Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Luca comes to dinner

Part of the reason for my second visit to Viet Nam was to meet up with a business associate from Manila so that we could explore possibilities of manufacturing paper in the Northern part of the country. He is an exhuberant, jovial and hilarious Italian, and as Italian as they come. His name is Luca. He immediately felt home in Ha Noi, as his twenty years and counting of living in the Philippines have enured him to Asian culture. And certainly, there are differences, but in essence, Luca makes himself understood with his semi-farcical gesturing and irresistible tirades.

So, we invited Luca to join us for an evening of live music and dinner at the Hong Ngoc Hotel; he was staying at another one of their locations not too far from our own. When we had arrived at the hotel the first night, we had noticed the instruments hanging above the stage and I knew we would make time to enjoy whomever would play them. They were all lovely, young Viet Namese women in demure dresses, one of them wearing the traditional Ao Dai costume.

There are so many varieties of instruments in Viet Namese music which borrow from other cultures, it's hard to keep up. But I have always been interested in zithers, as an Austrian friend of mine, many moons ago, had introduced me to this instrument as it was being used with Hungarian Rhapsody # 5 (one of my favorites). As far as zithers go, I have realized that you either love them, or you hate them. Some people find them downright annoying. I'm grateful that no one that evening walked out.

Dressed in Ao Dai, she's plucking the dan tranh
Dan Tranh is a 16-chord zither. What does that mean? A zither is a plucking instrument, sort of like a lute or harp, but it sits on your lap. If you click on the link,you can get the technical details as to the length, the height, the composition of the frame, etc..In order to play the Dan Tranh, the musician will wear finger plectrums on the thumb, the forefinger and middle finger only; these plectrums can be made of tortoise shell, animal horns or metal. It is reported that Dan Tranh was developed after the Tran Dynasty Chinese zither which counted either 9, 15 or 16 strings. For the last 800 years though, the Viet Namese developed specific techniques which made the instrument their own.

This resembles the Ty Ba plucking instrument which was known in China as Pipa and in Japan as Biwa. Though it is not pear shaped, and has 2 strings instead of 4, all the other characteristics are identical. The face is undecorated, and made of light and highly polished wood. Its head is sometimes carved into a longevity figure, and it comprises 4 tuning pegs at the neck. It is a member of the lute family and its length may vary. The nylon strings replaced the olden-days use of silk. It has become a core part of the Viet Namese string culture.
the musician in the center is playing the tam thap luc
Even the name of this 36-string zither is intimidating: Tam Thap Luc . It is of Viet Namese origin, and is made from soft, and light undecorated wood. On the surface, the two rows of bridges are alternately arranged consequently making 18 bridges for each row. At the left string holders, there are 36 hooks for string hanging, while at the right string holders, 36 tuning pegs are located. Strings are made from metal. Mallets consist of 2 thin and flexible bamboo slabs with their ends covered with felt for soft sounds. This instrument can be played "solo" or in an orchestra. When playing, instrumentalist beats on the surface of Tam Thap Luc with two mallets and takes advantages of techniques such as vibration, tremolo, stopping, sliding, making chords, and others. Not easy.

a very casual, and warm atmosphere
Back to the dinner table. The room was not particularly crowded, however, this was an easy way to participate in a cultural activity while resting one's feet for more arduous journeys. We were seated to the left of the stage, and had a great vantage point for viewing and taking pictures. We were so immersed into our conversation that we forgot to take pictures of all the plates, which were as scrumptious as they looked. The Christmas decorations were done tastefully and none too gory, as they can be at times. It was a marvelous evening in every way possible; the ambiance, the food, the friendship make it all very hard to forget.

Chuck, me, Luca

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