Artist Duc Dau performs on Quang Trung war-drums at his house which is a living museum of all kinds of Vietnamese traditional musical instruments.
Dau’s “Phu Dong Family Band” has the Jackson 5 beat five times over. That’s right. The band has 25 family members of siblings, cousins and the like, all of them making a living collectively and individually by playing Vietnamese traditional music.
And at Dau’s house, the sound of music played for guests often draws their neighbors in, and they are welcomed without hesitation to listen to an impromptu live performance by the artist and his wife, who actually used to be one such neighbor herself.
The performance is not ordinary – drum beats combine harmoniously with clear melodies that flow out of the T’rung (a traditional musical instrument made of bamboo played by the Jarai and Bahnar ethnic groups in the Central Highlands). And in just 15 minutes, the couple would have played at least eight different instruments from their vast collection of percussion, wind and string instruments belonging to 54 ethnic minorities in the country.
Stepping into their house in Ho Chi Minh City’s Go Vap District is like stepping into a museum. Hundreds of musical instruments are piled up and occupy all corners in the house from the gate to the kitchen. But unlike a museum, these instruments come to life in the hands of Duc Dau and his wife Pham Thi Thu Hien, not to mention the other 23 band members, when the occasion arises, such as at major events like the Thang Long anniversary, television programs and so on.
Among the instruments are the Quang Trung war drums, and horns used by ethnic minority communities in the Central Highlands, the dan da (an ancient musical instrument that is said to have been used between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago, made of 11 slabs of stone) and the flute used by Hmong people in the northern province of Ha Giang.
All these instruments were collected by Dau over the last 25 years.
Duc Dau, who was considered “insane” for selling prime property (house and land lot on Bui Vien Street in District 1) to buy all kinds of traditional musical instruments, and that too, only to display them at home, is unfazed by the characterization.
“The late famous musician Luu Huu Phuoc once told me that the best way to preserve traditional music is to learn and live with it. He encouraged me to collect and preserve this heritage of Vietnamese music.
“The collection has now grown to the extent that it will take at least five lorries to carry it,” said the 54-year-old artist, who, along with his family, left his home in Hanoi for HCMC more than 20 years ago, looking to spread their genuine traditional music.
Dau said the 200-year-old dan day (Vietnamese plucked lute with three strings, a trapezoidal wooden body, and a very long wooden neck with ten raised frets) belonging to folk artisan Quach Thi Ho is among his oldest instruments. Drums of all kinds, including the Sam and Set drums, dominate the collection in terms of numbers. Most of them originate from the Central Highlands.
Unlike lowland people who use the “plank on frame” method to make drums, the Central Highlands people sawed big trunks and hollowed them out, either by themselves or by applying a substance on either side to excite termites who would eat into the wood. Then, the people covered either side with the skin of wild buffaloes or elephants, Dau said.
He began his music career by learning to play drums from his father’s adopted son Duc Thanh. While he later graduated from the Military Arts College having learnt to play the one-string dan bau, his siblings and other relatives graduated from the Hanoi Music Conservatory.
Dau was among the artists playing drums during the 1,000th anniversary of Thang Long – Hanoi in October.
Pham Thi Thu Hien, who plays the T’rung instrument to accompany her talented husband, was an accountant who gave up her profession to be with him. He taught her to play the instrument and she knows what to expect from his passion for music and instruments.
“Whenever he hears that a certain musical instrument is going to get lost or be sold, he just informs me and then makes a long journey to wherever it is to collect it.”
Dau is appreciative of his wife’s unstinting support.
“Thanks to my wife, who understands and appreciates such invaluable instruments, I not only travel to different places, but also stay with the locals to learn how to play their music and capture the quintessence and the spirit of the instrument as well.
“Sometimes I have stayed with them for so long that I begin to smell like them, which my wife can not bear when I return home,” he said, laughing.
One of Dau’s unforgettable experiences in collecting the instruments is an old Jarai man who called him to his house before he passed away to give him their family’s musical instrument that was handed down through seven generations.
While his son wanted to sell it to buy a new motorbike, the old man wanted to give it to Dau so it would be preserved for posterity. Dau does not mince words about those who sell their precious artifacts, instruments and other cultural vestiges because there is a demand in the market for them.
“I don’t think collecting artifacts, including musical instruments, [being sold by members of the community] and later giving it back to the family or village after they have lost their own is an effective way. After a year or even a few months, they could sell it again. They sold it in the first place because they do not really treasure their own culture.
“Let them purchase these by themselves, then they will know how to protect and preserve it properly,” said Dau.
“It is like what I am teaching my only son. I teach him to play the music, allow him to take care of the instrument, and allow him to perform with me. Once he receives appreciation from the audience and payment for his effort, he will have a proper attitude towards traditional music.”