The Dan bau is one of the main symbols of Vietnam’s culture. And the culture was greatly affected by the turbulent and difficult history of Vietnam, plagued by big wars with China, France, America, and others. Aside from obvious loss of lives and livelihoods, these wars caused a lot of other problems, like not having enough money, challenges with education, and fears over cultural assimilation. All these tough times didn’t just affect our lives; they made a big impact on the process of cultural and musical aesthetic development in general. But over time, we slowly started hearing more and more dan bau music. Apart from an increased number of pieces for dan bau solo and with ensemble or orchestra, usage of dan bau spread to different ceremonies, and the traditional way of playing reached new levels of quality.
However, experimental and contemporary music are still something new to Vietnamese society. There are some composers and performers who are trying to find something new, trying to extend the language of dan bau – I would like to mention here Ngô Quốc Tính, Ngo Tra My, Hồ Khắc Chí, Nguyễn Kim Thành, and my humble self (Tam Thi Pham)… All of us are trying, each in their own individual way, to discover more about the dan bau sound, and ways to enrich its expressional capabilities.
We are witnessing the period of rapid technological development, with sensors, computers, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence opening new corridors for artistic expression, and bringing never-before-seen levels of immersive possibilities. These new spaces possess a sort of enchanting magic and attractivity, and, as rich with possibilities they are, they do also bring the dangers of us losing the sense of traditional beauty and the enjoyment in pure sound. The changing Vietnamese society is now a far cry from where it was even 50 years ago, and some of our music traditions are already disappearing. One example I feel really touched by is our lullabies – once all present, with countless generations of Vietnamese mothers singing them to their children, they are now replaced by TV and YouTube. The slow, evolving melodies of traditional lullabies, with their complex ornamentation and vibrati, no longer find a place in the quick-paced world of today’s Vietnam. For me, losing something beautiful like that is not acceptable, and I do my best to try and save it in my own way, by incorporating the old, traditional elements into contemporary music and multimedia, hoping to give it new life and to inspire others to learn more about their own traditions.
And as I research and practice my instrument, I am constantly finding new things to explore and learn, not only about dan bau and music in general but also about myself and my own cultural heritage. The journey never ends – it just brings us to new spaces of our minds, feelings and expressions.