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The dàn tre: a musical migration story

Presented by Jennifer Wilson, Curator, National Museum of Australia
Recorded at the National Museum of Australia, 8 August 2007

INTRODUCER: Welcome to another talk in this series of talks about items from the Museum’s collection which will find their way into the new Australian Journeys gallery. Jenny Wilson, a curator at the Museum, will talk to us about the dàn tre, which has a very interesting story and following that Jen is happy to take questions. A number of other curators from the Australian Journeys team are here today, including Martha Sear who heads up that team. Just to let you know that in the September 2007 issue of the Friends magazine there is an introduction to the Australian Journeys curatorial approach. Without any more ado, I would love to introduce Jenny Wilson to talk to you about the dàn tre.

JENNIFER WILSON: As part of these talks we are very pleased to have the real object here for everyone to see. There will be plenty of time at the end of the talk to get a close-up look at the dàn tre and make a few observations for yourself, based on what I’m telling you and what you may also know from your own experiences with either instruments, or Vietnamese traditions.

The dàn tre, translated simply as a ‘bamboo musical instrument’, is an original creation by Minh Tam Nguyen and is based on his knowledge of both Asian and European music. It was first made in Vietnam, then in the Philippines and remade in Australia. This brief understanding of this instrument is what attracted our attention to it for consideration into inclusion in the Australian Journeys gallery. Further investigation has secured it a place in the exhibition and the wider research surrounding the development of the Australian Journeys gallery.

The aims of the Australian Journeys gallery are: firstly, to represent the migrations, sojourns and travels of people to and from Australia, and the social, economic and political impacts of those journeys; and, secondly, to reveal the transnational character of the Australian experiences through the connections of Australian places to places overseas. These aims have led to a lot of interesting investigations into material culture, and the dàn tre is one of those interesting examples.

The following object biography is one way to interpret a complex hybrid instrument such as the dàn tre as it continues its life in the National Museum of Australia’s collection. The instrument features 23 wire strings attached to a bamboo tube, which is 800 millimetres in length. A four-litre, olive oil tin acts as the resonator at the base. The strings, which are actually No.1 [thin] guitar strings, are attached to metal tuning keys made of Australian-made stainless steel screw assemblies. And the length of bamboo is reinforced with Australian-made metal bracing.

Nguyen was born in Binh Dinh province of central Vietnam on 25 November 1947. He began to learn to play the guitar when he was 13 years old and studied the theory of both modern and classical music. Nguyen then undertook further study in Vietnam with the Redemptionist Order, a Catholic order founded in Italy in 1732. He eventually left the order and began teaching music theory to high school students, which he continued for many years. During the 1970s Nguyen fought as a lieutenant with the South Vietnamese army. He began his service in 1968, graduating from the political warfare college of Dalat. He was captured by communist forces on 20 March 1975 and placed in a North Vietnamese ‘re-education camp’ in the central highlands of Vietnam.

Whilst in captivity Nguyen created a musical instrument inspired by the traditional Montagnard instruments of that region, but with a greater number of strings. As Nguyen states, ‘The dàn tre was invented in the Catecka tea plantation in Pleiku province during the time the Vietcong forced me into hard labour, with many other prisoners as well.’ A piece of bamboo, wire and a tin were used to create the first dàn tre. The strings of that instrument were made of the hard wire inside black telephone cable used by the United States Army - this type of wire was in fairly good supply by that stage. The instrument, as Nguyen explained, evolved from 18, to 21, and finally, to 23 strings. Nguyen noted that he had made the instrument with the intention of playing both Asian and European music as he had been educated in both forms. He observed that the Montagnard instruments of that region had five knots or strings, while the European instruments had seven. The sophisticated 23-string dàn tre was created from basic and available materials and was based on Nguyen’s extensive knowledge of music theory. The number of strings allows the instrument to cover a wide range of notes, therefore allowing it to play many forms of music.

Montagnard is the French name assigned to the many ethnic groups occupying the central highlands of Vietnam. It is likely that Nguyen based his instrument on the so-called zithers [folk string instruments] of that region, especially of the Gia Rai group. Zithers in this region, such as the din goong, utilise local bamboo and wood with a calabash - a type of gourd - as the resonator. Examples of the din goong, of a similar size to the dàn tre, generally feature between nine and 13 strings.

