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Phong Nguyen Ensemble - Music and Dance of Viet Nam
1/17/98 Washington Square Church, New York


The staging platform had the Dan Tranh - a seventeen-stringed zither, and a few wooden stands, several piles of bamboo tubes held by strings, and a wooden branch mounted on a stand. The evening was my first experience to hearing live highlanders’ music performed on ancient instruments that I’ve never seen outside of textbooks. The location proved to be quite uncooperative to the acoustics of these instruments which explained several microphones and amplifiers spreading throughout the staging area. These ancient instruments, not unlike their Western counterparts, have low acoustics because of the materials used to construct these instruments.


Before the performance, I went backstage to meet the performers who dressed in traditional Vietnamese costumes with the exception of Dock Rmah, the ensemble’s instrument maker and a percussionist who wore a highlander’s costume. Phong Nguyen, the founder of the ensemble told me that Dock Rmah is a survivor of the Jarai people of Viet Nam. The other members of the group were Kim Oanh, a singer and a zither player, To Trinh, another zither player, and flutist, Miranda Arana. When I wandered over the instruments for a closer look, Dock Rmah approached to find out whether or not I was a musician. My yes reply triggered a delighted reaction and without prompting, he launched into an animated story of how he became an instrument maker out of despair being detained in the camps. His words were simple but the essence of his story was far more telling to the listener. He expressed how his spirit was depleted from the lack of music. He recalled how it was spiritually wonderful for him when he completed the first instrument and began to play for others and himself. He constructed his instruments based on childhood memories of observing his father and other instrument makers. Smiling, he recounted that whatever life dealt him, he could now survive and cope with the mental and physical hardships that came his way. He was a Jarai and for many generations music had sustained his people aside from living close to nature. His musical training was without a classroom or formal education. I was further amazed at how adept he was in tuning his instruments while talking to me. When I remarked about his ability, he smiled and said that the notes and scales were always the same in his head. How simple it was for him and for those who spent years in ear training would have bartered anything for this gentle musician’s natural gift. It was quite evident that music and breathing were one and the same for Dock Rmah. The evening was already wonderful before the performance even began.


Before I write further, a brief comment on the highlands of Viet Nam is necessary as background to the program. The generic term "highland" is the terrain of the Truong Son mountain range that is visible from both Cambodia and Laos. The large land mass that was once populated by the highlanders started in Southern Viet Nam, crossing over the eastern flanks of Cambodia, Laos and an area of Northern Viet Nam. For centuries, the highlands have been home to some thirty or so ethnic Vietnamese who speak Mon-Khmer, Malayo-Polynesian and the Viet languages. The ancestors of the present highlanders had settled in these areas since approximately 2,000 BC. The Bahnar, Jarai, Ede, Trieng, Gie, Mnoog and Stieng groups are the most musical people among the Vietnamese highlanders. In 1949, a prehistoric stone-bladed lithophone was discovered in Ndot Lieng Krak providing background to these Vietnamese people’s musical culture. They’ve preserved and performed on some of the oldest instruments in the world, some with the tuning systems that possibly predated the Pelog and Slendro systems of Indonesia. The highlanders’ music and recitations of poetry served many functions in their lives from story telling, courtships, historical re-enactments, social and festive events to spiritual invocation. Apparently, the highlanders’ fates were not destined to continue peacefully in Viet Nam. Many have uprooted their families to travel half way across the world to the U.S. It is not by accident that the majority of the Vietnamese highlanders have chosen to settle in the mountain ranges of Wyoming, Montana and in the case of Dock Rmah, the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina.


The concert began as I watched the piles of rough wood hewn instruments came to life under the talented hands of Dock Rmah. The audience was treated to a performance of Dock Rmah on his handmade T’rung - a bamboo xylophone. The instrument had seven tubes hung on a branch by two cords and held by Mr. Rmah’s legs as he struck the T’rung with a pair of wooden mallets. I was fascinated by the series of chromatic microtones that this instrument produced, as Dock Rmah sang a folk song "Celebrating the Young Rice Plant". The next four folk songs introduced an array of Dock’s homemade instruments such as the Hiho which is a woodwind instrument. It has eight bamboo tubes held together by strings. The Goong is a bamboo zither with fourteen metal strings held by wooden pegs fitted on the tube where a player could gently twist of each peg to change the microtonal pitches. The Broh is a two-stringed bamboo lute of the Bahnar people. The K’long put, a percussive instrument made of bamboo tubes with varying length which would be adjusted according to the scale that the player used. The performer clapped his/her hands in front of the bamboo tubes to produce the desired pitches. The performer does not touch this instrument. Lastly, Dock also made the Kipah- aerophones. The audience clearly enjoyed Mr. Rmah’s enthusiastic performance on these instruments. The music was colorful, rhythmic, occasionally metallic, with plenty of microtones and evidently following specific forms with less improvisation than I thought. As the audience applauded and cheered for Dock Rmah, I couldn’t help but noticed that he poured himself into his performance and derived joy from producing music. Dock told me later that he had a great time. The finale of the first half of the program was a lively duet of the K’long put and the Kipah performed by Dock Rmah and Phong Nguyen to celebrate the "Harvest Festival".


