Vietnamese music is extremely diverse, thanks to the richness of the coexistence of cultures and also to its contact with the outside. Melodies and songs or musical instruments are one of the most vivid reflections of the very diverse regional cultural identities. In addition to its contemporary music, which is constantly being enriched, the country has two very rich musical heritages, namely traditional music and folk music. UNESCO has also inscribed many traditional and folk music genres and forms of Vietnamese music as part of the world’s cultural heritage.
Traditional Vietnamese music is composed of very varied genres, the most typical and original of which are the ca tru – scholarly song of courtiers of northern origin, are the hat chau van-a genre of spiritual music, the ca hue of the Center and the dan ca tai tu – music of the amateurs of the south.
Traditional music of northern Vietnam
The Ca Tru also is known as “scholarly singing” or “song of courtesans” is a very attractive form of music from northern Vietnam, which requires very vigorous rules in the formation of singers, the choice of voices, the ways of playing, the relationship between singers and musicians with the public. In the centre of a small stage, a singer surrounded by a small audience, hitting a wooden board with a baguette accompanied by a lute or a drum, sings very pretty and seductive melodies. Sometimes a member of the public is invited to participate in the session, creating a very friendly atmosphere of exchange. The Ca Tru is already recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage.
The Hát Chầu Vãn or Hát Vãn or Chầu Vãn is played to invoke spirits during mediumistic ceremonies. Very rhythmic, it is sung by one of the musicians who accompany it on the two-string Dan Nhi or the two-string lute Dan Nguyet. This music is popular in Hà Nam, Nam Dinh and some provinces in northern Vietnam.
Traditional music of central Vietnam
The Vietnamese music of the centre, the Ca Hue is an ancient form of aristocratic chamber music related to entertainment in the centre of the country. The Dan Huê or Nhạc Huế is music dating from the seventeenth century. It is performed by a singer accompanied by a set of three or five-stringed instruments (lutes, zither and vieles: Ngu Tuyêt: the perfect five).
The music of South Vietnam
The Dan Tai Tu or Nhạc Tài Tử is the equivalent of the previous ones for the south of the country since the 19th century. It is characterized by the fact of being improvised and above all very instrumental, using string and percussion instruments.
Vietnamese folk music is composed mainly of the forms of song born of the need for exchanges between human beings. From the North to the South of Vietnam, there are very varied forms of folk songs: in the North, there is the alternating song Quan ho Bac Ninh recognized by Unesco as a world intangible heritage. Hò songs whose music and lyrics are supposed to motivate human beings in hard work are very popular in the centre of the country.
Ho work songs are response songs used in many difficult professions. The lily songs very common in the South express mainly the themes of love, melancholy, nostalgia or entertainment.
Apart from this folk music, the Vietnamese still have other music inherent in some traditional theatrical plays such as cheo – popular theatre and a Vietnamese creation or classical Tuong-theatre of Chinese origin, or cai luong – renovated theatre born at the beginning of the last century in the south of the country.
Foreigners in particular have a predilection for Vietnamese classical Tuong theatre. If it is a traditional stage art where dances, gestures, and words… have an important place, music is one of the significant elements. If in the classic Tuong plays, as the lyrics are preponderant, which causes a language barrier for a foreign spectator, in the shows of the renovated Tuong and adapted to a modern or foreign audience, we have made sure that a minimum of words help to understand the story is projected on a screen, and that for the rest, we favour bodily expression with dances, gestures, make-up or decorations and installations, everything that makes the richness of colours of expression and therefore the asset of this art.
In addition, the music, especially the songs in the typical Vietnamese Cheo folk theater also seduces foreign spectators.
Contemporary Vietnamese music:
When talking about modern Vietnamese music, it will be much easier to evoke the names of composers such as Trinh Cong Son, Van Cao, Pham Duy, and Thanh Tung. Because by listening to their songs, you can immediately get an idea of what modern Vietnamese music is. Above all, every foreigner knows the name of Trinh Cong Son: if this Vietnamese composer born in 1939 and died in 2001 has never composed a song in a foreign language, his songs in Vietnamese seduce a very large audience both Vietnamese and foreign by the beauty of a music “full of touches of colour” and by his pacifist vocations that he expressed during the war period. It is of his vocation and his language qualified as universal that he was nicknamed “Vietnamese Bob Dylan”. With more than 600 songs composed he has introduced many Vietnamese singers – including Khanh Ly – and continues today to seduce Vietnamese from all walks of life.