BackArts & Culture » Music & Art » How a Hanoi Collective Found Audio-Visual Beauty in Bamboo and Red River Soil

How a Hanoi Collective Found Audio-Visual Beauty in Bamboo and Red River Soil

Traditional music in Vietnam is a complex fabric woven of many threads. Some strands extend hundreds of kilometers across the country and others reach across borders and oceans to nearby neighbors.

As modern cultural trends shift, local interest in traditional music also changes, and practitioners of these art forms face a considerable challenge: keeping history alive whilst staying rooted in the present and facing the future.

The Đàn Đó collective from Hanoi are a unique ensemble working to preserve, document, and learn from their heritage, while engaging with audiences by presenting ancient tones and timbres in contemporary compositions.

Groups like this aren't common in Vietnam, and their event last year at VCCA, entitled "Đó là ở đâu–Đó là ở đây (Where is there? There is here. – DLOD DLOD)" — which includes performances, workshops and exhibitions — is a rare opportunity to explore Vietnamese traditional music through their extraordinary practice. 

Formed in 2012, Đàn Đó have worked tirelessly to develop their own array of instruments, finessing their construction, and refining their playing technique in order to convey the full spectrum of possibilities with their compositions. A few weeks ago, I sat opposite Trần Duy Hưng, co-producer of the project, and asked him what the instruments look like. “It's kind of hard to explain...” he replies, “Here, let me show you.” He played me a video on his phone showing an almost empty studio at the start of a performance.

On screen, musician Nguyễn Đức Minh sits almost cross-legged, a thick bamboo tube resting on one ankle, and places his hands gently onto the wooden surface. The timber is smoothed and seasoned, each segment of its trunk severed and shaped with different length tines which vibrate freely, resonating when struck softly, shimmering into coarser tones as the notes lap at each other, weaving waves of harmony. 

This is just one of numerous handmade instruments created by Minh and his collective partners Đinh Anh Tuấn, Trần Kim Ngọc, and Nguyễn Quang Sự. Another more formidable, percussive drum sits center stage during their performances, the trống chum — a huge ceramic jar with dense rubber stretching across its opening, forming deep, resonant bass tones when struck. The materials chosen for these instruments are no coincidence; these mediums vibrate with historic significance in Vietnam, and have both been essential in everyday life.

“In the old times in East Asia, bamboo had an intimate connection to both culture and daily life, from the biggest thing to the smallest. For example, bamboo was used for making houses, chairs, beds, chopsticks, even toothpicks. Bamboo had an important place in the lives of the Vietnamese of the past,” collaborator Nguyễn Đức Phương says in a documentary created about the group as a part of DLOD DLOD. This link between past and present underpins the intent of the Đàn Đó collective's ongoing artistic explorations: identifying links between larger arcs and stories that stitch together culture, tradition and heritage; forging a Vietnamese identity grounded by everyday life and its humble inspiration.

The journey of Đàn Đó (2012–2015). Video by Nguyễn Duy Anh (#vudieunongsay) and Đào Thu Uyên.

The group met more than 10 years ago when Minh first met artistic director Nguyễn Nhất Lý who requested his help to put together the renowned contemporary circus show "Lang Toi (My Village)." Two weeks later Minh was part of the cast, preparing for the show's premiere in Paris. Here he met Tuấn, Ngọc, and Sự and the four forged a friendship through collaborative practice, an extensive three-year run of exhilarating shows in theaters and cultural spaces across Europe.

Upon returning home to Hanoi, the group sought a new path and began an endeavor seeking to consolidate their experiences — to reach deeper into their roots and find ways to explore elements and aesthetics that have been passed down through indigenous practitioners of music across ethnicities. And so, with the addition of their fifth member, visual artist Nguyễn Đức Phương, they turned to the symbolic and pragmatic strength of nature, and went, as Phương put it, “into the forest, blindfolded.” Tuấn explains, “Without saying a word, all members of the group understood that they wanted to find a sound so beautiful, innocent and virtuous. Hence their persistent pursuit, they wouldn’t have stopped until satisfied.”

Standing amidst the towering beams of green bamboo, their trunks clashing and leaning into one another, you only need to close your eyes to hear a deeply musical texture. The shallow susurrations of the thin leaves glimmering in the sunlight; the deep clacks and creaks of the boughs bending and heaving, enmeshed from root to tip. Add the human element — sharpened blades clunking into hollow cylindrical stems, thumping out rhythms until the groaning fronds flail over, landing with a flat, pitched thud into the undergrowth. Soon, the rasping of knives shearing away twigs and offshoots sizzles percussively into the canopy. It seems natural for this ambience, coupled with the layered, intrinsic importance of the material itself, to inspire the Đàn Đó collective.

Opportunities to connect with deep sonic research are infrequent in Hanoi, and the Đàn Đó organizers have been working hard to create spaces for audiences to engage with the music and visual art presented at DLOD DLOD by assembling as many records of their process and past work as possible. Hưng explained: “I first saw Minh perform at the Hanoi New Music Festival in 2013, but I didn't really know about the larger group until 2017 when Phương showed me the paintings he'd done of them.”

Hưng went on to work more closely with the group for a unique residency program and concert hosted by the British Council Vietnam in collaboration with Phu Sa Lab, and this in turn led towards the large scale initiative SEAPHONY X FAMLAB which featured over 40 artists from across Vietnam and the world. 

Though their skill and artistry as composers and performers are undeniably impressive, the collective has carved their own niche. “They have made some truly excellent work over the past few years,” Hưng told me. But it's their devotion and dedication that most impresses him. “The level of focus and hard work is insane. Between 2012 and 2014, they spent nearly every day working in their studio developing the Đàn Đó and the other self-made instruments, experimenting and composing. And Phương was also hard at work with his sketches and paintings, doing his own experiments, coming up with his own types of soil pigment and texture.”

In fact, Phương has collected over 1,000 types of soil from around Hanoi and across the country. He approached workmen at building sites to collect earth from the deep foundations being dug, or harvested by hand the rich red clay on the banks of Sông Hồng (Red River). These samples have been explored and experimented with for months before finally being used in his paintings; the remainder was collected and stored away for later use. The extensive collection lends an element of archival practice, distinct to Phương’s process; soil is more than just a medium, it’s important and historically valuable. He describes his own research to understand the material as parallel to the musicians exploring the material of bamboo.

Phương's paintings bring a tenderness, an amiable affection to the exhibition program. The scale of the works varies greatly, some stretching many meters, from floor to ceiling, while others are scratched finely into small fragments of broken pottery. They all seem almost ancient in their iconography with thick 2D figures set in softly textured washes of earthen tones. Seeking to represent the spiritedness, dedicated focus and humor of the Đàn Đó collective, Phương’s scenes inhabit a space where time is rendered irrelevant. Blurred by motion or humbled by stillness; strained in labor or reclining at rest; focused reverentially on folk statues or fooling playfully with headphones — a querying duality permeates the work. There is a joyfulness spilling from each frame, a warmth that reaches beyond color or texture — the revelry of a labor loved.

In the open space, opposite a carved wooden structure quilled densely with spear-like bamboo staffs swaying gently like grass reeds on a riverbank, an array of the collective's handmade instruments rest on a rust-colored stretch of natural fabric. Clad in simple white and brown, the collective seat themselves in a circle, surrounding their instruments, their eyes meet and glow with joy, smiles stretch and recede. With a deep breath, their hands settle, poised inches above the bamboo, and with focused intention, they begin to play.

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