Don Ca Tai Tu – the Southern Folk Song in Vietnam

Rachel Tran
Rachel Tran | Published: November 29, 2019

The Southern folk song (often called Đờn Ca Tài Tử) is a kind of musical art featuring both scholarly and folk roots, which flourished in Sothern Vietnam in the late 19th century. Don Ca Tai Tu is said to reflect the lifestyle of Southern people who live and work on the land and rivers of the Mekong Delta region. The music type helps local to express all feelings and emotions, industriousness, generosity and courage of their own and has become popular to every visitors of both domestic and international.

Don Ca Tai Tu’s Features

Don Ca Tai Tu features
(source: maisondesculturesdumonde.org)

Don Ca Tai Tu, a traditional folk song of Vietnam, has been deeply influenced by some other forms of cultural heritage from the central and south of Vietnam, including ceremonial music (Nhac Le), classical theatre and folk song (Hat Boi). Based on 20 principal songs (Bai To) and 72 classical songs (Bai Nhac Co), each Don Ca Tai Tu song comprises skeletal melodies which are used as the basis for improvisation, ornamenting and varying the skeletal melody of pieces and the main rhythm patterns.

You can easily find out the instruments which are used in each Don Ca Tai Tu performance. They are the moon-shaped lute (kim), two-stringed fiddle (co), 16-string zither (tranh), pear-shaped lute (ty ba), percussion (song lang), monochord (bau) and bamboo flute (sao). Besides, the violin and guitar are also adapted in the performance. Particularly, the guitar used by Don Ca Tai Tu artists has a deep, hollowed-out finger board, enabling musicians to play special ornamentation characteristic of Don ca tai tu.

Artists joining the Don Ca Tai Tu performance normally includes (1) master instrumentalists (thay don), who are highly skillful at playing and teaching numerous instruments and who have mastered all of the classical repertoire; (2) master lyricists (thay tuong), who are knowledgeable and experienced at composing new song texts; (3) master singers (thay ca), who have mastered the classical repertoire and who can perform and teach the distinctive Don ca tai tu vocal techniques and ornamentation. Regular instrumentalists (danh cam) along with singers (danh ca) are also performed in each Don Ca Tai Tu Show.

Don Ca Tai Tu is widely performed within hereditary musical families and by music ensembles and clubs. The visitors, Don Ca Tai Tu’s audience, are surely fascinating when practicing, making comments or creating new song texts.

For such long time, Don Ca Tai Tu has been passed from generations to generations through two methods: (1) the traditional method of oral transmission as truyen ngontruyen khau, which literally means “transmitting through the fingers and through the mouth”. For this traditional method, the master instrumentalists and singers directly teach learners who are members of ensembles, clubs or families; (2) or else, the second method combines traditional oral methods of transmission with a syllabus in many of the national and provincial schools of art and culture. Instrumentalists must study for at least three years in order to learn basic instrumental techniques, such as tremolo, glissando, trills, vibrato… They learn to perform solo or with other musicians in duets, trios, quartets, quintets or sextets. Vocal learners, performing either solo or in a duet, study the traditional songs. They learn to subtly improvise using different ornamentation techniques in a way that is in keeping with the musical aesthetics of the musical community and is appropriate for the particular melody, mode and song text performed.

No one in Southern Vietnam can deny that folk song of Don Ca Tai Tu has played an indispensible and important part in spiritual cultural activities of any festival, death anniversary rituals as well as of celebratory social events like wedding and birthdays, etc.

Outstanding Values of Don Ca Tai Tu

Values of Don Ca Tai Tu
(source: maisondesculturesdumonde.org)

Don Ca Tai Tu is derived from diversified cultural tradition of the central and southern of Vietnam. It is always considered as an important feature in social and cultural life of Vietnamese people and becomes a cultural heritage value of mixing the influences of court music and popular music. This kind of art music has also been influenced by cultural exchanges with Chinese, Khmer and Western populations.

Don Ca Tai Tu performances contribute to help the community well-preserved the other cultural practices and customs, which are said to be associated with festivals, oral culture, and handicrafts. Till now, Don Ca Tai Tu not only is a cultural activity of the community but also makes a contribution to sustainable tourism in the local area.

Don Ca Tai Tu’s Club Throughout Vietnam

(source: maisondesculturesdumonde.org)

The statistics implemented in 2011 showed that Don Ca Tai Tu has been practiced in more than 2,500 clubs, groups and families in 21 provinces and cities in southern region of Vietnam, including An Giang, Ba Ria – Vung Tau, Bac Lieu, Ben Tre, Binh Dương, Binh Phuoc, Binh Thuan, Ca Mau, Can Tho, Dong Nai, Dong Thap, Hau Giang, Ho Chi Minh City, Kien Giang, Long An, Ninh Thuan, Soc Trang, Tay Ninh, Tien Giang, Tra Vinh and Vinh Long.

Don Ca Tai Tu was honored to be officially acknowledged as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity at the 8th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage held in Baku City (Azerbaijan) on 5th December 2013.

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