Nguyen was moved to a number of different camps during his time as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese. During that time Nguyen was able to make improvements to the instruments - this meant mainly increasing the number of strings - and he taught one of his fellow prisoners how to play the dàn tre. Interestingly, while Nguyen had not performed publicly prior to his imprisonment, during his six years in Vietcong prisons Nguyen performed in front of 8000 other prisoners with his dàn tre. When Nguyen was released after six years he left that particular dàn tre behind.

In August 1981 Nguyen escaped from Vietnam by boat with his eldest son, Anton Nguyen, still fearing for his life under communist rule. In Nguyen’s words, ‘It was a miracle we escaped.’ It was also a miracle that they made it to the Philippines by boat. They encountered strong storms en route, and the boat nearly sank twice.

The second dàn tre was made by Nguyen while in the Palawan refugee camp in the Philippines. He recreated the instrument from memory, again using the material on hand. Nguyen used bamboo, an olive oil tin and some electrical wire to create this dàn tre. Nguyen initially used bamboo tuning keys in the instrument, making them from sharpened or shaped pieces of bamboo, which were then placed through holes in the body of the instrument. Nguyen stated that there was an abundance of bamboo in the Palawan camp, and it was a building material utilised for a number of different purposes.

Nguyen and Anton lived in difficult and overcrowded conditions at Palawan for 17 months. Nguyen recalled that there were 7000 refugees in the camp when he arrived, with numbers having increased to more than 10,000 during his stay there. Nguyen said, ‘All the people were lucky. We had enough food, but the situation was so bad because we didn’t have any houses to live in. We had to build our houses ourselves, make something to live in. We used trees from the forest.’

Nguyen acted as an information officer and translator in the camp. His knowledge of English and the fact that he had an uncle living in Australia helped secure the transfer of Nguyen and his son to Australia in December 1982. He was able to take the second dàn tre with him, although quarantine, of course, held it for a three-week period. In Australia, Nguyen struggled to find employment, unable to cope with the difficult Australian English pronunciation. He worked for the Commonwealth Employment Service in Brisbane and then for a law firm in Sydney.

Nguyen began playing his dàn tre at public events and appeared on Channel 7’s State Affair program in 1984. Later that year Nguyen performed with, and explained the making of, the dàn tre to a conference of the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland. Nguyen’s story and his dàn tre earned him a certain amount of fame, and he attempted several times to patent his invention. Unfortunately, he was not successful - at least not to this point in time.

During this period of performance Nguyen replaced the bamboo keys, which were prone to slipping with the amount of performing he was doing, with the Australian-made screw assemblies. As well as reinforcing the bamboo with bracing at the top and bottom of the bamboo, Nguyen replaced the tin at the bottom. It was a slightly smaller tin than the one that he used in Palawan. Nguyen was also very pleased to finally place guitar strings on the instrument - believing that the quality of the sound would be better with guitar strings than the wire he’d been able to scrounge in the Palawan camp.

Though Nguyen travelled to Australia with his eldest son, he would not be reunited with his wife and three other children for many years. He lived with his son Anton in Brisbane and Sydney, and began working as an immigration consultant in Australia in 1985, wanting to assist Vietnamese and Chinese families that were having difficulty coming to Australia (especially under the reunification scheme). He also taught a number of music students in Brisbane but, in order to support his family financially, Nguyen was unable to concentrate on his music.

Feeling loneliness and separation from his family Nguyen did not wish to part with his dàn tre. It was first loaned to the National Museum of Australia for a temporary exhibition. However, shortly after this contact, Nguyen’s family - his wife, mother and three children - were able to travel to Australia, and he was happy to donate the dàn tre. This part of the story illustrates the emotional attachment Nguyen has to the dàn tre and the action it played in his life. The dàn tre was, for Nguyen, a means of expression. In the mountains of Vietnam, in the Philippines, and in Australia, he was able to bridge the cultural differences he encountered through this instrument, modifying and adapting it as well as his use of it, and retelling his story as he played it.

Music, as Nguyen stated, is part of Vietnamese tradition. In his words, ‘There is a lot of music and folk song in Vietnam. The communists like to make a different way. We turned back to our music.’ The history and qualities of Vietnamese music is a large area of research, beyond the scope of today’s discussion. Much of my research on the particularities of this history in relation to the dàn tre has been drawn from the work of Vietnamese musiologist Le Tuan Hung. According to Hung, traditional Vietnamese music is based on the concept that music is ‘a means of emotional expression’. Tai tu music, the chamber music of southern Vietnam, features four modes of expression: happiness, somberness, tranquility and sadness. Put simply, by applying certain sets of technical conventions to their music, Vietnamese musicians are able to evoke these recognisable emotions for their audience.

