3.1 An overview of the origins and development of the dan bau within Vietnamese musical traditions

Dan bau (Vietnamese: Đàn Bầu), also known by Vietnamese musicians as the đàn dộc huyền or độc huyền cầm (both meaning “one string instrument”), is an instrument that is representative of the system of traditional musical instruments of Vietnam. “Đàn” means instrument and “Bầu” means gourd. It is considered to be among the most unique instruments in the world. It has a simple structure with a single string, in combination with the use of the rod to loosen or tighten the string to create different pitches of the overtone series, giving rise to very distinct techniques. The results are captivating and unique sounds that resemble the voices of the Vietnamese people. 

We still haven’t discovered any document that specifically dates the origin of dan bau. The appearance of dan bau in certain historical records indicates that it has been around for a long time. “Đại nam thực lục tiền biên”, which roughly translates as “Veritable Records of the Great South – Prequel Records“, is a Vietnamese book written in 1770. There we read about a keen scholar well-versed in the arts of poetry, numerology and music named Tôn Thất Dục and the Nam cầm instrument, also known as dan bau, invented by him. Another mention of dan bau can be found in “Kiến văn tiểu lục”, “A Small Record of Things Seen and Heard” in English, which was written by Lê Quý Đôn in 1777. In this writing he touched on the banquets held at so-called điện Tập Hiền or “the Academy of Scholarly Worthies” and the entertainment involving music and plays. A typical musical ensemble for such entertainment would include a pipa (a pear-shaped lute), tranh (a type of a zither), and dan bau. One theory regarding the origin of dan bau suggests that it came from the game of Trống đất (name of an instrument of Muong people, one of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam) or Trống quân (name of an instrument of Viet people, the ethnic majority in Vietnam) from certain plain and midland regions in the North of Vietnam, the names of which translate to “earth drum” and “military drum”.  The structure of the instrument used in these folk games is very similar to that of dan bau: one string, a resonator, a rod that tightens or loosens the string, and a stick that is used to hit the string to create the sounds.

There was also another opinion of Ta Tham, a music historian, and instrument maker in Hanoi, that dan bau was based on an instrument of the Mường minority group in Vietnam (one of 53 minorities of Vietnam), called Tàn Máng – Chordophone. It is really similar to the dan bau structure, but it doesn’t have the resonator part made of gourd or wood, where the rod is. Instead, the body is made from a bamboo tube and is called the resonator (according to the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology). In an article by music historian Jason Gibbs, he wrote that the tàn máng does not use harmonics like the đàn bầu (Gibbs 1996: 16). But from the video we can see on the Vietnamese Institute for Musicology, it is clear, in my opinion, that it’s played in the same way as dan bau nowaday. 

Taking into account the history of migration and cultural interchange in the Red River Delta, it’s conceivable that these monochord instruments might share a common history that predates the political divisions between Guangxi (China) and Vietnam. The Chinese yixianqin, also referred to as the duxianqin or “lone string zither,” closely resembles the dan bau both in terms of its structure and playing technique. The origin of the dan bau is a topic charged with political implications, as Vietnamese scholars often emphasise the instrument’s distinctiveness from the Chinese instrumentarium.  

By the end of the 19th century, people started to encounter dan bau in Xẩm (in Vietnamese, “xẩm” literally means “blind”) singing groups. Xẩm is a Vietnamese folk genre traditionally performed by poor, blind street artists, and groups of these artists were often found in the countryside markets or city streets. Their works are often considered news, as well as stories which they learn from one village and bring to other villages. In Xẩm, the erhu is also sometimes used, allowing for different combinations with dan bau and singing (dan bau + singing, erhu + singing, dan bau + erhu + singing). The dan bau in Xẩm has a hollowed trunk to make a larger resonating body. The musician used a thin wooden stick to pluck the string, longer than the bamboo plectrum used today. Trần Văn Khê credits the dissemination of this instrument across the Vietnamese peninsula to a troupe of roaming blind musicians hailing from northern Vietnam, who journeyed to the imperial capital of Huế in 1896. During their stay, King Thành Thái developed an appreciation for the dan bau and integrated it into the court’s musical repertoire. Musicians residing in Huế subsequently introduced the instrument to other regions, including Saigon and the southern provinces. This musical migration encompassed artists skilled in “ca Huế”, an improvisational chamber music style that prominently features the dan bau.

Upon settling in the southern provinces, these musicians extended their repertoire to include hát bội classical theater and nhạc lễ ritual music (Cannon 2012: 126). Over time, these collaborations gave rise to novel musical genres such as cải lương theater and nhạc tài tử Nam bộ, exemplifying the distinct amateur chamber music traditions of southern Vietnam. For a more in-depth exploration, please refer to Cannon 2012:126.

From then dan bau began its journey from small singing groups to the stages of traditional theatres. In the 1950s, with the new addition of an amplifier, dan bau asserted its position as a key instrument in many programs and perormances. No longer limited to only traditional pieces, the development and improvement in the structure and techniques of dan bau allow it to partake in various different genres. It was one of the first folk instruments introduced to the curriculum of music institutions in Vietnam. Dan bau is a unique instrument that can paint a multitude of expressions with only a single string. In the realm of dan bau performances, musicians and their audiences engage in an ongoing dialogue, navigating the ever-evolving interpretations of Vietnamese personal and political identities. The subsequent discussion contextualises these dialogues within their historical and geographical framework.

Passing down from generation to generation, the sound of dan bau has taken up an important position in the hearts of Vietnamese people, representing the music of Vietnam.

3.2 The cultural importance of the dan bau and its role in various Vietnamese ceremonies and artistic expressions nowadays

One of the most important changes is the installation of a pickup microphone, similar to the one used in electric or electroacoustic guitars, to amplify the sound. This has had a great impact on the position and role of the dan bau in the ensemble. The dan bau instrument became more flexible in volume, and artists can control it to fit any type of ensemble or the performing space.

Dan bau used to be mainly used in Xẩm, but after the innovations that added the pickup and an amplifier, it became much more flexible due to the increased loudness. This new version of dan bau quickly gained a significant role in the village ceremonies and funerals. The main role of the dan bau is melodic lines, especially suitable for sad songs – hence, it has now become one of the main instruments for funeral music. 

Increased loudness allowed the dan bau to enter bigger ensembles, even the special royal ensemble, which plays for the important events of the royal family and other state events.

As the technology, dan bau construction and the skill of performers developed, the usage of dan bau started spreading through other genres. Nowadays it is no longer strictly attached to sad songs, but is ever more prominent in pop music and happy songs, being performed in concerts and weddings, bringing something new and fresh. It is a beloved instrument not only in Vietnam but thanks to the big Vietnamese diaspora, also abroad. Outside Vietnam, the instrument is featured in many different events such as meetings of the association of fellow-countrymen, weddings, culture exchanges, etc. It is often showcased with great pride and love, as a representative of Vietnamese culture and the voice of Vietnamese people.