“A good musical instrument maker cannot just be a skilled craftsman”

For more than half a century, in a small house on Hang Non Street (Hanoi), artisan - Meritorious Artist Pham Chi Khanh has been persistently crafting and collecting hundreds of musical instruments from 54 ethnic groups around the country. Speaking with the reporter from Thoi Nay (Present Times) publication of Nhan Dan Newspaper, Khanh expressed his concerns about preserving and spreading the value of traditional musical instruments.
Meritorious Artist Pham Chi Khanh
Meritorious Artist Pham Chi Khanh

Q: Why do you have a passion for crafting and collecting traditional musical instruments?

A: I come from a family with a tradition of making drums in Doi Tam Commune (Duy Tien District, Ha Nam Province). My family’s profession has been passed down from generation to generation, since the reign of King Le Dai Hanh. When I was a child, I inherited and nurtured a love for making traditional musical instruments. Whenever I heard the sound of drums or instruments, my “artistic blood” would rise.

When I was 7 or 8 years old I only observed others working and helped them with simple tasks, such as connecting strings, sanding and holding the drum head. When I was 10 years old, my father taught me how to play dan nhi (Vietnamese two-chord fiddle). In 1979, I started studying at the 4-year intermediate level at the Tuong (Classical Drama) Faculty, under the Vietnam Theatre Arts School (now Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema). The more I learned about musical instruments from inside and outside the country, the more I fell in love with the unique beauty of our country's music, especially in scales, modes and materials.

Since graduating, I have been working at the Vietnam Tuong Theatre and performing in many regions across the country. During each trip, I have discovered new musical instruments from many different ethnic groups. I asked to play them, found information, bought them for my collection and studied the manufacturing principles based on my existing experience.

Q: This work requires great time, effort, and money. Could you share about the difficulties and challenges in this process?

A: My youth was probably the most difficult but memorable period. At that time, I was still a student who studied and worked. Sometimes, I really wanted to travel to explore more, but the conditions at that time did not allow it.

Firstly, due to a lack of means of transportation, as well as storage devices, such as cameras or recorders, it was difficult for me to learn directly. In the afternoon, I often went to refreshment shops with cassette players featuring Cheo (Vietnamese traditional opera) or Tuong plays. Then I sat down, listened and memorised them to learn them later.

The second problem was the research of musical instruments of the ethnic groups that few people knew about. In the past, each ethnic group lived separately, with little cultural exchange. In addition, propaganda and information dissemination has not been promoted like today. Each musical instrument was divided into several types and different styles, so I also encountered numerous difficulties collecting and classifying them. Later, however, when I got used to the profession, most musical instruments were successfully remade.

Q: It is known that raw materials are also an important factor in creating a complete musical instrument. Could you tell us the secret to choosing raw materials for making musical instruments to ensure the best quality and sound?

A: In my experience, the top secret is that we must know how to choose raw materials in the right season. Especially for wood and bamboo materials, exploiting them at the "golden" time is the most effective way to prevent termites and maintain the long-lasting quality of the finished products. In folklore, the ancients also taught that "In August, young bamboo is used to build houses, in May, old bamboo is used to make strips".

Once, on our trip to Hoa Binh, we tried to exploit old bamboo trees and transported them back to Hanoi. During the cleaning and drying process, we discovered that only about 10% of the bamboo was usable, and the remaining 90% was damaged by termites. Only then, did we realise that the trees were too old to be crafted. Indeed, there must be such unforgettable lessons, so that we can draw important experiences for ourselves.

Q: Are there any steps or techniques that need special attention during the process of making instruments?

A: To make musical instruments, choosing and processing materials is always the step which requires the highest knowledge and skills.

First of all, the craftsman needs to understand each musical instrument very well to choose the right material. Precious or expensive wood is not always good, but the important thing is to choose the type of wood that is suitable for each type of drum or zither, to maximise its advantages.

During the processing, the craftsman also needs to observe and very carefully feel the thickness and thinness of the materials to produce the best and most standard sound. For example, when grinding wood, I often judge in advance whether the wood is spongy or hard, and then depending on the condition, I measure the thickness to fit. When making a zither, the issue of how deep to carve and how to install it sounds simple but in fact, each stage has its own complexity. All come from my experience of listening to music and working for many years.

Q: What do you think about the current situation of making and developing traditional musical instruments?

A: Currently, the situation of making traditional musical instruments is facing many challenges. One of the worrying issues is that there are limited skilled craftsmen, and some young craftsmen lack experience. This leads to the problem of some crafted musical instruments do not meet quality and sound standards.

A good craftsman cannot just be a skilled craftsman but needs to be a person who is dedicated, passionate about the profession and knowledgeable about music, as well as knows how to listen to the artist playing the instrument he made. I have known people who live in the craft villages making instruments, but have no real passion for it, so they just remake them to resemble the model, without knowing the name of the instrument. I am also very concerned about how my profession will develop in the future if there is no one to succeed me.

As for the development of traditional musical instruments, I can affirm that this quintessence has always played a major role in spreading Vietnamese culture and music, to international friends. There are 15 Vietnamese intangible cultural heritages recognised by UNESCO, including 11 in the music field. Once recognised, their preservation is an important issue. As with ‘gong’ instruments, many places have made them incorrectly, not following the scale of ‘gong’ music as evaluated by UNESCO.

Q: In your opinion, what measures should be taken to raise public awareness and attention, especially with young people, to Vietnamese traditional musical instruments?

A: First of all, it is necessary to bring traditional musical instruments and music into the educational programme and the school stage. Vietnamese students should have more access to, listen to, and experience traditional musical theory and instruments, to understand the uniqueness and variability of the Vietnamese pentatonic scale, so that they can feel the beauty of national culture. However, this issue still worries me a lot, because there has not been a systematic and in-depth training of teachers, nor has there been any synchronisation in educational institutions.

As for me, besides making and collecting musical instruments, I still cherish many studies on folk music. I also try to teach more classes to teach zithers and drums to young children. Sometimes I feel sad and worried, wondering if there will still be people who are truly passionate like me and the artists of my generation hope that there will soon be a mechanism and a specific direction to develop and preserve Vietnamese traditional music.

Thank you very much!