Đàn Bầu – One String Pulling At Your Heartstrings

Đàn bầu, made from a dried gourd, a metal string and a wooden rod, is the unique Vietnamese instrument. It is considered as the most Vietnamese zither because of its sound resemble to our language.

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This one-string zither has been gone along with Vietnamese for a long time ago. Especially, singing the songs played with this instrument by buskers helps players to earn a living. Gradually, it becomes traditional culture feature of Vietnam. As a result, international audiences use the phrase “đàn bầu country” or “đàn bầu’s homeland” when they talk about Việt Nam.

This unique instrument remains shrouded in mystery about its history. But scholars agree that it is an indigenous instrument of Việt Nam which appeared before the 19th century.

According to some scholars and records, xẩm singers (blind busker singer) in the north brought đàn bầu to Huế to accompany singing performances for the Vietnamese royal court in 1892.

Đàn Bầu
A Hue royal court music performance

It was King Thành Thái who a patriotic king during the period of French colonial loved đàn bầu music. Therefore, he decided to replace the đàn tam (36-chord zither) with đàn bầu in the royal court orchestra. That originally included five instruments: tranh (16-chord zither), tỳ (pear-shaped 4-string guitar), nhị ( two-string fiddle), nguyệt (moon-shaped lute) and bầu (monochord zither). This kind of music developed to Hue Royal Court Music and recognised as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003 by UNESCO.

Up to the war time, Đàn bầu became a closely friend to the soldiers that it was played on battle fields. This beloved music was a great comfort and encouragement to soldiers during war and a means of enriching their lives in harsh battle conditions.

To this day, locals still celebrate the death anniversary of the progenitor of hát xẩm with gratitude during February and August of the lunar calendar in the Hải Dương, Hải Phòng, Hưng Yên, and Vĩnh Phú areas.

Đàn bầu
Đàn bầu Funeral Music

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Đàn bầu in the modern era  

Frenchman Sylvain Streiff first heard of the instrument from his wife. Having felt in love with it, he had studied đàn bầu for 3 years in Việt Nam from 2013 to 2015. After that, he came back to Viet Nam to hold mini music events featuring this one-string instrument. In the interview after the show, he said  that he chosen bầu because it was completely specific to Việt Nam.

According to the survey about the number of instrument players, one idea said that it is not difficult to learn to play đàn bầu. Because one can play đàn bầu beautifully, as long as they understand the soul and characteristics of Vietnamese people.

Đàn bầu
Đàn bầu coming to traditional instrument class

To preserve the priceless values of this traditional instrument as well as develop it in the future, many artists and lecturers submitted the suitable policy to Culture, Sport and Travelling Ministry such as advocated granting awards and financial support to encourage artists and teachers to compose more new works for đàn bầu. Furthermore, the government should open the new or free class or bring đàn bầu to the academy in schools for the training talent at an early age. Besides, Vietnamese researchers also urged the Việt Nam cultural authority to make a UNESCO push for đàn bầu.

Đàn bầu is an indispensable part of Việt Nam’s music scene. It holds a unique place on domestic and international music stages.