre popular among amateurs in the south, and plays traditional instruments as well.

Completely self-taught, the 72-year-old once worked for Ben Tre Town's Liberation Cultural and Artistic Troupe for 30 years as a specialist in making and playing musical instruments, and at the same time, freelanced as an electronics technician.

Now retired, Ba pursues his hobby but has no desire to make big profits, selling just a few pieces occasionally to interested buyers.

After playing tai tu music for a few years, Ba began experimenting with different kinds of wood that he could easily find, instead of woods typically used for traditional instruments.

Then, in 2012, after noticing that some artisans had used coconut shells to make spoons, chopsticks and bowls, he started making musical instruments out of coconut wood.

The results were less than exemplary, but after a bit of experimentation, the sounds improved greatly.

His biggest challenge was how to find a coconut with a beautiful shape to make an attractive product.

"Some coconuts are very beautiful, but unfortunately some of them become damaged when they are picked," said the artisan.

When Ba completed his first instrument made of a non-traditional wood, he was reluctant to show it to anyone, but later friends and many others began to appreciate his work.

"Famous artists said the sound quality was not bad, compared to instruments made from traditional woods. Sometimes the sound was even more interesting," he said.

After gaining some confidence, Ba began inviting musicians and experts to examine his instruments. One expert in the field, Van Thi Minh Huong, was delightfully surprised after hearing the sounds.

It takes Ba between seven and 10 days to complete one musical instrument.

Over the years, he has made more than 10 kinds of traditional Vietnamese musical instruments, including the dan tranh (16-string zither), dan co (two-stringed fiddle), dan bau (monochord) and dan kim (two-stringed moon lute), among others.

He now owns about 40 Vietnamese musical instruments and plans to make an additional 20, with some of them in bamboo, another traditional plant used widely in Viet Nam.

"I think we should use materials that are common in our homeland," said Ba, who hails from Nhon Trach Commune in Ben Tre Town.

In Viet Nam, he was the first person given official recognition for making a musical instrument from coconut wood.

His collection of traditional coconut-wood instruments have been a popular item with visitors to the first National Tai Tu Music Festival now being held in Bac Lieu.

Nguyen Truong Han, 36, who has played tai tu music since he was eight years old, said that he had used Ba's musical instruments.

Han told Viet Nam News that some of Ba's musical instruments "give very good sound but some need improvement. I began playing Ba's coconut instruments in 2012. I often use them during my performances."

Han said he was proud that Ben Tre Province, famous nationwide for its coconuts, was also the home of such inventive instruments.

It was Ba's father who inspired him as a kid.

Ba began playing tai tu music when he was 14, learning it from his father, who loved to play the flute and dan co (two-stringed fiddle).

"Listening to my father's melodies, I started loving Vietnamese traditional music," he said. — VNS

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