VietNamNet Bridge – Though he is the descendent of a poor farming’ family in Nhue Duong Commune in the northern province of Hung Yen, Cao Ky Kinh’s affinity for music was predestined.
Kinh has been keen on traditional musical instruments since he was young and has successfully made all kinds of musical instruments himself since. However, it was not until he moved to Ha Noi that his special ability became known widely. Now many people visit him, thanks to the simple but precise musical instruments that he makes.
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Nearly everyone living near the Thanh Cong market knows about this 56-year-old man selling pigchitterling soup and making musical instruments.
Man of many talents
Kinh’s hired house is located deep in a small alley right next to Thanh Cong Market. Besides selling soup in the morning, Kinh and his wife also sell clothes, keep vehicles and mill flour to earn additional money for their daughter who is attending university.
The first thing one sees upon entering their house, and also his stall, is an abundance of musical instruments hanging on the walls: 16-chord zithers, two-chord guitars, monochords, two-chord fiddles and various other traditional musical instruments.
Most importantly, all the instruments were made by the food stall owner himself. His talent is well respected among people who are interested in traditional musical instruments. On days when Kinh feels inspired, he even plays music for his customers. Though his tunes are not professional, they contain the honest passion of a man who sincerely loves music from the bottom of his heart.
To Kinh, making musical instruments is not simply a means of making a living. His interest simply originated from his keenness for music and musical instruments, which was passed down from his father.
“Both of my parents are farmers, spending most of their time on the farm,” recalls Kinh. “However, my father was artist-like. He used to play the monochord in the evening after a hard-working day or sleepless night. I fell for music since then and used to play with his monochord when I was four or five. Sometimes I was punished for breaking the string.”
After the south of Viet Nam was liberated in 1975, Kinh joined the voluntary youth team and was sent to the southern province of Long An to fill in the bomb holes left behind from the war. This new life of living far from home among the high mountains and thick forest encouraged him to stay close to his musical friend. Using bamboo cylinders and bike brake cables, he made instruments to play music for the other youths in his group. Sometimes he would go off alone with his small flute during the nights when he missed his hometown and family.
All of Khanh’s musical instruments are made by hand. He uses various kinds of natural woods, mainly coral, pine, or banyan, which he finds himself by always searching in different places. Thanks to these natural materials, the sound produced by his instruments is favoured by many. Khanh mostly builds the instruments himself, from painting to carving sophisticated patterns without relying on the assistance of any machines.
Kinh made an innovative monochord created exclusively by himself, the sound of which can resound throughout the whole house without any sound amplifier.
“During all the village festivals, my father used to put the monochord into the wash-tub to amplify its tunes. Therefore, I wanted to create a monochord that doesn’t need an amplifier. Many people have come to hear it and feel surprised by my innovation,” he says.
Making musical instruments is a passion that Kinh could never imagine being without. However, it is unlike any regular job because, besides time and methods, it also requires inspiration, which he considers to be the most important aspect of his craft.
“Making musical instruments is like working in other artistic fields. I cannot work when the market is too busy and noisy. Instead, I often have to wait until it gets dark after the market has closed to have the inspiration to carve, pare and tune. Tuning is the most difficult process and requires the most attention, so I usually have to work at midnight when others have gone to sleep. On many nights, after going to sleep, I will wake up suddenly to tune the instruments and do so until I feel totally satisfied,” he continues.
Besides making musical instruments, Kinh has also been popular within the Thanh Cong residential area thanks to his talent for playing music. Even though he has never been musically trained, he can manage to play any of the musical instruments that he builds, by learning from TV or through books that he purchases or is given.
His most favourite musical instrument is the two-string violin, the subtle sound of which can express the inner feelings of the musician.
He has also gradually absorbed the characteristics of an artist without even noticing. He receives many invitations to perform his music, but his favourite audience is the elderly who can listen, understand and sympathise with the melodies of his monochord or two-string violin. Apart from performing for the elderly or at festivals using traditional musical instruments, Kinh refuses all other invitations.
“One time, I refused an invitation from a cafe on their opening day. Honestly, I don’t want to perform in front of people who do not understand my music,” he says.
“Vietnamese traditional musical instruments have gradually lost their originality, because many have been imported from abroad,” says Kinh. “Meanwhile, Viet Nam possesses sufficient materials and talent to produce these instruments. I think it would be more meaningful for Vietnamese to make musical instruments ourselves and pass the skill to our descendents. I have nurtured the dream of opening my own workshop for a long time, but the problem is that I still don’t have enough money,” he continues, lost in thoughts.