Artist inspires love for traditional instrument

November 06, 2022 - 08:01
Nghiêm Thu is among the few musicians pursuing the traditional Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà (plucked four-string instrument) and one of the founding members of Cỏ Lạ Band, which has impressed audiences with their contemporary folk style.  She talks with Lương Hương.
Folk musician Nghiêm Thu. Photo courtesy of the artist

Nghiêm Thu is among the few musicians pursuing the traditional Vietnamese đàn tỳ bà (plucked four-string instrument) and one of the founding members of Cỏ Lạ Band, which has impressed audiences with their contemporary folk style. She talks with Lương Hương.

Inner Sanctum: How were you introduced to đàn tỳ bà?

I came to traditional musical instruments thanks to my family. My grandfather was a đàn bầu (one-string zither) musician teaching at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music. During the economic difficulties of the 1970s, my family expected my brother and me to pursue the tradition, which they thought would be a 'safe' option.

As a 7-year-old girl, I didn't have any notion of đàn tỳ bà. Actually, on sitting the music academy's entrance exam, I was eligible for the piano department. My family could not afford the Western musical instrument, so they asked to transfer me to any Vietnamese folk music faculty. Artist Mai Phương who was my teacher, thought I looked like a baby doll and could fit in playing đàn tỳ bà, and that's when my journey with the traditional instrument began. I have always thought it was my destiny and that the instrument selected me, not vice versa.

Inner Sanctum: What has motivated you to pursue the four-string instrument until now?

I studied it for 15 years from a young age. The study time was long, turning me from barely knowing anything about it to gradually sticking with it naturally.

Due to the financial difficulties, particularly for traditional musicians, there were times I thought of giving it up and doing other jobs. However, each time quitting the instrument gave me more life experience that made me realise that I have to appreciate it.

I had been trained for the profession for over 10 years, and it would be a huge waste if I had given it up. What other jobs could I do better than the one I had been trained for years? I think it's my karma, and I can't let go. On coming back to it, I have stronger affection for đàn tỳ bà, feeling it like a part of my flesh and blood and being grateful to it for making my name.

My father encouraged me to follow my path and become a teacher at the Hà Nội School of Art. Fortunately, teaching at the college suits my lifestyle and perspective. It is also where I met colleagues and friends with the same passion for traditional musical instruments.

Inner Sanctum: You are one of the founders of Cỏ Lạ, a band in which the traditional musicians have a modern performing style. Do you feel risky with such an experiment?

It was not an experiment. Before the establishment of Cỏ Lạ, my colleagues and I had many opportunities to perform abroad together. I came up with an idea, why didn't these passionate and well-trained musicians do something more innovative?

Musical instruments were still strange to many audiences at that time. Many of them have never seen the đàn bầu (one-string zither), đàn tranh (sixteen-string zither) and đàn tỳ bà. However, I realised that foreign audiences were much interested in our performances of traditional music. As soon as we played, they sang and danced along, even though they might not understand the song because the piece didn't need language. It blurred the distance between us, connected and pulled us closer together. It was also when I thought about renewing our approach to Vietnamese audiences.

Vietnamese listeners prefer pop music to instrumental music because singing is a specific language that enables them to understand. That explains why more will attend a pop music show rather than an instrumental performance. Therefore, to bring traditional musical instruments closer to Vietnamese audiences, we must get them to the pop music stage. So, we had to play international songs or remix Vietnamese songs and renew our performing style, which took us months to hone.

Cỏ Lạ's first performance was the song Bà Tôi at Lan Anh Auditorium in HCM City, together with Năm Dòng Kẻ Band. It was like an explosion, not only in the city but nationwide. Right after that night, children and adults, from traders in the markets to employees in the offices, talked about us: Hanoinian girls playing traditional musical instruments in a modern style.

The young generation has grown more interested in traditional musical instruments. Photo courtesy of the artist

Inner Sanctum: What should be done to introduce traditional musical instruments to a wider audience, especially the younger generation?

Đàn tỳ bà itself has a strong vitality. It has existed from the end of the 6th century until now, through many historical events, but mainly in a professional environment, so its introduction to the public has always been somehow limited.

Having a karma with the instrument and a deep understanding of its values to the national culture, I have always been concerned with the survival and development of đàn tỳ bà. I have risked performing the instrument at high schools and universities or on pedestrian streets. Whenever there is a chance to introduce it to the audience, I take it.

I have always wished to play music in friendly and intimate spaces instead of professional stages, to play the traditional four-string instrument with the symphony orchestra and to mingle with the bustling and youthful atmosphere of students so that the public could see its attraction and have a better understanding. Fortunately, all these wishes have gradually come true.

People used to think that traditional instruments were dedicated to the elderly, traditional music had to be standardised, and the musician had to be old. So, how to attract young audiences? Such a question has kept occupying my mind, motivating me to study how to bring it closer to the public. It is a big challenge for professionals like me.

To attract the public, especially the young, it is essential to renew our traditional thinking and methods. I have developed many innovations, from a more youthful performance style to selecting newer music, such as remixed Vietnamese folk or contemporary pop songs.

Inner Sanctum: What do you think about the changes in the audience's attitude towards đàn tỳ bà?

Never before have I seen the trend of learning the traditional four-string instrument thrive as now, a result of efforts and recklessness to renew it. It is a great joy and a reward for my passion and perseverance. Now the traditional musical instrument and I have become inseparable.

My performance of the hit song Em Gì Ơi with đàn tỳ bà has been viewed over 10,000 times on my YouTube channel Tỳ Bà Việt Nam – unexpected numbers for a traditional Vietnamese musical instrument. It marks the awakening of đàn tỳ bà in the music industry. VNS