Story: Nguyen Thuy
Photos: Nguyen A.

We discover the history and artistry of amateur music – a genre of Southern Vietnamese folk music

Musician Nam Tong playing in the Nga Nam Floating Market

In December 2013, UNESCO recognized amateur music as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. Two other genres of traditional Vietnamese music – elegant royal Hue music and trù (ceremonial) singing – received the same honor. Southern amateur music has been passed down for generations in Vietnam’s 21 southern provinces. It has been influenced by the music of other regions, revealing its players’ open-mindedness. It was Southern farmers who created this now-popular music.

Southern amateur music is rooted in the late 19th century as Nguyen Dynasty musicians and musical mandarins traveled southward following the Cần Vương (Aid the King) Movement. With each stop along their way from Quang Tri to Quang Nam, they introduced the legacy of Hue singing and added local tunes to their repertoires.

In amateur music melodies one can hear mellow Hue chants and familiar Quang Nam tunes. Upon reaching the South, this style was adopted by the locals who made it their own. Young and old adopted this music, singing during breaks in their fieldwork or in moonlit courtyards. Amateur music became a part of Southern life.

In the past, amateur music was typically played by groups of friends or villagers. After a day of work, farmers met, played instruments and sang, while their After a hard day’s work, farmers met, played instruments and sang, while their friends listenedfriends listened and made comments. They sang about their own lives, love, parenthood and filial piety.

Meritorious artist Quoc Trach plays guitar while his mother sings

Musical instruments typically used in this genre include the zither, moon lute, erhu and monochord. Many impoverished riverside villages in the South had only one erhu or zither per village, yet the music continued. When people grew more affluent and could afford more instruments, the players formed quartets or quintets. Each family contributed an artist or a singer, who would sit on a mat in the courtyard and perform in a leisurely way. Eventually, new instruments such as the sunken fretted guitar and violin were added to these performances.

With its improvised style and lyrics about daily life, amateur music boasts a rich and diverse repertoire. Professional artists usually study with senior artists, who teach them the 20 original tunes in two categories of North and South, including the Seven Ritual tunes, Six Northern tunes, Three Southern tunes and Four lament tunes. Each repertoire represents varied layers of human feelings about our daily lives. These may range from merry Northern melodies, grave and solemn Music tunes, soft Spring tunes and gently melancholic Lament tunes. Hence, amateur music is played during all occasions in the South, from vibrant festivals to relaxed gatherings and mournful funerals.

From its folk origins, amateur music thrived in the early 20th century, spreading to 21 Southern provinces and emerging as a major musical force, especially in places such as Bac Lieu, Vinh Long, Long An, My Tho and Saigon.

Meritorious artist Tam Huong sings in the garden with a friend

Bands formed in each region. In the meantime, cải lương (Southern renovated theatre) was established and yielded numerous reputable masters and amateur musicians. These were professional artists and performers who challenged themselves in every show. Their hard work and talent resulted in sophisticated performances that enriched the genre.

Standouts include Nguyen Vinh Bao, inventor of the 17-, 19- and 21-chord zither and Professor Tran Van Khe, a music scholar who has promoted Vietnamese folk music to the world. We must also mention “the King of Vọng Cổ (a typical Southern vocal tune)” Vien Chau, Maestro Ba Tu – the master of masters, People’s Artist Thanh Hai and the “Supreme Sunken Fretted Guitarist” Van Gioi, all of whom have dedicated their lives to this music.

By now it should be clear that there is nothing “amateur” about this genre of music. Amateur is not an antonym of professional. Traditionally, these players and singers did not take up amateur music to earn a living. They played for the joy of it. To become a proficient amateur musician requires immense dedication. 

Southern Delta natives are innovative, which shows through in this music. No one wants to rigidly emulate what they were taught. Every musician improvises and adds to the art. Audiences know that familiar tunes will be played with fresh twists.

Meritorious artist Le Truong Ngoc has devoted his whole life to Southern folk music

Amateur music has long been passed down orally. Today, aspiring musicians can attend lectures and classes. Yet many learners still study with their neighbors.

While amateur music was once only enjoyed in the South, it now embodies the whole of Vietnam. It’s no coincidence that Miss Vietnam Pham Huong chanted the song at the Miss Universe 2015 contest:
“Bid farewell to my husband- an army general
He departs with his sword and ordinance
I walk back and forth craving for news And stay awake in dreams all night…”

This was surely the first time that “Night drumbeats for my spousal longing” (Dạ cổ hoài lang) by the gifted late composer Cao Van Lau was sung in an international beauty pageant. While Pham Huong could not match the skill of established singers, she made her country proud to hear this old tune sung overseas.

Every child in the Southern Delta in particular and Vietnam in general can sing some amateur music chants. While their amateurish efforts aren’t art, they show that this genre is a quintessential part of Vietnamese life, and that these folk tunes are cherished.