The second half of the program featured traditional Vietnamese music as performed by the rest of the ensemble. Phong Nguyen is an ethnomusicologist graduated from Sorbonne, Paris. He is a veteran performer of several traditional Vietnamese instruments, including the Dan Bau and the Dan Nguyet. A brief comment on some of the instruments will help explain their unique sounds. The Dan Bau - a Vietnamese monochord, has one string that stretches along the body of the instrument from the peg to the vertical stick fixed on the upper left end. The Dan Nguyet is a moon-shaped lute with a long neck. The high frets fixed on the neck allow the player to press deeply on the strings to produce different tones and texture of sounds. This particular instrument dated back to the 18th century as it was used in chamber, ritual and theatrical music ensembles within and without the imperial court. The Dan Tranh is a zither with 16 to 21 metal strings with high and moveable bridges which allow the performer to shift microtonal pitches quite easily. It is tuned to a pentatonic scale and has a range of three octaves. The tuning uses the anhemitonic intervallic structure by using the lowest pitched string as 1:1-2 for whole tone, 2-3 a whole tone plus a semitone, 3-4 a whole tone, 4-5 whole tone and 5-6 completing an octave at the sixth string. For this evening concert, the Dan Tranh was most likely tuned in two modal systems based on the regional music performed, the Bac - North and the Nam - South. The Bac mode starts at the first string G, A, C, D, E. The Nam mode starts at the second string A, C, D, E, G. The Nam - Southern modal system is used more often in traditional Vietnamese music performances than the Northern mode. A well-trained zither player can readily produce any other tones by manipulating the strings and bridges. This particular instrument doesn’t suffer any acoustics’ maladies as other ancient instruments. The Sao Truc is a bamboo flute of varying lengths and amount of finger holes. Ms. Arana played on the Sao - flute that has six finger holes, five on the top side and one on the lower side for the thumb. Once again, depending on the techniques used to play this instrument, the flutist can produce all pitches in the pentatonic scales and microtones. Lastly, there was one snare drum and an assortment of small percussion instruments such as the gongs, bells, temple blocks and coin clappers.


The program featured some known Vietnamese folk songs from Southern, Central and Northern regions. It is a credit to this ensemble that the performers stayed within the traditional Vietnamese musical modes and structures without veering off to western influences (which dominate modern Vietnamese music). Traditional Vietnamese musical structures have several modal systems with varying forms that in some instances, resemble traditional Indian musical structure. Its usage of ostinato is as common as the ornamentations applied to each piece. In music as in life, Vietnamese music has distinctly geographical, cultural and linguistic differences dating back to the first century. The music performed during the evening remarkably retained all of the regional distinctions and characteristics unique to the South, Central, Hue, and North. The musical cultural differences remain uniquely distinct to date. Performers would be trained to speak, intone and play different types of regional music. In other words, a Southern performer would have to learn the Northern mode, language, method of intoning, and the scales unique to that region. The two soloists, Phong Nguyen performed an improvisation of the " Song of Farewell" on the Dan Bau and To Trinh on the 17-stringed zither drew a great deal of enthusiasm and applause from the audience. Mr. Nguyen also performed a piece entitled Morning in the Highlands on the Dan Nguyet -lute accompanied by flutist, Ms. Arana. Ms. Trinh performed on the Dan Tranh - the seventeen-stringed zither, a familiar southern piece named The Black Bird Crossing the River and variations. The evening concluded with taped and live music performed by the ensemble and Ms. Oanh intoned words from a ritual dance, " In Praise of the Mountain God" . It was a delight for me and apparently the audience thought as much. I’ve learned a great deal more than just enjoying the music. It was their mutual love of music that drew these performers together from American born Ms. Arana, a graduate from Wesleyan University who spent several years in Viet Nam to study Vietnamese musicology, traditional flute performance and language to Dock Rmah, a Jarai who fashioned his own instruments and had never set foot inside a conservatory, whereas To Trinh, Kim Oanh and Phong Nguyen had graduated from the National Conservatory of Music in Saigon, Viet Nam. This performance also brings to mind how innately multicultural music is in that it speaks to the souls whether they are Westerners or Asians which was what I saw in the audience. My kudos goes to the World Music Institute for bringing the Phong Nguyen Ensemble to New York City for their delightful performance.



Ms. T.A. Tran is a Vietnamese New Yorker of Hue heritage, a pianist, composer, writer and currently, the editor of this webpage.