The Vietnamese Instrument That Sounds Like a Human

Published August 3, 2015 in Episode 15

Việt Nam has a rich history of folk music and a repertoire of unique instruments. One of them is the đàn bầu or the gourd zither.

From modern interpretations of classic Vietnamese folk music, to the plaintiff notes heard in cải lương, Vietnamese folk opera, the đàn bầu, with it’s unique droning tone, can be traced back through centuries of Vietnamese history.  

A woman plays the gourd zither. (Photo: Davidlohr Bueso. CC BY 2.0)

A woman plays the gourd zither. (Photo: Davidlohr Bueso. CC BY 2.0)

Đàn bầu can be translated to “gourd lute”, a name which harkens back to the instruments original form. It is also known as độc huyền cầm, which literally means “one-string instrument.”

It is made of just four parts: a bamboo tube body that’s laid out in front of the player; a wooden rod sticks out on one end, kind of like a mast on a sailboat; a silk string, the single chord, that is tied to the rod, strung across the bamboo and attached on the other end. Lastly, a coconut shell half, is attached to the rod. The coconut shell serves as an acoustic resonator. The gourd-like, round appearance of the coconut shell resonator gives the instrument its name.

It’s tough to say when exactly the đàn bầu came into existence. I spoke with ethnomusicology Ph.D. student Jason Nguyễn from Indiana University, who has been studying Vietnamese traditional music since 2002.

“If we look back into the historic written record, we can see in the Đại Nam Thực Lục, which is a record of the Nguyễn dynasty, that places the instrument as being as old as at least 1770, because that was when that record was written, “ Nguyễn says. “But, the ethnomusicologist Nguyễn Thuyết Phong wrote in the Garland Encyclopaedia of World Music that it was at least used by the imperial court in the Trần dynasty, and that would have gone back to the 13th and 14th century.”

Other scholars place the origins of the instrument even further back.  

It’s interesting to note that it is one of the few instruments originating from Việt Nam, then brought to China, instead of vice versa, according to scholars of Vietnamese traditional music. Nguyễn says,  

You’ll see an instrument like it in China, it’s called the duxianqin. The interesting thing about the Chinese instrument, which looks like the Vietnamese one with some minor cosmetic changes and a slightly different technique in playing  is that the Chinese people largely link that instrument to the Gin, in other words the Vietnamese ethnic majority. So actually the duxianqin in China is considered to have come from Việt Nam.

History aside, what sets the đàn bầu apart is its distinctive sound. Its monochord is played by plucking it with some kind of a pick. The sound it produces is very clear and bell-like.  All the notes plucked are harmonic overtones, while any other notes in between must be played by bending the string with the wooden rod.  

It is often said that the instrument sounds like the Vietnamese voice. Nguyễn explains,

I don’t think the timbre of the instrument is particularly like a voice, compared to any other Vietnamese instrument. But the way that it’s played, and the ability to pitch bend, especially because the Vietnamese language is itself a tonal language that pitch bends, makes the instrument something that is more analogous to the way the Vietnamese voice moves.

Popular legend has it that a blind woman played the instrument in the market so she could earn a living for her family, while her husband was off fighting in a war. Professor Trần Văn Khê, one of the greatest scholars of the traditional Vietnamese music notes that whether this legend is based on fact or not, it remains true that the đàn bầu has historically been played by blind musicians and has long been viewed as a poor man’s instrument.

It wasn’t until the last century or so, with the introduction of electronic pickups and amplification that the instrument has grown in popularity to accompany other instruments and voice in large ensembles.  

Its sound is so soft, charming, and emotional that the Vietnamese have two folk verses that warn against its ability to seduce:

The music of the đàn bầu should be solely for the pleasure of its player. Don’t listen to it if you are a young woman.

The sounds of the đàn bầu have travelled hundreds of years and can to this day be heard in all sorts of Vietnamese music, from cải lương to more modern pop. With its distinctive, evocative acoustics and a tonality that bends towards the Vietnamese voice, the đàn bầu will surely endure as long as there are Vietnamese people.