“The Stage Can Be Anywhere”: Le Dinh Bich By Peter Sokol
It began as an unconstructed mess of notes and sounds. A bow screeched against a string strung thinly across a narrow bamboo like stick. The guitar twanged in an eerie mist. If there was a rhythm, I could not find it. But as time progressed the four ancient and wise looking men started to follow each other’s lead in a melancholy like melody. Then, a beautiful women’s voice soared through the air and created a harmonious sway. She wore a breathtaking casual Vietnamese dress. Unlike the complicated Ao Dai it was simple, pink over white. As I sat in the room swirling with sound, I began to drift away to a small shrimp boat, sailing tenderly down the Saigon River, in the Mekong Delta. The hot humid sun beating relentlessly down on a thousand generations and as the men built their shacks deep in the jungle, music so wildly different from our western culture, was created.
We met with Mr. Le Ding Bich to discuss the self proclaimed Amateurs of Traditional Vietnamese Music. With the help of Mrs. Le Thia Thuyan as translator, our class learned during a televised event of how this music developed and about the unique instruments that were used.
The Mekong Delta is a mix of five cultures. The Khmer, Champa, Funan, Chinese, and the original Vietnamese people all live deep in the mangrove jungle. They live in small fishing villages where culture is passed down from family to family, neighbor to neighbor. Education happens in the homes, pagodas, and schools alike. However there is no Traditional Vietnamese Folk School. This is not a form of music that can be learned in a classroom but by immersing oneself in the world of the Mekong Delta.
The music is a balance between yin and yang, earth and heaven, minor chords and major chords, female and male. And sometimes, a third element is included one of humankind. Mr. Le Dinh Bich taught us how the music is comprised of three types of instruments unlike western music which is comprised of four. String, wind, and percussion, it has no brass wind instruments. In Vietnamese music percussion is the most important; every member depends on it, and often is an instrument called the Song Lang. The Song Lang is a small metronome-like instrument that is played with the foot by the chief musician. Another interesting instrument is the frog wood block. Every part of the frog can be hit to make a different sound.
The string section on the other hand often only has two strings, a yin and a yang, with sometimes a third to represent humans. They also use the violin and guitar with curved frets to allow the player to vibrato the strings immensely in the music. There are only two types of wind instruments a vertical recorder like flute and a horizontal like flute. One very interesting part of the wind section is that the Khmer people from Cambodia play this instrument with their nose.
Vietnamese folk music focuses on heartwarming tender songs about love and saying goodbye to ones we hold dearly. One beautiful song the group played for us was about a war hero who died in battle and sings a song to his wife he left at home as he passes. It is truly a wonderful music that friends and family play together. As Mr. Le Dinh Bich said “The stage can be anywhere,” whether it is drinking on a porch or playing at a wedding it is a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.