Sunday, October 18, 2015

And the Beat Goes On—the Variety of Vietnamese Percussion

                                                            by Jim Goodman

drummers at a temple ritual in Hanoi
        Drums have always been a part of Vietnamese culture.  Drums and other beating instruments are part of every musical ensemble, from trios to full orchestras.  Yet historically speaking percussion per se was not simply to accent the rhythms of musical melodies.  Drums played a role in situations where there was no music to accompany.  Drumbeats of regular cadence announced the passage of high mandarins through the streets.  Sentinels beat big drums to announce fires or the bursting of a dike.  Authorities used drums to assemble citizens.  Even during the performance of songs drums were used independently of the music to underline the sentiments of songs.  Drums even amplified the audience reaction with drumbeat rolls to underscore the applause or a run of discordant beats to emphasize disapproval.
playing at the Hai Bà Trưng festival
       Besides drums, gongs and chimes also have an ancient tradition.  Originally these were made of stone.  Artisans shaped different sizes of tubes for the chimes and usually cut the stone gong in the shape of a fat crescent.  Later on bronze became the favored material.  Chimes were only installed in temples, but gongs, though also in the temples, were used in processions, both religious and secular.
       The urge for percussive expression did not remain limited to drums, gongs, cymbals and chimes.  The Vietnamese also developed a range of clappers and woodblocks to produce rattling and knocking sounds subtly different from each other and from the sounds they could obtain from their drums.  The clappers consisted of a pair of flexible bamboo tongs, on the end of which were mounted a pair of thin, crescent-shaped pieces of wood, or an animal head which struck a wooden disk, or a pair of slit hardwood blocks.  When handled skillfully these sounded like castanets.
       The woodblocks included solid pieces, partly hollowed blocks or carved frogs with a ribbed back, and pieces shaped like big seeds, with slits in one side.  Exactly how big the wooden piece was and how much of it was slit or hollowed determined precisely what kind of sound it gave when hit with a wooden mallet.  And they were all slightly, to a trained ear, recognizably different.
slit hardwood knockers
       Bells of various kinds included the bronze temple bells as well as small bells attached to sticks or lotus shaped- wooden rattles, or embedded in hollow, hand-sized rings.
       The range of percussion also included bamboo tubes of various sizes that when struck gave off different sounds accordingly.  The tubes could also have a corrugated band of notches on one side, like the carved frogs.  When the player rolled the mallet along the notches it produced a scraping, rattling sound similar to that of the washboard used in jug bands in the rural United States. 
       The ensembles that entertain diners at swanky restaurants in the big cities of Vietnam use several different percussion instruments in their shows.  Among the more recent additions to the percussion set are small, handle-less porcelain teacups.  The player holds a pair in the fingers of each hand and rattles them at the appropriate moments.
playing the wooden frog
teacup percussion
       Clappers and woodblocks join the drums, gongs and other instruments in festival processions, too.  On these occasions, though, an essential percussion instrument is one that is of strictly Vietnamese origin, not taken from the Chinese or any of the hill peoples.  Called sênh tin in Vietnamese, it is kind of a two-piece coin clapper.  In the left hand the player holds a pair of narrow wooden boards, about 2.4 cm wide and 1 cm thick.  The top piece is 30 cm long, ribbed on the top surface, and joined to a bottom piece 33 cm long, which is ribbed on the bottom surface.  The two are joined at a point about 8 cm from the near end.
sênh tiền players
       About 1 cm from the far end of the lower board a mounted screw, standing upright about 2 cm, holds a pair of old coins with square holes in the center.  Two more upright screws at the end of the upper board hold a pair each of these coins.  At the hinge the clapper opens up to about 75 degrees.  When the player opens the clapper at the hinge and closes it the coins on the screws jingle.  In the right hand the player holds a similar wooden board, 31 cm long, about 2.3 cm wide and 1 cm thick.  Both the top and bottom surfaces are smooth and usually embellished with some flowery mother-of-pearl inlay.  This piece is ribbed on the sides and the player draws the ribbed sides against the ribbed top and bottom surfaces of the coin clapper while playing it.
       The most common appearance of this instrument is at the head of a procession column during one of the big annual festivals.  The sênh tin players are usually women, but occasionally include one or two older men.  The men will dress in the ancient farmer style, with a loose, translucent, thin black tunic over a side-fastened shirt and a pair of trousers, yellow headband and, just for the procession, a bright, spangle-studded sash.  The women wear the loose, four-flap tunic over long skirts and a white blouse, multi-colored belt with a long front end, and thick red headbands.
       The sênh tin players usually lead the column.  The processions are generally slow and stately, while the sênh tin players both dance and play their instruments.  The space for their performance is quite limited and always inching forward, but the players make good use of it.  Their dance steps are slow but rhythmic, the movements of their arms and legs as graceful as those by chèo stage performers.  The bright flaps of their costumes swirl colorfully when they turn and all their gestures and steps correspond to the subtle rattling and tinkling of their instruments.
ca trù performance in Bạch Mã Temple, Hanoi
       One of the simplest percussion instruments is the phách, which is simply a thin, slightly curved piece of hardwood beaten with a pair of wooden sticks, and played by a ca trù singer.  She sings traditional folk ballads dating back many centuries that praise the beauty of the countryside and the joys of rural life. The genre is also known as hát đào, after a young woman named Đào who sang such songs to the Chinese soldiers encamped by the river.  So charmed were they by her voice they kept drinking more and more alcohol to enhance their appreciation.  When the soldiers had become completely drunk Vietnamese guerrillas suddenly swarmed into the camp and pushed the drunken soldiers into the river, where they all drowned.