Hung continues, ‘Musical compositions in Hue and Tai tu traditions are flexible and dynamic entities. Each composition provides performers with a melodic framework only. To play a piece of music performers have to elaborate on its framework in their own style. A performer’s originality is highly regarded. In this sense, the act of composing a piece of music is a continuing process in which the performers add their final touches to the work.’ In the case of the dàn tre, this continuing process can be seen as part of both the creation of the instrument and the performances undertaken by Nguyen.

The dàn tre has the details of all of the notation and numbering of the strings recorded on the back of the instrument. Western notation is ascribed to each string, numbered one to 23. The complex arrangement of strings is organised into six groups and played in a C major scale. Nguyen drafted the relevant scales as part of his donation to the Museum.

There are many traditional and hybrid stringed instruments, or chordophones, in Vietnam which could have influenced Nguyen’s dàn tre. These include the dàn bãu, a single-stringed instrument, and the dàn tranh, a 17-stringed instrument. The dàn tranh is a popular instrument throughout Vietnam that has undergone many changes to reach its present-day form. The number of strings was reduced from 14 during the fourteenth century, [then increased] to 25 during the 1960s, with 17 strings becoming standard during the 1980s. Changes to the soundboard were also made, and silk strings were replaced by metal strings some time in the late nineteenth century.

Hung suggests that each modification was made in accordance with the technical advances and the demands of specific musical styles and performing contexts of the time. Many of the changes were also made according to the feelings of a particular artist. Many of those artists, whose music has often been recorded, have the rights and the knowledge of those particular changes.

Nguyen’s instrument could also have been influenced by the gu zheng, a Chinese zither with 16 to 23 strings, given the influence of Chinese forms and theory on Vietnamese music. Other versions of zithers, possibly closely related, are found in Japan, Korea and Mongolia. Bamboo forms the basis of these instruments, either in their traditional or modern forms. In many of those places the physical and musical qualities of the instrument are explained as part of a broader cultural tradition. For example, the nature of the half - or flat - zither is often attributed to the splitting of a tube zither or a round zither, like the dàn tre. The splitting into two halves is attributed to either an act of a god, a mystical being or a related natural event.

There is a long history of adaptation and invention in Vietnamese music and instrument-making. As Hung states, ‘Between the 1920s and 1940s, a number of musicians began to experiment with Western instruments in their search for new qualities and colours of sound. Most prominent among these instruments were the acoustic guitar and the violin. Vietnamese musicians adapted the Western instruments to enable them to produce the ornaments typical of Hue and Tai tu musical compositions.’ A guitar with a curved fingerboard, which is common throughout Vietnam, is effectively a modified Western guitar, with the fingerboard filed by the musician into wavy shapes. This was done to produce a richer variety of tones required for Vietnamese music.

When Nguyen made his valuable donation to the Museum in 1990, he also provided recordings of his dàn tre music and an oral history outlining both his story and the story of the dàn tre. As part of my research for the Australian Journeys gallery, I re-established contact with Nguyen in early 2007 to learn more about the instrument and his life since the donation. He has returned to Vietnam on several occasions, maintaining contact with friends and family. Poor health and continuing commitment to support his family have meant that Nguyen has not been able to pursue many of his musical interests.

Nguyen has a strong connection to the dàn tre to this day and still continues to discuss ways that he could improve the quality of the instrument and its musical range. To conclude I would like to show you a short piece of music played by Nguyen in 1984. It’s interesting to note that music itself is an active part of the story of the dàn tre throughout its life, whether Nguyen was playing Vietnamese, European or Australian music on the instrument. It was part of his adaptation of the instrument over a number of years to be able to play many different types of music and was an expression of his emotions at those particular times.

[Recording of Waltzing Matilda played by Minh Tam Nguyen on the dàn tre]

JENNIFER WILSON: On this instrument you can see the original bamboo tuning keys which Nguyen used, and the different olive oil tin at the base. The piece of bamboo remains as it was in the Palawan refugee camp in the Philippines.

INTRODUCER: It is important to thank Jenny and the other curators for making the time to come and talk to us today.

Date published: 14 April 2008