       After the expulsion of the Chinese and the establishment of the Lê Dynasty hát đào’s popularity spread.  At the Lê court it became the favorite form of royal entertainment.  Comprising a single female singer backed by three instruments, one stringed and two percussion, the shows were quite restrained, almost austere, compared to the stage productions of chèo and tung put on by the previous Trn Dynasty court.  But to enjoy hát đào performances Vietnamese music-lovers did not have to depend upon a royal invitation to come hear it at the court.  Inns sprang up in the capital that employed hát đào singers in more private settings.
       Customers at these inns, mostly male, celebrating the birth of a son, promotion in rank, conclusion of a business deal, etc, purchased a number of bamboo tally cards (trù) upon entry. At the conclusion of each song they gave some of these to the singer, the number of trù depending on how much they liked the song.  When the inn closed for the night the proprietor paid the girls according to the number of trù they received.  The singing genre then acquired another name—ca trù (songs of the tally card)—that today is used interchangeably with hát đào.
playing the phách for a ca trù song
       Usually the set began with a song the first line of which was, “Now that the evening is falling, whoever wants to buy sadness in handfuls, I shall sell it to him.”  Their repertoire included old folk songs, boatmen’s ballads, antiphonal singing (quan h), the compositions of scholars, and tunes from neighboring countries, and later on from France.  Nowadays the inns have disappeared, but the ca trù tradition has enjoyed a revival in recent decades.  Besides regular shows at Đình Kim Ngân in Hanoi’s Hàng Bc Street, ca trù is now part of many festival programs.  And the songs and presentation have not differed since classical times.
        The singer herself sets the basic rhythm playing the phách.  A small cylindrical drum adds extra percussion.  Providing the melody is an indigenous three-stringed instrument peculiar to Vietnamese music called the đàn dáy, invented for this genre and played exclusively by men.  The đàn dáy player has to fit a melody into the framework provided by the beating of the phách.  The drummer uses his instrument less for the rhythm than to make his own comments on the singing.  If he likes it he plays a quick roll on the drum several times, as a kind of applause.  If he doesn’t like it he merely raps the side of the drum twice.
       Cylindrical drums of various sizes are part of the orchestras backing other forms of traditional entertainment, such as water-puppet shows, chèo and tung theater.  In addition to providing rhythm for the music, drums also serve to heighten the atmosphere of selected scenes in the drama being staged, and to enhance the excitement during festival contests.  Temples also have needs for drums, with large ones installed inside to accompany rituals and smaller ones stored fur use in festival processions.
the "thunder drum" for Hanoi's millennium
drum-making at Đọi Tam's festival
       The religious and cultural revival characteristic of 21st century Vietnam has been a real boon to the economy of Đi Tam, a village in Hà Nam province south of Hanoi.  Đi Tam is one of the country’s hundreds of craft villages and its specialty is making drums.  It supplies drums to temples and theater groups all over Vietnam and its craftsmen also made the huge drum, 2.3 meters in diameter, installed in the Hanoi Citadel for the city’s millennium celebrations in 2010.
       The tradition began with the visit of the Vietnamese sovereign Lê Hoàn in 986 to perform a royal plowing ceremony.  For the occasion, two Đọi Tam villagers presented the king with a 1.4 meter-tall drum they’d made, nicknamed the “thunder drum” for the deep sound the size of it produced.  Ever since then Đọi Tam has been producing “thunder drums” and others of various sizes.
fitting the staves in place
       The village today holds about 2200 residents, with around 600 engaged in drum production.  Craftsmen pass on the skills to their sons and their sons’ wives, but not to the daughters, since they will marry out.  Children become aware of the trade and its tradition from an early age, while apprenticeship, when they learn how to make and repair drums, starts at around age 14.  The village also has a drum troupe, of 12 males and 48 females, who play at other village festivals or for government-sponsored shows.
       Two small hills lie just outside Đọi Tam.  At the top of one of these is Chùa Long Đọi Sơn, originally built in 1118 and more or less in continuous use since.  On the 19th day of the 3rd lunar month the temple is one of the venues for celebrating Đọi Tam’s annual festival.  Devotees come to make offerings, including messages to the gods written by scribes seated in the courtyard, and watch the dancers performing rituals honoring the Holy Mothers.
testing the drumhead
       Meanwhile, at the village communal house (đình) at the edge of Đọi Tam, male elders in silk robes and tall miters conduct rituals honoring the 10th century founders of the drum-making tradition.  Following this comes a kind of ceremonial demonstration of the final stages of putting together a drum, performed by a pair of young men costumed in red headbands and bright red and yellow sleeveless tunics.  The wood for the staves, which comes from the jackfruit tree, is already cut into its curved shapes, but has to be filed down along the edges for the staves to fit together perfectly.  When the staves are ready the workers use a hoop to hold the staves and put them in the proper barrel shape.
       The last step is to attach the drumhead, made of buffalo hide, shaved thin and sun-dried in preparation.  While a fastening hoop keeps the hide in place, workers use a hammer and a small stake, constantly sharpened, to make little indentations in the hide against the wood of the rim.  The penultimate step is to test the drumhead by dancing on it.  With final tightening and a last inspection by the elders, the task is completed.  The past has been honored and the present blessed.  As for the future, drums are still a feature of life in Vietnam.  And Đọi Tam will continue to produce them.
"thunder drum" in a Hanoi temple
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